The success of the expanded TA is crucial to the overall changes in the Army. The new size of the TA, increasing by 20,000 from its current 10,000 to 30,000, is supposed to counter the reduction in the regular force from 102,000 to 82,000. On paper, the total number of regulars and reservists remains the same, so that the United Kingdom maintains the same military capability while reducing costs.
The white paper included proposals to make employing TA soldiers an attractive proposition to businesses, although the concrete support seems to be a £500/month allowance to employers. The rest of the proposals are waffle about “more notice”, “greater recognition” and “relationship management”.
While I don’t think the overall aim of the plans is necessarily wrong, or that it won’t work, as usual with political announcements there’s a large element of smoke and mirrors hiding the reality of the situation. (I only notice such deception with announcements on subjects I know about, such as the Army, but after seeing it done with such consistency, I’ve developed a default reaction of scepticism regarding all political speeches on schools, the NHS, etc.)
The TA is all right
The TA has traditionally had a poor reputation among regular soldiers, summed up by the nickname “STABs”, aka “Stupid TA Bastards” – although to be fair, even within the regulars, every unit and corps has unflattering nicknames used by their peers, and the TA have a response: “ARABs”, aka “Arrogant Regular Army Bastards”.
However, that has changed in recent years. The nicknames are still popular, probably more so as the two work together more closely, but they tend to be used in the same affectionate, comradely context as other inter-unit rivalries. I actually have a lot of respect for the TA, having worked with many reservist soldiers, including on operations in Afghanistan. The stereotypical fat, lazy, undeployable, know-it-all territorial does exist in reality, but there are also plenty of keen, fit, skilled TA soldiers who make outstanding contributions to operations (plus there are fat, lazy, undeployable regulars too). And I think that this more balanced assessment is now fairly widespread among the forces.
There are a few major structural cracks though that the current plans are papering over:
No-one who works in Army recruiting expects to meet the 30,000 by 2020 recruiting requirement for the TA, or even come close. The Army has always struggled to recruit enough to fill 10,000 places, and that hasn’t improved even during a period of economic slump and overseas warfighting (both of which improve recruiting). To triple that intake, at the same time as the economy starts to pick up and the Afghanistan operation is drawn down, is regarded as an impossible task. Is the recruiting operation being boosted and focussed on TA recruiting to improve its chances? No: at the same time as all this is happening, recruiting is being significantly reduced, streamlined (about half of all high street offices are closing) and contracted to Capita (the outsourcing company that has ballsed up so many other government contracts, Private Eye has nicknamed it “Crapita”).
The argument for closing high street offices is that the forces’ recruiting process is long overdue modernisation, and young people these days are just as happy to make contact over the internet or phone. This does make a lot of sense – no other organisation maintains shop fronts in every little provincial town, just for recruiting, and they still attract staff just by advertising and the quality of the job offer.
A more critical reduction though is in the test centres. Regular and TA recruits still have to physically attend a selection process at an Army Development and Selection Centre (ADSC). Currently there are are four: Belfast (covering Northern Ireland), Edinburgh (covering Scotland), Lichfield (covering Wales and north and central England) and Pirbright (covering south England). The plan agreed between the MOD and Capita is to close Lichfield, meaning that potential recruits from the north of England (the most fertile recruiting region, given the large population centres and high unemployment) will have to travel a long way to either Edinburgh or Pirbright. Potential regulars, seeking full time employment and by definition willing to sign up to dislocation and travel, will mostly still make the trip. But potential reservists, who are largely employed, locally focussed and considering enlisting more as a hobby, may need to take an extra day off work to travel to the ADSC, and will be put off in large numbers.
That paints a very pessimistic view of reservist recruiting, but I’m not predicting it will fail completely. In fact I think it probably will work: it will be made to work, because it has to. As I left recruiting, there was already serious consideration being given to keeping ADSC Lichfield open after all, as Capita and the top recruiting staff officers realised the likely consequences of closure. But since the contract price had already been agreed with Capita on the basis of closing Lichfield, and on the MOD’s initial assessment that recruiting would work without it, it’ll be the MOD, not Capita, paying extra to keep it open. This is the point: politicians make unrealistic promises about what will be achieved and how much it will save, then when those programmes reach the point of failure, more money has to be thrown at them to make them work. This is how it will go with TA recruiting.
