More Reservist Call-Outs

In what I will now call ‘We need to call out the Reserves for this?’ series of posts, I notice Mr Mark Francois, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, has issued another Call-Out Order for the Reserves.

This time it’s a renewal order, under section 56(1B) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, to extend authority to send Reservists to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

We are told that over 100 Reservists have been called out for Cyprus duty in the last 12 months, and that we are to do the same for the next 12 months, this order ending in December 2015.

I’m all in favour of Reservists serving with Regular forces, both on exercises and on operations. Many Reservists want to serve, have flexible jobs that enable them to take six months or so off from their day jobs, and many could do with the money. Many of them are also highly competent.

But although these call-outs will only involve volunteers who are ‘willing’ and ‘have the support of their employer’, it is still bizarre that we do not have the Regulars to meet this ongoing commitment. That is the serviceman’s job, it is why he (and she, of course) has made it his full-time job.

This is the thing about the Reserves 2020 plan. On the one hand it does something worthwhile: attempting to make the Reserves more ‘capable, usable, integrated and relevant’. Who could argue against this? But these are virtuous words that are deliberately hard to dispute. Who in their right minds (apart from Islamists and our own domestic Britain-haters; though one might question the soundness of their state of mind) would deliberately set out to lessen the capability of the Reserves?

On the other hand, the plan does something less worthwhile: actually making the Regulars less capable and usable. A reduction in the Army alone of 20,000 soldiers, comprising 20% of its existing strength is staggering when the figures are considered in any detail. The simple maths does not add up. We are recruiting approximately an extra 12,000 Reserves to replace the 20,000 lost Regulars. It doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, that is, unless we see it for what it really is. Britain is skint and we simply cannot afford to maintain the force levels of former years. This is what the government had to come to terms with when it achieved office in 2010, and reducing the Regulars is one of the ways they are attempting to balance the books (though not doing a great job; Britain still managing an annual deficit of about £100 billion). They could prioritise spending differently, but they choose not to. That is where we are.

And so we will have to push on with trying to integrate the Reserves with the Regulars and using them a lot more than before. In one sense this is a good thing. The Reserves have a lot of capability. But in another sense it’s a bad thing: a recognition that Britain is on the wane. Sad that. But true. And it is still not clear we will be able to recruit the proposed numbers of Reserves.

Why call out Reservists for this?

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Mark Francois, it seems, has just issued a call-out notice authorising the mobilisation of Reservists for operations in Northern Iraq. Mostly this will be RAF personnel, only if willing and supported by their employers, and only a few of them.

This is, we are told, ‘fully in line with our policy of having more capable, usable, integrated and relevant Reserve Forces’.

Quite. That is the policy. But we should be clear that even if the principle is decent enough – why have Reserve Forces we cannot use? – it says quite a lot about the present state of the Armed Forces, in this instance specifically the RAF.

The current mission in Iraq is minute. It is so small that on its own it would not so much as blow down a pack of cards. The last Ministry of Defence notice of action reported two Tornado GR4s attacking an ISIL target. That’s two aircraft.

And we need to call out the Reserves for this?

We may have been forced to pare the Armed Forces to the bone by the unfathomable budget deficit, but it is deeply worrying if we cannot mount this meagre operation without calling out Reserves. What happens when we need to deploy a proper military force?

Another government IT setback!

When governments want to save money, they generally start using fancy business-sounding rhetoric to give the impression that no capability will be lost and savings will be achieved almost entirely with efficiencies. Governments rarely say they will simply start doing less, more’s the pity. This is rooted, I would guess, in the post-war socialist settlement that planted so firmly in people’s minds the belief that a problem can only ever really be solved by an increase in government activity, and certainly not by a decrease.

The result tends to be over-ambition in government: promises of more and more even when resources are constrained, as they are today. And when over-ambition meets information technology projects, the result is usually pretty ugly. There was that NHS IT project which has reportedly cost up to £10 billion so far; and the new Universal Credit IT project to bring together all benefits in one efficient system is under pressure as I write. And now the Recruitment Partnering Project seems to be suffering difficulties. Though thankfully we are not talking billions.

The project is designed to bring Army recruiting online, thus enabling financial savings of up to £300 million. Capita, the outsourcing company, have won the main contract, but the online recruiting system is being built by the Atlas Consortium, and it is they who are having difficulties. To add to the complication, it is holding up Army recruitment at a time when the Regular force is reducing to some 82,000 and the Reserves increasing by some 10,000 as part of Army 2020 restructuring. I’ve voiced concerns hereherehere and here, and it looks like they have another headache.

Gartner, an IT research company, has looked into the problem and noticed the following: the project is two years behind schedule; £15.5 million has already been spent, which might have to be written off; they might have to spend another £50 million on a replacement system; recruitment applications have been lost and targets missed, and Major General Shaun Burley, head of British Army personnel management, has warned there might be 10,000 unfilled posts by the middle of 2015; and the wrong bidder was picked, despite warnings that existing Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) providers, Atlas Consortium, might not meet the agreed timeline.

