By Colin Marrs

05 Nov 2015

When Army 2020 was announced in 2012, it represented one of the biggest structural reforms to the British Army in decades. A key plank of the scheme – itself part of the larger Future Force 2020 programme – has been to cut the number of regulars from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2018, and to make up the shortfall with reservists. The programme’s recruitment problems have been well publicised in the past, but, in 2015, is it any closer to ‘mission accomplished’? Colin Marrs reports

Not all senior responsible owners can have welcomed a top level warning about their pet project with as much sanguinity as General Sir Nick Carter. In 2014, a programme to boost the UK’s armed forces’ reserve contingent was given an amber/red rating by the Major Projects Authority (MPA). This year, things appeared to be getting worse with the award of a red light. But where other SROs might have obfuscated, the head of the British Army is upbeat.

“I think it was a perfectly reasonable judgement at the time and it was jolly helpful,” Carter tells Civil Service World. “It meant we got scrutiny and advice, which along with the measures we were taking ourselves, has helped get the project back on track.” But, despite such positivity – largely thanks to some major changes made to the initial project – uncertainty still hangs over the battle to reconfigure the shape of the British armed forces.

The origins of the Future Reserves 2020 project can be traced back to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the results of which were announced less than six months into the coalition government. In line with the new spirit of austerity, the review heralded a programme of staff reductions across all the armed forces – 5,000 for the Royal Navy, 7,000 for the Army and 5,000 for the RAF.

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However, a year later the government’s defence programme and the available money remained seriously out of alignment, and a new mini SDSR was launched. Attention turned to the size of the Army, with the then-defence secretary Liam Fox creating a team to examine the potential for growing the size of the Territorial Army (TA) while further cutting the regulars. In his memoir, General Sir David Richards – then head of the Army – claims he was cut out of the process, with the project “operating largely outside the normal Ministry of Defence process”.

The team concluded that the regular army could be cut to from 101,000 to 82,000 by 2018, with the number of reserves growing from 20,000 to 35,000. Peter Quentin, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute says: “Manpower was not only the most expensive part of the budget to begin with, but the inflationary pressures on manpower are higher than on the kit – the best option to reduce costs was to reduce the number of personnel.”

To ministers, the goal seemed eminently achievable, given that the reserve had stood at 72,000 as recently as 1990. Others were sceptical, given that the momentum had swung sharply downwards ever since that point. “The TA had been allowed to wither over the courses of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The reserve had been bled dry to back fill regular units and had been degraded,” Quentin says.

Despite the reservations of some senior Army figures, there was no attempt to pilot the project. “Interestingly, Nick Houghton [then vice-chief of the defence staff], when briefing the National Security Council on his proposals, included the need to prove their practicability before the scheme was adopted,” Richards says. “The government decided to push it through regardless of this sensible precaution.”

Despite the apparent rush, it was another year before a new defence secretary revealed a formal plan for reshaping the armed forces. Philip Hammond, fresh from the Department of Transport, unveiled a green paper which would see the number of reserves rise by 50% to 30,000 by 2018. A sum of £1.8bn was committed by ministers to pay for training and equipment.

In 2014, a Defence Select Committee report voiced disappointment at this 12-month delay between the decision on increasing the reserves and the publication of the green paper, claiming it had raised the potential for a lack of coordination and communication between the regular and reserve forces. “Even though the generation of reserve forces is complex, the number of reservists required for Army 2020 and the challenge to recruit them was well known,” it concluded. “We consider that the intervening time between announcements could have been utilised in making progress in recruiting the required number of reservists.”

The problems didn’t stop there. Prior to the revised target, the Army had signed a contract with outsourcing firm Capita to handle recruitment to the reserves. According to a 2014 Public Accounts Committee report, this meant that “the army’s recruitment contract with Capita was not established on the basis of a clear understanding of the scale of recruitment challenge”.

In addition the MoD had signed an ICT hosting contract with a separate supplier. According to PAC, the failure to integrate this deal with the Capita contract led to the loss of £70m of £267m planned savings. Capita also had to be paid for recruiting its full target of 6,000 recruits during 2013-14, even though it fell 4,000 short of that figure.

By the summer of 2014, those at the top of the armed forces realised that action was needed to inject urgency into the failing recruitment programme. A major overhaul of the project’s governance was launched. Future Reserves 2020 was split into four independent programmes reflecting the separate armed forces, with the vice chief of the defence staff and permanent undersecretary of state Jon Thompson overseeing progress from the centre. “Quite clearly the execution of the changes was botched, but there was a recovery plan,” says retired Brigadier Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Decentralisation reached even deeper within the army structure. Carter freed commanding officers at a local level to recruit without worrying about central targets or rules. “We decided to let Darwin prevail,” he says. “Unpacking the ability of local commanders to recruit who they wanted without worrying about recruiting too many of them changed the momentum.”

In came new programme director Paul Kett – plucked from his previous role as director of justice reform at the Ministry of Justice – to support Carter on the day-to-day management of the programme. “Paul brought a fresh perspective,” Carter says. “As a graduate of the Major Projects Leadership Academy he had skills that were not previously available to me. It didn’t matter that he didn’t understand everything about the military. The big difference he makes is now we have a programme director reporting directly to the Army board, and [one] who is not buried in the bowels of the organisation.”

