Experts analyse plan to boost UK's reserve armed forces

Soldier in Afghanistan
Image caption Thousands more TA soldiers will be prepared for front-line duties over the next decade

The regular Army will be cut from 101,000 to 84,000 troops by 2020, Defence Secretary Liam Fox told MPs on Monday.

Instead, £1.5bn will be invested into the Territorial Army over the next 10 years to get thousands more reservists trained for the front line.

The changes will mean the TA will make up about 30% of a 120,000-strong Army and bring the UK's proportion of reservists - currently around 14% - closer to that of countries such as the US, where it is 38%.

But how does our reserve force compare to the US model and what are the implications of the announcement?

The most glaring difference between the TA and the US Army Reserve and National Guard is scale. The two US reserve forces have a combined strength of 480,000.

Image caption The TA may have to take on similar homeland duties to the National Guard

"You have much more flexibility to meet operational demands and rotate units, so readiness is less of an issue," says Mark Phillips, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

"It's more difficult to do that in the UK where the force is much smaller. You just don't have that flexibility."

But Mr Phillips adds that compared with the part-time commitment required of most TA recruits (a minimum of 27 days) around half of the US reserves are actually full-time employees.

One arm of the US reserves, the National Guard, is also distinct from the TA due to its focus on "homeland security and resilience", and is well-known for assisting in emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Guard is controlled by state governors, but the US president can call on them to help overseas if there's a pressing need, says Mr Phillips, with some guardsmen now providing support roles - such as logistics and engineering - for the regular army in Afghanistan.

Dr Fox also mentioned increasing the TA's "homeland security" role, which could see the reserves taking on some National Guard-type duties in times of need.

It's an idea that Mr Phillips says could prove fruitful: "Potentially the TA does offer benefits. These are people who work or live in local communities - they know the environment and surroundings better than regular soldiers would - it's a key strength."

However, such a role is likely to give military leaders further tricky decisions: "If it's expected reserves will also become integral to operations abroad, then the MoD will also have to think how to balance it against what we want them to do in the homeland."

Mr Phillips also says a key challenge for the Army will be increasing the current deployable reserve force - estimated by the defence secretary at around 14,000 - to the stated target of 36,000.

"Recruiting and retention has always been an issue," says Mr Phillips. "You could make it more attractive by changing terms and conditions, allowances, by changing partnerships with employers - but there's no guarantee."

Familiar relationship

"They'll need to improve things like welfare, families, healthcare, housing, dealing with psychological effects of operations.

"All those things that are discouraging people from staying on in the TA at the moment."

An "absolute must" of boosting the number of part-time reservists should be to help the military "reconnect" and become more relevant to the average person on the street, says Julian Lindley-French, professor of defence strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy.

Image caption Enlarging the TA may help "reconnect" the Army and the public

He argues the low proportion of reservists in recent decades - caused partly by the UK military turning fully professional in 1960 and a lack of modern conscription - has damaged a once familiar relationship.

"One of the reasons foreign analysts say we [the British public] have a robust approach to casualties is because the Army and military is so small compared to civil society, it simply doesn't affect most people.

"There's a dangerous disconnect between civil society and the military, which makes recruiting - even for reserves - very difficult."

The defence secretary alluded to the point in the Commons, saying that a "stronger reserve is one of the ways of increasing the links between the Armed Forces and the communities of this country."

The Future Reserves 2020 report, on which Mr Fox based his recommendations, puts the point more forcefully.

Despite public sympathy for the Army due to campaigns such as Afghanistan, it says the force has become "remote" and "links between a rapidly changing society and an ever smaller and more professional military are eroding".

Bolstering Britain's reserves is a step in the right direction says Prof Lindley-French, but he adds that, inevitably, there will be considerable practical and organisational challenges.

"You have issues with indemnities to employers, the cost of training, where one can uses such reserves - they'll have to be a whole raft of cultural changes in the British approach and their concept of reserve forces for this to work through."

He also suggests that the goal of having more deployable troops and "creating a mini version of the American model" could be partly due to a growing reluctance to rely on foreign military partners in international operations.

"Evidence from Afghanistan is that most Europeans are very adept at making excuses as to why they will not do things and that London will no longer rely on European allies - apart from the French, for anything but the most cursory of operations."

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