The main culprit, however, is said to be the Army Recruitment and Training Division, for failing to provide the online system Capita needs to run Army recruiting. They offered to develop a hosting platform but were not taken up on the offer, partly because their quote was £15 million higher than the Atlas bid, and also because there seems to be an MOD policy to use DII, and thus Atlas, for IT projects unless a good case can be made to look elsewhere.

Specific problems there may be, but it looks like they fit into two broad categories: a) governments rushing projects, especially if financial savings are involved; and b) MOD, and thus government, not being that great at IT project management. Perhaps Gartner’s most damning observation is this: the Army ‘underestimated the complexity of what it was trying to achieve.’

This is not to argue that the state and the Army cannot run projects at all; clearly they can. But it is worth asking if they are running the sort of projects appropriate to their training and skills. If we think of contract negotiations between the private sector and the government as a tennis match, then there is only going to be one winner. Inspection of the national budget should tell us all we need to know.

Gartner also noticed that the military project management team was inexperienced and under-resourced. In this case, it seems that the government’s desire to reduce the Regular Army led to members of the team being either moved or made redundant. New personnel had to come in and they obviously lacked the sort of continuity and deep knowledge required to make such projects work. Besides, the military tendency to move people every two years hardly lends itself to the management of projects which tend to last at least twice that time. It might be that Civil Servant project managers, either permanent or recruited for whole projects, would make better sense; and where military input is required, they can be attached to the project as military advisors, concentrating on what they know.

Money slips through government fingers like water through a sieve, so we should perhaps not be surprises or even that worried by Gartner’s findings. But the purpose of the overall project is to improve Army recruiting and enable the Regulars, reduced to a mere 82,000 personnel, to be at full strength to provide the backbone of any future military campaign. If this goes unchecked, and General Burley’s warning comes true, then Army 2020 is even more of a risk than I thought. Let’s hope there’s time to sort it out, because if there isn’t then it will be soldiers yet gain suffering the consequences.

There’s a Reserve Forces recruitment plan!

“I have today placed in the Library of the House a paper setting out the planned growth of the trained strength of the Reserve Forces, together with the enlistment targets for the next five years that will support that growth.”

So says the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, to the House today. The paper should make interesting reading, if you’re into data and that sort of thing – tables, graphs, etc. But it is also worth remembering that government data predictions are rarely worth the paper they’re written on.

As a reminder, this manpower growth refers to the hope that the Ministry of Defence will be able to entice an extra 10,000 people to join what used to be called the TA, taking the full establishment to 30,000. I hope they can do it, I really do, because if they cannot, then we will have rather a gap in our defence capability.

Let’s be clear though, anyone can write a paper setting out ‘planned growth.’ I did it in the previous paragraph, sort of. The MOD plans to recruit 10,000 more Reservists! There, see, it’s easy! And setting out ‘enlistment targets for the next five years’ is the same game, only broken down into five seasons, as it were. Football-club owners do that sort of thing – projecting Premier League and European Cup domination within five years. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Targets are fraught with danger. They beguile an organisation into thinking most of the work has been done. Articulate the plan and it will happen! That is the refrain. But the plan is just the beginning; it’s important, but just the beginning. Targets also, especially in politics, create hostages to fortune:

‘You said you would recruit 2,000 people this year,’ says the opposition MP. ‘But you’ve only recruited 1,998.’ Guffaws of laughter from his (or her) colleagues. ‘What an omni-shambles.’

‘Well, yes we did, ‘replies the Minister, ‘but what my Right Honourable Friend (said through gritted teeth) doesn’t understand is…’

And the wrangling begins. Meanwhile, what is really going on with the data is something far worse, perhaps a failure to offset those 1,998 people with the 2,200 who have left that year, leaving the Reserves weaker than at the start of the Five-Year Plan.

It probably won’t come to that *we hope* but the suggestion of hiring Reserves before firing Regulars seems more sensible by the day. That’s not going to happen, though, so all we can really do is follow the Secretary of State’s plan with crossed fingers.

What’s happening to journalism

Journalism is a dead industry. Or dying, at least. That’s what we hear. Citizen reporters are using new technology to provide for free what professional journalists currently provide for a salary. All they need is a smart phone and a social-media account and these insurgent hacks are good-to-go. It costs nothing to produce and nothing to view; and who needs training? They simply hold their phone in the air and start beaming whatever seismic event is taking place in front of them.

How can professional journalism compete with this? And, more importantly for those still earning a living by the trade, how can they make it pay? This might prompt most people to say, ‘who cares what happens to the phone-hacking cockroaches?’ But journalists – and other writers, such as Alexander Chancellor in The Spectator recently – are, for understandable reasons, a little more concerned.

