Minutes of the All Party Group for Reserve Forces and Cadets Meeting on 16th March 2011
General Sir Nicholas Houghton KCB CBE – Vice Chief of Defence Staff
Julian Brazier MP - Chairman
Madeleine Moon MP - Vice Chairman
James Arbuthnot MP
Bob Ainsworth MP
Mark Francois MP
James Gray MP
Dan Jarvis MP
Ian Liddell-Grainger MP
Jack Lopresti MP
Kevan Jones MP
Dan Poulter MP
Bob Stewart MP
Desmond Swayne MP
Kris Hopkins MP
Rory Stewart MP
Sarah Newton MP
Chloe Smith MP
Bill Wiggin MP
Alun Cairns MP
Tony Baldry MP
Richard Bacon MP
Alixe Buckerfield Del la Roche
Col (Retd) Hugh Purcell - Honorary Clerk
Maj Gen Greg Smith - ACDS Reserves & Cadets
Cdre Bob Mansergh RN
Col Lee Roddy
Mr Rob Malpass
Wg Cdr Tim Marley
Maj Matt Lewis
Maj Matt Munro
Chairman’s Opening Remarks.
The Chairman opened the meeting by reminding members that Dave McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Reserve Affairs in the US Department of Defense, would address the Group at 1800 on Tuesday 22 March. He said he and General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the VCDS, had just briefed the PM on the Reserves Review and that it was a privilege to continue working under his chairmanship. He then welcomed the MoD team, headed up by Maj Gen Smith and Cdre Mansergh.
VCDS began by saying he was delighted to be back to talk to the Group and that the first thing they had said to the PM was how much they were enjoying the Review and being stimulated by it. The formal part of the commission was himself, Julian Brazier and General Graeme Lamb and that in many respects Julian was occasionally the ghost of Christmas past and Graham the ghost of Christmas future; it had been a more enlivening and awakening experience than he had expected and was far from being a chore.
They had reported that the principal findings at the end of Phase One were that the case for changing how reserve forces were used and structured was proven. They now needed to determine the sort of change, but first they needed to understand better from the PM the political boundaries and the risks involved. Regarding the case for change, the MoD had failed to access the best talent in the interests of national security and reserve forces had reduced in number from 90k in 1990 to fewer than 34k in 2010; there was also evidence that elements were still haemorrhaging and officers in particular. They had tested the current British model against international comparators and found that the UK’s use of reserves was at odds with practice in other countries and that there had been no proper exploitation of their cost benefits when the regular element of the force structure was becoming increasingly unaffordable. They had set the requirement for the reserves in the context of national resilience, home security and a mechanism for the regeneration of mass. They had not yet formally assessed the utility of the reserves in the societal context, a context that fully exploits the volunteer ethos of the country, helps legitimise the need for armed forces and ultimately makes society a significant factor in any political decision to use armed force. That was the case for change, the question was what sort of change.
Change must be shaped by political direction and other factors and he had asked if there was a level of regular armed force, such as the size of the army, that the Government would not want to go below, and was there within this a readiness profile the armed forces should be capable of meeting and at what scale. Second, did the Government want a larger reserve capability to meet the unquantifiable demands of national resilience and homeland security, noting that they are not currently a part of Defence Planning Assumptions (DPAs) and nor are they resourced? Third, did the Government want to have a formalised ability to regenerate considerably larger armed forces, again noting that DPAs did not currently require this? Fourth, did the Government want to pay a premium for its reserve forces as part of the big society vision or was this met satisfactorily as a by-product of whatever the reserve force turned out to be. His final question was whether the Government was prepared to take risks in moving to a paradigm in which the reservist element of the armed forces was so large that it redefined the relationship between government, society and its reserves. This would be important as there were risks for operational readiness, legislative powers, employer support and volunteer commitment, and if the government wanted to change the paradigm it would need to help mitigate the risks.
VCDS said that it would be inappropriate to relate everything that had been said but the status quo was not a valid strategic option. Asking what the future development of the reserve forces might look like, he said the first heading was incremental betterment. Any future change would seek to improve on the current Reserves’ model through a range of initiatives. The adoption of what Defence called the Whole Force Concept, encompassing all of defence manpower, sought to optimise the most cost-efficient balance between regulars, reserves, contractors and civilians. This concept would need to be supported by a better optimised UK-basing structure; revised terms and conditions of service to allow greater flexibility of movement between regular, reserve and civilian employment; enhanced employment protection and more formal mechanisms to recognise employer support. The concept might also need underpinning by a single armed forces bill that would cover better mechanisms to attract and exploit the best specialist talent in society in support of the nation’s security and defence interests. These included upstream stabilisation tasks and prevention more generally, including cyber, which required a range of subject matter experts. It would also need improved pairing arrangements between regular and reserve units for training and operational maintenance; again, assisted by more optimal basing. So far they had not crossed any Rubicon and more significant change would build on some or all of the following: use of reserves forces as an integrated element of national resilience and homeland security; and finally a step change in the use of reserves beyond that of augmentation such that they would form an integrated element of operational formations, able to deploy at certainly up to sub-unit level.