Deployable reservist numbers
Let’s assume the recruiting issues are surmounted and there are 30,000 personnel in the TA by 2020. Will that make up for the equal reduction in regular forces? On paper it does, but in reality it doesn’t. Ask any TA Adjutant (the officer responsible for HR management within a regiment or battalion) and he’ll tell you that the true number of deployable soldiers he has is about 10% of the total names on his books.
The regular Army, after recruiting soldiers, sends them straight to a basic training establishment, then to a trade specific training establishment. Only when they’re fully trained are they posted to a deployable unit. The TA recruits straight into units, and the units then process those soldiers through their basic and trade training in a piecemeal fashion, as and when they’re available to go away for training. So a large part of the strength of a TA unit consists of soldiers who are not yet fully trained and available for deployment.
Like the regulars, the TA has all the usual unfit or medically downgraded soldiers who can’t be deployed. Specific to the TA though, is a large group who are simply not interested in deploying: they joined the TA to enjoy being soldiers for the occasional evening or weekend but have no intention of leaving their day job to be sent abroad for six months. Unlike regulars, the TA can’t force these people to deploy: they’d just quit.
So once you’ve subtracted all those soldiers, the current TA of 10,000 has probably about 1000 who are fit, trained, able and willing to deploy on operations. If you increase total numbers by 20,000, in reality you only acquire an extra 2000 deployable soldiers. Since the percentage of actually deployable soldiers in the regular Army is much higher (70-90% depending on the unit), the Army restructure does not, outside the wildest imaginations of politicians, maintain the same deployable capacity.
Personally, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The United Kingdom should accept that its ability to exert military force overseas is less than it once was. We were barely able to maintain two ongoing medium-sized operations (Iraq and Afghanistan) before; we should get used to the idea that we won’t be able to in future. The danger is that if the government is trying to preserve the illusion that we do retain that capacity, then they may expect us to use it, and set us up for an embarrassing and possibly tragic catastrophe.
Difficulties faced by employers
The government is very keen on expending a lot of hot air about how employers should support reservists more, and not discriminate against them in employment decisions. They’re also desperate to talk up the extra skills that reservist employees bring with them. But employers remain sceptical, and with good reason. While an organisation can claim the cost of recruiting agency fees or job advertising for a replacement, there’s still a lot of internal work, training costs and a reduction in productivity associated with the replacement employee, which is likely to be more than the £500/month allowance proposed by the white paper. And that’s assuming the process goes smoothly. A recent example I was aware of will illustrate the real problems that politicians and the MOD don’t seem to understand.
An organisation was informed by an employee that they were being mobilised for a six month deployment to Afghanistan, which with training and recovery would mean a twelve month break from work. The organisation was supportive of this, and decided to hire a temporary employee on a twelve month contract to cover the soldier, until he returned and took up his original position. The job was advertised, applicants were interviewed, and one was selected. The contracts were signed for the twelve month employment. Then the soldier was informed by his unit that he was no longer required to deploy. So the organisation now has its original employee remaining in place and being paid, and a completely superfluous new employee that it can’t afford on a contract to do the same job. The best it can probably hope for is to negotiate with the new recruit for something like a three month pay-off, and this isn’t claimable from the MOD as it’s an employee’s salary, not hiring costs. The outcome is that an employer that was previously supportive of its employees in the TA is now annoyed, much more wary and likely to count TA service as a negative factor in future employment decisions.
I’m willing to bet good odds that the change in the deployment requirement had filtered down through the Army’s chain of command, and originated with a political decision to bring forward or change the drawdown plan for Afghanistan. And there’ll be many other cases of the exact same thing happening to other soldiers and their employers. So while the Defence Secretary makes generous statements about improving the deal for employers of reservist soldiers, the other decisions he makes ensure that it continues to be a major hassle, affecting organisations’ budgets and businesses’ profits. While that’s the case, it’s highly unlikely TA-employer relations will improve.
As usual, a political announcement on a subject I happened to have a bit of inside knowledge on turned out to be misleading and unrealistic. I’m sure the Army Reserve will get to where it needs to be, eventually, but there’ll be a lot of shambles along the way, made worse, not better, by the meddling of politicians. And this is the party that’s traditionally trusted with the Armed Forces. I shudder at the thought of what’s happening to the NHS.