This article offers an independent review of Britain’s reserve military forces and recommends placing them at the heart of national resilience. It was written for the National Preparedness Commission by Gerhard Wheeler CBE, Head of Reserves at Universal Defence and Security Solutions, and a former Army officer who contributed to the Reserve Forces 2030 Review.
Today’s reservist is unrecognisable from the enthusiastic but under-resourced amateurs and faded veterans that just a few decades ago operated at the fringes of both the military and the working week, earning the dubious nickname of ‘weekend warrior’. Following a £1.8bn investment and re-branding exercise, reservists have become respected not only as valuable reinforcements in a crisis but, increasingly, also an integral part of the day-to-day running of the armed forces. A visitor today to the RAF’s largest airbase, Brize Norton, can find reservists protecting the site, driving specialist vehicles, co-ordinating flight operations and even flying aircraft. There is scope, however, to go further. A recently published review, led by Lord Lancaster, a former defence minister and serving reservist, argues that there is both a demand and the potential for reservists to increase their utility, particularly to make Britain more resilient to future security risks.
The Reserve Forces 2030 (RF30) Review presents an ambitious vision for the future of Britain’s reservists, placing them at the heart of national resilience. RF30 foresees a geo-strategic era characterised by competition between great powers, threats to networks and ecosystems unconstrained by borders, and the growth of info-tech warfare. It acknowledges the government’s ‘Global Britain’ ambition for its armed forces to spend more time operating overseas, most visibly demonstrated this year by the deployment of its new aircraft carrier task group to the Indo-Pacific. As a result, the review sees a need for the reserves to take on more of the burden of maintaining those military capabilities that can be held on longer warning times – like long-range artillery systems – and a greater role in building national resilience. Notably, RF30 also thinks the armed forces should look to draw more deliberately on the civilian aspects of their reservists’ CVs.
The pro and cons
Using reservists to beef up homeland resilience makes sense. In many ways, they are more suited for this role than their regular counterparts. When major incidents occur, they understand the challenges that affected communities and environments face because they live and work in them, whereas regulars are often based in isolated garrisons. Reservists are better able to build working relationships with emergency services’ chiefs and community leaders before a disaster strikes. They understand local sensitivities but, unlike most of Britain’s first responders, can also draw on the advantages of being part of a national organisation. Except for occasional training events, they are normally only paid during the period of a crisis and so can be pretty cost effective.
There are potential pitfalls in using reservists for resilience tasks: few would thank the MoD if it called out a reservist who is already being used as a key worker in a crisis; it would be unwise to ask reservists to cross picket lines; and there are worries that employers would lose patience if their reservist employees were mobilised too often. But the RF30 Review team believes these are problems that can be overcome with careful planning.
For some tasks, reservists are now not only the better choice, they are the only choice. The front line of the future may not even be on the battlefield. Instead, it is likely to be in domestic institutions such as hospitals, banks, tech companies, utility providers and retail supply chains. To deal with security risks like cyber-attacks, social-media disinformation, freak weather events and human viruses requires experts who are able to maintain and hone their skills day in, day out. It is almost impossible for regular members of the armed forces to simulate this experience which is why the review has recommended that the MoD makes better use of reservists that already operate on these frontiers in their civilian roles. This was well demonstrated last year when the army called up reservists who were experts in retail supply-chain management to work with its regular military planners to help sort out PPE distribution for the Covid-19 pandemic.
The value of experts
The pace of technological change is also causing military HR managers a headache. During the Cold War, the defence sector led the charge on R&D investment while the civil sector rode on their coat tails: in today’s race for talent, the big money is bet on the tech favourites of Silicon Valley. Military training programmes simply cannot breed the experts they need in fields like artificial intelligence, automation and life sciences fast enough to compete. Employing reservists who are already up to speed in these fields is one of the potential answers to their prayers which is why the review has recommended making it easier for reservists to work in specialist military posts at more senior levels without first having to go through years of military career development. Being able to draw on the support of civilian tech experts as reservists could provide a step-change increase in the military’s capability to face emerging threats that are now more likely to disrupt the high street than a far-flung campaign theatre.
The review also recommends that the navy, army and air force consider forming more reserve specialist groups to be on hand to provide expert advice across government during a homeland crisis. A few specialist groups like this already exist. The Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps consists of industry leaders who volunteer to receive minimal military training and wear colonel’s rank. As the army adapts to new resilience challenges, its generals are starting to add the details of these corporate-sector colonels to their speed dials. The potential for bespoke civil-military reserve units to support national resilience efforts is significant. Imagine how useful a unit that included reservists from all the sectors within the UK’s critical national infrastructure could be in helping to identify cross-cutting risks to national networks and advising on responses to events like the recent blockage of the Suez Canal, ransomware attacks on oil pipelines and major flooding incidents.
A surge capacity
The more traditional role of the reserves to provide surge reinforcements in a crisis is also expanding in importance. The next generation of high-tech weapon systems may require fewer people to fight wars but the nature of resilience tasks – like responses to natural disasters – can still demand large numbers of personnel and serve as a reminder that, for some missions, quantity still has a quality all its own.
RF30 tackles the challenge of mass mobilisation, which has not been practised for decades, by recommending the establishment of a Reserves’ Support Organisation. Apart from offering better levels of support to volunteer reservists, the organisation would also act as a hub to engage actively with those ex-regulars who still retain a commitment to be called up in a crisis. Annual formal letters to veterans could be replaced by alumni initiatives such as social-media apps, training opportunities and access to military sports facilities. The review suggests that the Reserves Support Organisation might also be utilised to act as a command-and-control node for mobilising civilian volunteers, such as those currently supporting the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The path ahead
Taken as a whole, the RF30 Review provides a compelling argument for continuing to transform Britain’s reserve forces. It offers the MoD a bold and novel raft of recommendations. Inevitably, some of these findings will fall by the wayside as the blue-sky thinking of an independent review meets the fiscal realities of the defence budget. However, there is a good chance that the big ideas that underpin them, like simplifying the career paths into the reserves, drawing more on the civilian aspects of their CVs and tailoring the support they receive, will shape the reserve forces of the next decade.
As the potential of the reserves is further unlocked, they will become increasingly important to all elements of the armed forces. However, perhaps their most critical role will be in supporting the urgent task of strengthening national resilience. If hostile states, criminal groups and the forces of nature continue to threaten Britain within its borders, the part-time warriors that spend their week in civilian jobs and their weekends serving the nation may prove to be the thin red line of the future.