Asking what the impact on elements of the reserve forces might be, he thought the development of the Naval reserve would most likely be incremental betterment, as the RN auxiliary already exists as a form of contractorised reserve. The TA was the area of greatest potential change; the regimental structure would remain the framework for delivering capability but a much improved offer or ‘proposition’ was needed, especially to retain and develop its officer structure. This structure would need better pairing or integration with the regular component, but operational roles first needed to be defined and then confirmed. These might range from the generation of individual augmentees, to operational sub-units, to being secondary responders en masse to a domestic national emergency. The development of Air reserves was also more likely to be incremental betterment, especially in the use of specialist augmentees and civilian pilots for the likes of strategic air transport and flying slower moving fixed wing ISTAR platforms. The cost benefits of maintaining fast jet formations in the Reserve, were less clear cut and were being evaluated. The Defence Medical Services were already in a position to sustain operations at scale that involved the mobilisation of significant numbers of reserves; they were beyond the paradigm and in many cases were best of class.
He said he would have to be a little bit opaque as to the PM’s reaction as it had yet to be formalised in a letter, but he had been intuitively taken by the use of reserves as a conduit for the better exploitation of specialist skills for national resilience against a domestic civil contingency and that this should be a factor in the size and disposition of reserves, given that the Japanese had just deployed 100k within 48 hours. He had readily understood that a better reserve proposition was required to cover training and command prospects and variety of roles and he recognised that improved pairing mechanisms were needed between regulars and reserves to assist operational integration and deployments up to sub-unit level. The PM had said there was a need to assess the costs of all this optimisation and betterment in order to inform the size of the resource challenge but he showed no ankle as to how the resource challenge might be met. VCDS concluded that as far as the way forward was concerned, the direction he had received would help inform an exciting agenda for Phase 2 of the study as they crystallised what it meant in terms of roles, force structure, the Proposition and potential costs. He hoped to conclude this stage by early June. He was happy to take questions.
Question 1. Rory Stewart MP had concerns about the Firm Base concept in Scotland. First, it seemed to be creating a problem of morale within TA units, who felt they were being used for welfare purposes when they had joined up to do more exciting things; and second, it did not seem to be adequately resourced. VCDS replied that in his view the business of national resilience argued for a reinvestment in regional basing, a footprint of reservists and for the retention of a regional command and control structure that could effect a speedy response as a second responder. The extent to which the Review could reverse the resourcing trend was still an open question, but he did not think it meant that this would be the only future for reserves, as he knew that the regional contingency reaction forces had not rung many reservists’ bells. The Duke of Westminster had said to him that he would like to have commanded a unit with variable roles, thus optimising the opportunities for individuals to commit time, some in high readiness for mobilisation, some perhaps ticking over in a domestic contingency commitment and some ticking over even less because of family or civilian career demands. The CO of the London Regiment had produced a useful input about the varying degree that an individual could commit to the Reserve over time that could probably be met if a unit had variable roles. Rory Stewart made another point on Firm Base, about officers being asked to spend a lot of time liaising with Council and NHS officials, to which VCDS responded that he would not invent a seductive answer because he recognised that this was not the reason people wanted to join. He thought the matter would be addressed in the work on the Proposition, because to him this was somewhat of an abuse of people’s reasons for volunteering.
Question 2. Madeleine Moon MP wanted to know if VCDS had looked at how such a civil reserve would sit alongside the civil reserve organisations already in place, such as the Coastguard, which had been used very effectively during the Gloucester floods. Where did all of this fit within local government structure to plan for, and control, a civil emergency? VCDS replied that for him the nexus was the Regional Brigade as it is the point of interface with the local civil emergency planning teams, and this was just increasing the potential for more military resources to put in support of civil contingency. It also argued for a reinvestment in the Brigade and the command and control structure that was, for example, called upon for foot and mouth, the floods, the fire strikes and similar events. The MoD was working on this with the Home Office and Baroness Neville Jones, although it had not been an outcome of the SDSR. The MoD wanted to argue for a more formal role in Military Aid to the Civil Contingency so as to give greater resilience. He re-iterated that for the Army, civil emergency planning happened at the local brigade level where it interfaced with regional civil emergency planning.