He recounts an address he gave recently to journalist-hopefuls at Nottingham University, in which he found himself torn between wanting to explain how today’s youth would have to be particularly stupid to aspire to a career in journalism, and not wanting to discourage the bright young things from pursuing their cherished dreams. Still, obviously not too torn, because he gave them the gloomy news anyway.

It’s a good question: ‘Where are the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them?’ And possibly a question with no redeeming answer to someone (and I hope this sentence is not taken the wrong way) nearer the end of his journalistic career than the beginning.

When one has spent a life in a particular organisation, there is always something sad about uncontrollable change. Old soldiers, sailors and airmen grieve stoically when their regiment, ship or squadron drops off the order of battle. But they rarely, if ever, stop the change. If something lives, you know it will die; and, if you take an optimistic view of life, it might re-emerge in a new, improved form.

Sticking with the military theme, we might think institutions like the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, conservative as they are, respond poorly to change. But that’s not quite true. One need only look at the way all three services implement the ever-changing demands of their political masters with grumpy but loyal commitment. In 2006, the Army lost 6,000 posts, renamed and lost distinguished regiments and reorganised after three decades of deployment in Northern Ireland; and over the coming years it will do the same, only this time it will lose 20,000 posts and integrate the Territorial Army into a new Reserve force central to all future regular commitments. This is quite a change, with considerable risk; but the Army will get on with it, as it always does.

What’s this got to do with journalism? Nothing, really, except to say that things always change. Fantastic advances in technology are shattering the assumptions that have underpinned journalism since the invention of the printing press. We might wonder if late-medieval scribes had a little panic when Gutenberg revealed, with Steve-Jobs evangelism, his filthy, job-destroying machine? They probably did, but we might then note how the printing press gave rise to a whole new set of employment opportunities; and there is no reason to believe that, when we’ve worked out how to marry journalism with today’s developing technology, we will not have a vibrant new industry that looks like journalism, but not quite as we have known it.

Mr Chancellor knows this, of course; he’s far too shrewd an observer of our species. But perhaps he’s not yet thought about the matter as one might think of greater societal change. Perhaps his observation – that fewer people are to be employed professionally in journalism – is not a sign of decline, but of advance. Think of all those former journalists now free to take up more productive employment.

One of the ways – perhaps the chief way – society advances is through diversification. Indeed, a society that can produce a greater variety of goods and services is generally considered a more prosperous society. They are freed from the risks and the poverty characteristic of societies still largely dependent on one or two rudimentary industries. It is still fashionable in certain political circles to think the West enjoys lower child mortality, more abundant food and better medicine because of socialistic provision, but this ignores the creative power of capital and trade – the means of diversification and prosperity.

And key to our ability to produce more of the things that make our lives better, is being able to create more with less (or, rather, to make what we want, but with lower human input) – Productivity. Take agriculture. Societies where agriculture forms the main source of wealth are poor societies, harassed by poverty’s attendant problems: greater ignorance, higher mortality and less freedom. The great triumph of developed societies is their ability to get people off the land while still being able to feed themselves. Every person freed from dependence on the land is a person doing something else to make our lives more varied and interesting: education, science, business, art, philosophy etc.

The principle continues through all trades and industries. More efficiency, especially in labour, leads to greater capacity for other things, thus enriching society and creating what we recognise today as advanced and diversified culture. Every time we substitute robots for people to build cars, we free people to do other things; every time we find a more efficient method of producing what we want, we reduce the need for labour, freeing that labour to do something else to enrich society. Some people, generally of a Luddite tendency, still see labour-saving advances in productivity as a regressive step; but this is a mistake. Not everyone can work on the land: who will make the ploughs?

Back to the point, and back to journalism. Perhaps we need to look at this present revolution in journalism as we do other labour-saving advances? Perhaps technology, by enabling the citizen-journalist, is simply making journalism better and more efficient. Perhaps the professional journalist, with his or her tendency to filter and edit the news, has always been an undesirable hindrance to our understanding of what is truly happening in the world. After all, if Time magazine wasn’t witness to the latest great tragedy, then it didn’t really happen! Now we are all witness, and we can testify with the touch of a button.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the professional journalist. If the human race is good at one thing, it is good at finding ways to make money. Citizen journalism will need polishing-up for the more discerning market. It will need editors, copywriters, distributors, platforms and more, all of which means jobs – just slightly different jobs, that’s all, and perhaps fewer; but that’s all right. Perhaps journalists of the future will be less journalist, more editor. Perhaps journalists are, in fact, simply going to be ‘the people’: people who do something else but know the issue on which they write in far greater detail than any journalist could manage?

No, journalism isn’t dead; it’s not even dying. It’s simply changing, and if anyone wants to make money from it, they will have to do what all businesses do without the crutch of state subsidy. They will have to provide something for which people are willing to pay, be they readers, advertisers, philanthropists or anyone else. But it was always thus; it’s just that things have got a bit more competitive, that’s all. And that’s a good thing, no?

Future Reserves 2020 is not without risk

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.