FR20: 'Britain needs a citizen army to fight its wars'

Lt Gen (retd) Sir Graeme Lamb, Former Commander of the Field Army and a key member of the team which carried out the Future Reserves 2020 (FR20) Study, writes in the Daily Telegraph (13 Jul) that the The balance between regulars and reserves in our Armed Forces should be rethought:

Why would one need or even consider an alternative model for the Armed Forces? A force which, in its current guise, has for the past 50 years served Britain exceptionally well; a force we are instinctively comfortable with.

It provided, along with its allies in Nato, a significant part of the shield that successfully checked Soviet adventurism. That model, on which our Armed Forces are still broadly organised, concentrated on providing the means for “mass strike” as the counterbalance to the arrayed forces of the Soviet Union. That time has now passed.

Technology has moved from “mass strike” to “precise strike”, and with it has come the opportunity to seek other ways to solve a problem than sheer slaughter.

We are experiencing a fundamental change in the operational environment that demands a correspondingly radical change in the way we must structure, train and equip. Today, the threats that the UK faces are no less deadly or any less problematic – but they are singularly different.

Our enemies, rivals and competitors engage us with a wide range of tools, not all of which are recognised as the weapons they are (cyber-espionage, for example).

The manner in which they fight is equally different and frequently sub-national in character, enabled by trans-national support. Our previous preoccupation, on which were set the military organisation and operating concepts, was with the threat of nation against nation wars.

These still remain a possibility, but they are an increasingly unlikely one. Today demands a new, comprehensive approach, which of course involves military and security force capabilities, but which is also a fusion of defence and security interests: diplomacy, economics, legal, information, intelligence, and all manner of political activity.

This convergence of military and security interests abroad and at home flies in the face of an outdated binary model that predominantly relies on a single mass body of regular Navy, Army and Air Force professionals fitted to fight like with like.

As the possibility of state on state war is displaced by the more likely event of smaller scale, overseas, rapid intervention and the increasing likelihood of having to react to and cope with a homeland disaster, be that natural or man-made, the demand will be for our Armed Forces to be balanced between regular and reserves. The thought of a citizen army has not, I sense, passed forever from our shores, but has, in fact, returned.

Equipment lust has placed the defence budget in a constant status of overspend. One consequence is that, having spent large sums of taxpayers’ money on selecting people, training them and giving them experience, we dismiss them with virtually no scope for recall. As a financial model, if put only under a business management spotlight, this makes little sense. As an operational model, it makes none.

Giving priority to equipment rather than people, coupled with a culture of planning beyond our means, sets the Ministry of Defence on a continuous path of financial shortfall.

Add to this our current, enduring overseas interventions, a technological revolution, an increasing global misery index among the poorest populations, which are saddled with demographic explosions, economic disasters and incompetent governments – the issues are more stark and increasingly urgent.

Reserves make up less than 20 per cent of our Army. This is in direct contrast to our Australian, Canadian and United States counterparts, where the figure ranges from 36 per cent to more than 50 per cent.

Our current position is not only out of step with our principal allies, it is out of step with our own history. During the colonial period, the nature of conflicts in which we engaged bore some resemblance to those of today, rather than the mass wars of the 20th century.

Voluntary service sits well with our society, and the ability to gather from the richness of its talent makes great sense. To continue with our current outdated model of organisation, dismissing so completely the lessons of other nations and of our own past, is nonsense.

The new model should draw manpower from both the regular and a reserve pool, while allowing for maximum flexibility between the two.

In extending service time into the reserve component, we would create a cradle-to-grave human resource management solution, a new “personnel concept” which harnesses throughout their working life the individual and collective talents of the people we have carefully recruited, selected, trained and educated.

The skills they learn on operations are priceless and we should be strenuous in attempting to retain them. Furthermore, my prevailing sense is that not only can they continue to be of service, but that they actually wish to be so.

In short, we have a ready, willing, trained and committed source of manpower. To ignore or, worse, discard this pool of talent bears no serious analysis; but this is the culture that prevails.

The reserves cost much less. Run over five years, the cost differential is around one third or, put simply, three for the price of one. Across all three services, putting some of your capacity at lower readiness makes affordable a much greater total capacity. It further demonstrates that the balance in today’s Armed Forces is no longer appropriate, nor affordable.

A version of this article appears in the British Army Journal 2011

Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb is a former Commander Field Army and is taking part in a review of the UK Reserve Forces’ role and structure

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