Question 3. Ian Liddell-Grainger MP thought that VCDS had talked about using formed units in the context of civil emergency but only up to sub-unit level on operations. He asked if MoD had looked at sending battalions as formed units to do the jobs that the Regulars currently did. VCDS provided clarification by saying that the level of MoD ambition was the operational employment of a TA company or equivalent. The debate was destabilised at the moment by Army concerns about the challenge posed by the current complex operating environment as witnessed in Afghanistan, where arguably the length of training required to get an individual reservist up to the required standard, followed by the period of deployment, might exceed the 12 months that employers and employees were currently happy with. The Australians would say this is garbage and that the quality of many of our reservists is such that the training timeline could be compressed. Also, we should not base the requirement on the contemporary operating environment in Helmand as there were a range of other operational employments, such as the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, UN Peacekeeping Operations, which would be well within the competence of a formed Territorial sub-unit. The employment of a major unit was a different level of challenge and for now the PM has signed up to the aspiration that command of a Territorial unit would have within it the proposition to train as a battalion to ensure that its sub-units were sufficiently capable. Resourcing this within the proposition would be significant; the MoD was just being asked to say what it thought was right and more would follow on the resource dimension.
Question 4. Sarah Newton MP supported the regional level reserve force and thought there would be huge benefits linking it with the cadets and giving them a career progression that would play an important role in the communities that she represented. Concerning civil resilience, she thought it would make it attractive to a lot of people to become a reservist. Because there were already many volunteers in rural parts of the country, such as firemen and coastguards, and quite a lot of uniformed civil resilience activity because of the sparseness of the population, progress needed to be sensitive and provide an opportunity for all of them to come together and work together. VCDS was not sure if the average citizen knew how small the regular armed forces were because they tended to see media headlines, e.g., for foot and mouth, and that the London Fire Brigade is larger than the Royal Marines and the Metropolitan Police Service larger than the Royal Navy and one would have to do something quite dynamic in the reservist area to generate mass. What the armed forces bring is disciplined command and control, which was put to excellent effect during the foot and mouth outbreak. He did, however, take the point that there were places in the scarcely populated regions where the capacity for volunteering had dried up.
Question 5. Jack Lopresti MP speaking from the experience of having recently been through basic TA Soldier Training and having been mobilised with 4 PARA as part of 3 Commando Brigade, said that the idea that none of them was ready to deploy as a sub-unit or unit was nonsense. He knew that VCDS knew all about mobilisation; that one had to be fit and already have skills and knowledge up to a reasonable standard just to get there; and that the training was very good at bringing out the best in people before they got to their unit. VCDS said he did not need to be converted and thought one of the advantages of a greater reserve balance, was the potential for the regular components to migrate to superlative marginality. They risked becoming so professionalised and exclusive that one ran the risk of losing the connection with what gifted reservists could deliver quite quickly.
Question 6. Dan Poulter MP particularly welcomed VCDS’ comments about the Reserve Medical Service and asked if he thought there would be a need for any change in legislation regarding the protection of employment and the amount of time that reservists can get off. He was conscious of the evidence of a young doctor who had said she had to use up her holiday time just to do basic pre-deployment training because she was deploying in a specialist role and needed some extra training beyond the basics. VCDS asked if she had been required to give time beyond the 12 month mobilisation period, to which Dan Poulter replied that she had had to use up her holiday entitlement from her PCT Trust and her personal leave entitlement from her civilian employer because she was going in a specialist clinical role. She needed to do some extra military medical training and if we were going to rely more and more on specialists in the TA then there would be military courses that they would need above and beyond the normal pre-deployment training and he was worried that we would not be able to protect them. VCDS responded that most of the work at the moment indicated that the 12 month maximum for mobilisation training, deployment and recovery was as much as even the most supportive employer was likely to agree to. If there were specific cases where it was not possible within this timeframe there might be a need to create some legislative instrument. He reiterated that this was unclear because MoD had yet to address the impact on Regular structures, which were not yet on the table, but if there was to be a change in the paradigm and one relied absolutely on the integral reservist component to be able to deploy at all, then Government would have to ameliorate the risk through better employment protection and support and, probably, legislation. This issue would be teased out over the next few months.
