While the country (media bubble) continues its fixation with the BBC and its management wiring diagram, the Ministry of Defence marches on with its plan to restructure the Armed Forces. Should we be concerned? Perhaps.
Some restructuring is probably necessary. Consider the £38billion ‘black hole’ in the defence plan, the even blacker hole in the national budget, and the continuing realisation that Britain is no longer the global power it once was, and we understand that a certain amount of cloth cutting is inevitable. But what of the actual plan?
The plan is simple, and Mr Hammond, the Defence Secretary, articulates it with his own brand of utilitarian conviction. He doesn’t fill you with soaring enthusiasm, but he does give the impression of having thought about the matter long and hard, and concluded that there is no other course open to us.
In short, we will reduce the regular force and expand the reserves to make up for the loss of capability – sort of. The Army alone will reduce by 20,000 regulars to about 82,000 in total. And to make up for it, the reserves will double in size to about 30,000, which by my crude calculation proposes to substitute 20,000 full-time soldiers with 15,000 part-time soldiers. So, ‘sort of’ seems to mean not quite.
Mr Hammond has always seemed quite admirable as a politician. He has a serious manner, but seems to have arrived in government without developing an ego. His delivery resembles that of an experienced technocrat rather than a flamboyant amateur, yet he comes across as relatively personable. But the risk in Future Forces 2020 is not with him. If anything, he is probably the exact person you want in charge of such an extensive restructuring (one that he didn’t choose). The risk is in the plan itself.
We are told that we are aiming for an ‘adaptable’, ‘agile’, ‘whole force’ that is ‘fit for a more uncertain world.’ All good stuff, but nothing new. We’ve been imagining the Armed Forces this way ever since we grasped the so-called peace dividend of the Cold War thaw. Have we now found a way to be even more adaptable, agile and fit for a more uncertain world? Not sure. And the world was uncertain then, too. Exactly the same questions about China, Russia, nuclear proliferation, Islamism and terrorism were being asked then as they are now. Concerns might be weighted and ranked differently today, but the threats and the questions facing defence and security strategists are the same. Perhaps cyber threats are the only ones to have progressed markedly in that time.
The major risk in this new ‘integrated’ strategy is clear: the ability to recruit, retain, train and deploy this new beefed up reserve force, thus enabling ‘rapid reaction and expeditionary warfare.’
We should not lose sight of the fact that people join the TA because they do not want to deploy routinely (once every five years in the new plan). If they did, they would join the regular army. They have civilian jobs and they want civilian careers – mostly. We simply do not know how current TA soldiers will react to the new demands about to be placed on them. They might relish the opportunity, but they might not. How will a reduction in willingness to serve in the reserves help just when recruiting needs to double?
Neither do we really know how employers will react. Mr Hammond is proposing legal protection so they are not unfairly penalised for serving the country, but he surely knows that employers always find ways around such legal impositions: namely not employing such people in the first place. There will be a new employment model with better remuneration and support for reservists and their families, but there is still the little inconvenience of their main job. It is true that many people already have more than one job, some out of preference, but many have no choice; they are only trying to make ends meet. The danger is that these proposals will force reservists into careers based on several jobs, undertaken piecemeal. Some may like this, but many won’t. If they want just one job, they will be dependent on their employer holding the same values they do. A significant reserve commitment will also make it a little harder to build and maintain a career on which they dedicate most of their working effort. Incentives might be offered to employers to retain and look after reservists, but this will never make up for the disruption the majority will undoubtedly face to their career.
It is argued, in the tortuous way institutions tend to justify their decisions, that money is only a minor reason for these changes. We are referred to the unfulfilled desire of many TA soldiers to deploy, and to their need for more promotion opportunities, as if this is justification for such a revolutionary change to the role of our reserves. They can already volunteer for regular service, and promoting TA soldiers is a matter of will, not structure. There is also the suggestion that, in order to project power, we must incorporate the reserves routinely in the order of battle. Well, perhaps they are under-utilised, but making better use of reserves is not predicated on the extensive reduction of regulars. Money is at the root of it. We need to save it, spend less of it, and to do this we must have a smaller Armed Forces.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the reasons really are; it’s happening and there’s an opportunity to create something new and logical and rational in its conception. And perhaps the Armed Forces will make it work, as they usually do. But one thing is for sure. Our Armed Forces will not be more capable because of these reforms. They will be smaller and less potent, and the critical role expected of the Reserves make the whole enterprise deeply worrying. Let’s hope that Mr Hammond really has thought this through. Because if he hasn’t, it will not be politicians that pay the price, but soldiers, sailors and airmen, as always.