The Behavioural Insights Team has also weighed in to lend its assistance, helping to speed up the process by which applicants for the reserves are processed. Improvements such as a reduction in the wait for medical examinations have helped to streamline the process and lower the drop-out rate. “The fastest we are now doing it is about 40 days, with the majority around 90 days – which is what people say they expect,” says Carter. “The generation we are now recruiting want gratification quite quickly. If it takes too long then they fade away and lose interest.”

On the surface, the improvements have resulted in, at best, slow progress. The latest figures show that there are still only 21,030 trained army reservists and that the headcount rose by fewer than 1,000 in the year to 1 April. But Carter says these statistics do not tell the full story. “We have another 4,400 which we have taken on but are not yet fully trained. We are on course to reach the target,” he says.

Notwithstanding its awarding of a red rating to the Future Reserves 2020 project, the MPA seems to agree. As with all MPA assessments, there is a lag of eight months between data being assessed (in September) and the publication of the rating (in May). This allowed the MPA – somewhat confusingly to the layman – to claim that its red rating reflected “significant concerns” over the manpower target, while expressing confidence that since the second quarter of 2014-15, “there has been progress across the overall programme with particular success in the creation of the conditions for expansion of the reserves”.

RUSI’s Quentin argues that although the increase in reserves is important, it is the most high profile element of a much more complex process. “The figures are released on a quarterly basis and jumped on by people to draw conclusions. But reserves reform is not just about the number of troops – it is also about the capability they bring,” he says.

To this end, the reserves recruitment drive has been accompanied by a new approach to their integration into the armed forces. Reserves are now being paired with regular units for training during peacetime – joining up to form a whole for training and operations. This design differs from that employed by other nations with large reserve forces such as the US, where units entirely made up entirely of reserves operate separately from regular units. “Carter came up with a brilliant and clever design,” says Professor Theo Farrell, head of War Studies at King’s College London. “He is a very impressive leader”.

Quentin agrees that the model has many advantages. “Units can exploit particular specialisms – the reserves with niche skills can turn up and operate a bit of plant machinery when required,” he says. But he warns that outside these roles, the plan contains potential limitations. “Where the reserves are fulfilling less specialist roles, such as the line infantry, then they make up a bigger proportion of each unit. It then makes it more difficult for the regular army to sustain its normal operating model – without the reserve element some units are constrained during normal operations because their numbers have been cut away.”

And other challenges remain, not least the stresses on civilian society that arise from an increased reliance on reservists. Professor Farrell says: “The USA is much more militarised – there is more respect for the forces and what they do. In the UK, national security is a much less important issue and we tend not to be too bothered about what happens overseas. That makes it that bit more challenging to ask families and employers to make the necessary sacrifices.”

Employers will certainly be required to be more understanding towards reserves on their payroll in future years. Not only will more staff need time off, the length of absence will increase. While the training commitment for maritime and RAF reserves will remain largely the same under the plan, army reserves will be required to increase their commitment from 35 to 40 days a year.

In response, the government is encouraging companies to publicly pledge their support to reservist through a “corporate covenant”. Tesco, Barclays, BT and Liverpool FC are among more than 300 high street names to have already signed up. However, Carter admits: “Small and medium employers have a very different perspective – we have to be cognisant that they find it less easy.”

As part of the 2014 reboot of the Future Reserves project, the government also introduced a Defence Relationship Management group to liaise with employers and respond to concerns. It offers advice including information on financial compensation available, as well as templates for flexible HR policies. Carter says: “What is really important is having the right relationship with employers so they understand how they will be compensated and how they can cope with absence.”

The army has also committed to providing improved support to reservist families, particularly during periods of training and deployment, as well as after their military service has finished. Carter says: “It is like an equilateral triangle – for each reservist we have to balance the needs of the army, the family and the employer. If it becomes an isosceles then things can become difficult.”

Even if all this can be successfully achieved, some commentators question whether the initiative will save as much money as is hoped. Conservative MP John Baron has repeatedly insisted that the programme will prove to be a “false economy”. While the plan might save money during peacetime, he claims, overall it could prove more expensive due to costs that could arise during any future conflict. “The commitment upon deployment to match annual civilian salaries may compel – depending on those who volunteer – the MoD to pay some reservists up to £300,000,” he says.

Carter won’t be drawn on the claim that the plan won’t save money, but he does admit that wars won’t come any cheaper. He says: “I couldn’t afford to pay a cyber expert for 365 days of the year but I can for two or three weeks and mobilise them a national emergency. While this flexibility means the broad mass of numbers of reserves are cheap, in wartime if you have to pay employers it could get quite pricey. But it depends on the nature of the deployment – if World War III breaks out then people will get behind it.”

However, he denies that the new disparity between low peacetime spending and high costs during wartime will lead to a situation where the UK becomes priced out of intervening militarily in any future conflict where it might have formerly been considered in the national interest to do so. “I think the government is always conscious as to what it will cost and how you can sustain any action. The days are long gone where the military could intervene without considering the financial cost.”

The chief of the general staff says he is confident that the number of reserves is now increasing at a sufficient rate to allow the Army to scale back the resources which have been dedicated to the project. Ironically, while the numbers game might have appeared to be the knottiest issue facing Future Reserves 2020, it may yet prove to be more than achievable than the sceptics thought.

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