Question 7. Bob Stewart MP was worried that the whole exercise would provide the equivalent of a cheap regular, with for example, Jack saying yes he could do it, but could he actually drive a tank or man a gun like a regular in an armoured regiment? The implication was that the reservist would need to have the same training as regulars to be up to their standard, which would mean greater cost. If the country was prepared to pay more for the TA and less for the Regular Army, it could not have its cake and eat it – you could not have superbly trained reservist soldiers, sailors and airmen on the same budget and with the same training as existed today. He remained to be convinced that that the resources would be made available to deliver the first class reservists that could go into battle as part of a sub unit. VCDS responded that indeed there were ways of having one’s cake and eating it. The work done on the costs of reservists showed that they went from about one fifth up to a rough equivalent when they were mobilised for use. You can therefore hold a greater contingent capability against the defence budget and one that is only used at a cost to the contingency. You are not going to have the same ratio of mobilised reservists to overall running cost because at any given time, within a major unit of 500, or a company’s worth, you have the residual contingency, the ability to sustain, the ability to be a second responder in a domestic emergency. This is at one fifth of the cost and only during that concentrated period of training for that deployment does the cost near equivalence. Whether that can be effected at sub-unit level or purely at augmentation level related to the demands of the contemporary operating environment. Some units would be able to deploy quite happily, but might then be constrained in its task in theatre. Julian Brazier asked Bob Stewart if he could reorganise his diary to come to next Tuesday’s APG as he could then ask Dave McGinnis, who would be able to give some good examples. When they were having these arguments in America during the 1990s, they analysed what the reserves had done in Gulf War 1 and found that by far the highest scoring tank unit had been a company in a US Marine Reserves Tank Battalion, which took out more tanks than any British tank regiment. They had been at 90 days’ readiness but they deployed in 57 from the day they were called out.
Question 8. Chloe Smith MP, Norwich North, said the point has been made to her about contracts in the civilian world and perhaps VCDS would give his thoughts on contracts for the reservists that would help with planning and training. VCDS said he was unsighted if she was talking about a personal contract and thought it would be a shame if we had to make recourse to a personal contract with the individual. Maybe this would be needed in the case of a small number of specialisms, such as neurologists, who are at the expensive end of the medical profession and with whom one might need to reach a bespoke understanding about time away and that sort of thing. However, on a general basis one would hope that the routine legislation would cover the basic elements of the contract between reservists and the MoD.
Question 9. Desmond Swayne MP did not want such a contract and was wary of legislative protection that might make members of the TA unemployable. He was glad that VCDS wished to retain the aspiration for at least sub-unit level deployment as a formed unit, because without that you would not even get the augmentees. It was for these reasons officers and senior NCOs were haemorrhaging, because they were no longer part of an organisation able to do anything or provide a career structure for them and they were the people that recruited the augmentees.
Question 10. Mark Francois MP made a point about the public perception of reserve forces and thought there was tremendous support for ‘our boys’, but many of the public did not appreciate the contribution reserves make to current military operations and think it is mainly the Regulars. About 3-4% of those currently serving in the House of Commons had been in the Reserve Forces and he asked VCDS what more he could do as part of this review to promote reserves so that more people would appreciate how critically important they were. VCDS replied that at the moment politically we did not have a very good story to tell about how we looked after the reserves. One of the aims of the Review was to produce a really good story; we then needed a publicity campaign and a strategic narrative of betterment, but this was premature until we knew that the recommendations that would be made to the PM were accepted and resourced.
Question 11. Alun Cairns MP asked VCDS about the reservist footprint which was often the only link communities had with the armed forces. VCDS replied that as part of the PM’s direction had covered the business of territorialisation and domestic resilience, it guaranteed the sustainment of a dispersed footprint on a regional basis. However, he thought sense and affordability would not allow balkanisation within regionalisation, as the overhead of the reserves would start to become prohibitive. The force generation mechanism within a regional footprint would be part of Phase 2, in order to make certain that the overhead of sustaining a larger reserve was sensible as there was no open cheque book. What that would mean in terms of numbers he did not yet know; specialists would generate map coverage, but only so many were needed. There was the augmentation requirement, to complement the 5 multi-role brigades, which would also generate a small number. The unknown delta was the resilience footprint. Would it put the numbers above 30k, and at what point did one stop, because you could get to a point where you must have a scalable TA? He would come out with a few models for the PM, so the recommendations could be scalable.
