The TA is good, but there are serious risks to Army 2020

I’m a little late on this, but a letter from Maj Gen James Everard, Assistant Chief of the General Staff, that appeared in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph has been nagging somewhat.

SIR – Con Coughlin (Comment, July 6) is inaccurate and patronising about the Army Reserve. He claims they do not show the same commitment or make the same sacrifice as their regular colleagues. Worse, he suggests that they join to “dress up” or “play at soldiers”.

The facts speak for themselves: since 2003 more than 28,000 Army reservists have deployed alongside their regular colleagues on operations. Some have been severely injured; 70 have received operational awards; and 26 have died. The day before the article was published, the latest reservist killed on operations, WO2 Thomas, was returned to Britain.

Those in the Reserve volunteer knowing they are making a major commitment; they often sacrifice time with families and career opportunities. Within weeks of deploying they are indistinguishable from their regular colleagues, and their contribution is far from “relatively modest”. They expect no special treatment and get none. Nothing could be further from the “all-expenses paid jolly” that Mr Coughlin alludes to. The Army relies on Reserve soldiers to serve in the front line today, and increasingly will in the future.

Now, I am almost completely in agreement with ACGS.  It is never easy to hear outsiders level criticism at the Armed Forces, whether regular or reserve; and when made in the characteristically blunt and uninhibited fashion of a Con Coughlin, it is enough to provoke a letter of rebuke to a newspaper.

But we should remember that we are all, in some way, partisan.  Having a go at your opponents is not just something for politicians and their media attendants.  And it is sometimes easier for military people to become indignant over criticism (Not that I’m saying ACGS is getting indignant here).  After all, what do civilians know?  They risk nothing yet are quite happy to criticise those that do, even reservists they suspect wear the uniform mostly to look good.

Yet, to be fair to Con Coughlin – if it is indeed right to be fair to any journalist – he does seem to base his claim/suggestion that reservists are mostly “playing at soldiers” and enjoying some sort of “glorified adventure holiday” on someone else’s words.

“I reckon that only one in 10 members of the TA are actually worth bothering with,” a senior officer in the regular Army told me recently. “The rest are just in it for a bit of fun at the weekend, and are horrified when you suggest you want them to go somewhere dangerous, like southern Afghanistan.”

This doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, even if it’s the opinion of just one serving officer who might or might not have had a run in with the TA.  I am a little out of the loop to know how accurate this picture might be today, but I suspect whoever said this is not being entirely fair.

Yet the thing that nags me is not so much the less than fulsome comments, or indeed the degree of their truth, but the fact ACGS picked this matter to raise in a letter to the Daily Telegraph and not something of greater importance.

The reservists I’ve come across mostly give the impression of positive and extremely capable individuals – some of them more so than their regular counterparts, as the article admits.  However, they are reservists for a reason – they do not want to serve full time.  Therefore, while they may be good at soldiering, they have other priorities, namely their job.  And this, surely, is the main sticking point of the plan.  Army 2020 reduces the size of the Army, and reservists are expected to fill the shortfall.  Is this likely?  Is this even possible?

The government, as mentioned in the article, is taking an “enormous leap of faith.”  We are effectively saying that the British Army will only be able to deploy with support from the TA.  This seems to me – no offence – to be a retrograde step that undermines the whole rationale of a regular, professional army.  We moved away from citizen armies for a reason: they might be larger than their professional counterparts, but they are not as good.  They do not receive the same amount of training and they are not at the sole call of the government.  Professional soldiers are not committed to parallel careers.

The TA, as it stands, might not be perfect.  But it’s an excellent source of semi-trained and, above all, willing manpower that could be mobilised relatively quickly if the balloon really does go up.  And now we are changing all that, and adopting a new structure that, no matter what people say, is more about saving money that utilising the self-evident talents of reservists.

The risk is not just that the TA might not be able to increase its size in order to meet its target of 30,000 reservists.  The risk is also that serving members of the TA, and their employers, might take exception to the demands proposed.  Currently, reservists volunteer for deployment, but this new scheme would require mandatory mobilisation not least because it would make no sense to be in the TA and not deploy if that was the primary purpose of the force.

I know why ACGS would want to defend the TA, but we really do need to discuss the risks, not least because we are more likely to mitigate them if we understand them.  Why doesn’t he write a letter about this (perhaps he has and I’ve just missed it)?  The answer lies somewhere in the idea of constitutional propriety.  Soldiers do not meddle in politics and the decision to restructure the Armed Forces is primarily a political matter.  Therefore, he cannot be seen to question that decision, let alone oppose it.

I mentioned earlier that this characteristic of our Armed Forces is a double edged sword, and when you combine this sense of constitutional appropriateness with their can-do attitude, there is a danger that political decisions are not questioned as strongly as they might, or ought.

But that’s the way it is.  It’s happening, and we better hope that the plan to increase the TA and fundamentally change the nature of their service works.  Because the Regular Army is highly unlikely to delay its cuts, and if the TA cannot fulfil its part of the plan, then we will all be in serious trouble.  In fact, on second thoughts, we won’t be in trouble.  Soldiers will be, as they deploy to meet the next commitment with even less punch than they have now.

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