Question 12. Alixe Buckerfield De la Roche asked VCDS to elaborate on the Whole Force concept, cyber and why he thought there might need to be a comprehensive armed forces bill. VCDS replied that the Whole Force concept was no more than an aid to understanding defence manpower, its civilians, contractors, regulars, reserves, and within these sponsored and full time reserves. It was not a zero sum game, and over time one should move towards the development of the optimal and most cost-effective division of labour that was not detrimental to the outputs that the country wanted from defence. For example as the Army recovered from Germany over the next 10 years, if this timescale was possible the armed forces would become wholly UK-based. He could foresee sponsored reserves delivered by contractors doing work in bases previously done by regulars, such as tank maintenance and other in-barracks services. This would marginally reduce the size of the regular force and reduce the base overhead. The concept was in the early stages of development; through his service life an individual could dip in and out, maybe starting as a regular, leaving and coming back as a reservist.
If one worked to a Whole Force concept there was no need for two separate armed forces bills, one for the reserves and one for the regulars. One would be better having a capping bill, if necessary with specialist annexes that covered the detail of some of the sub-elements of the Whole Force concept.
In many ways cyber was shorthand for saying more specialists were needed in various areas. The MoD did not have the lead; this was for Baroness Neville-Jones and the Home Office. In terms of cyber defence MoD would conform to national standards. If one wanted contingent plans for cyber offence that foresaw the offensive effect of exploiting cyber, one needed a number of different skill sets, some of which already existed, but not in great number. Defence might need to examine to what extent it might want to call on some of these specialisations, which would likely be vested in the reserve. Julian Brazier added that the TA had a state-of-the-art capability that had participated in some headline-grabbing crises over the last few years but could not publish their role by reason of secrecy.
Question 13. Kevan Jones MP said that having mentioned the footprint, one of the issues around the Review would be affordability in terms of the estate and had VCDS looked at the sharing of facilities between, for example, the RM and Navy, and was he ready for the fight he would have with people trying to protect buildings? As a minister, he had tried to close one or two and it had been extremely difficult. VCDS replied that it was likely there would be some grief and the tactical challenges of individual drill halls needed to subordinate to the bigger idea of a better supported reserve. There would be treasured halls in some towns that people would fight for, but as long as rationalisation was wholly logical on a regional basis and not detrimental to the generation of reservist capability he would have sense on his side, but the passion would be unavoidable. More sharing, including for Big Society, was possible, but the Rubik cube of an estate did not have a perfect side and if they got 80% right it would be a job well done.
Question 14. Chris Hopkins MP said that there was a non-conversation going on with the public about the capacity of the armed forces, how far they could reach and what they could do, because there was still a colonial view of the armed forces and a huge amount of education was needed. He thought some of it impacted on our political leaders and their ambition as to how far they could go and the forces could reach. He understood that the potential capacity to go into foreign countries or deal with the home base problems must impact on the debate and he asked if this was part of the discussion. VCDS replied ‘not directly’ and he had to separate his two roles; wearing his Vice-Chief hat he had at some stage to deliver a solution in the context of the SDSR and the 2020 vision. In the independent commission with Julian Brazier and Graeme Lamb he did not have to worry now about the resource dimension or that some of the tasks that they might like reservists to do were not stated in DPAs. He was allowed that freedom of manoeuvre, but at some stage this relatively exciting bubble of the Review would eventually have to re-dock with the SDSR vision. Chris Hopkins said that the reason he asked the question was because he got a sense that there was a difference between what the military perceived as their potential capacity and the ambitions of the politicians.
Question 15. James Arbuthnot MP said that his greatest concern about defence was that the country as a whole had lost any understanding or feeling for defence and one of the reasons was that weapons had become so powerful and the numbers in the armed forces so small that there was no connection with the general public. He asked VCDS whether tying reservist units into Super Garrisons and thereby reducing the public’s connection with the armed forces across the country was a factor that came into his considerations, because keeping the link between the people and the armed forces seemed to him to be absolutely essential. VCDS replied that it was absolutely a factor and there would be a RUSI conference on Monday when he wanted to address this factor as well as the international comparators and employee dimension. On the societal dimension, one requirement was for a wider footprint of reserves, as it were to familiarise wider society with the value and the reasons for having armed forces; the other was to make changing the political threshold for the employment of armed forces through having a greater reservist component impossible to do on a whim. The point made about Super Garrisons was a hugely good one. It was impossible to put into reverse the money spent on their establishment, but as the Army repatriated from Germany there would be two brigades to house in the UK and the debate was on as to where they should be located, their proximity to centres of population, the availability of affordable housing and jobs for spouses, what contractors could provide to support the bases and proximity to reservist units to facilitate twinning. It was back to a Rubik cube and using the estate that they had, but there would be some flexibility and it would not all be about Super Garrisons.
The bell then rang and MPs hastened to the chamber to vote.
Col (Retd.) Hugh Purcell OBE DL, Honorary Clerk to the APGRF&C.