Britain wants to make better use of civilian reserves

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The army will have to be more flexible, allowing reservists to rank-hop—and grow beards

Britain | The Economist

GARY SULLIVAN is the chairman of Wilson James, a security and logistics company. But when covid-19 ravaged Britain last year he shed his suit, donned a uniform and helped build a hospital at a convention centre in east London. For in addition to his day job, Mr Sullivan is also the commanding officer of the British Army’s Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps, a group of senior executives who volunteer their time to the armed forces. His straddling of civilian and military worlds might be a model for the future.

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Last month the government published an independent review of military reservists conducted by Mark Lancaster, a Conservative peer and former minister for the armed forces. His recommendations, he says, would constitute the “biggest shake-up of reserves since 1914”.

Britain’s Army Reserve has existed in one form or another for over a century. As the Territorial Army, the name used until 2014, its reputation was that of enthusiastic amateurs playing soldiers at the weekends. Reserves were warm bodies used to bulk out an army that had shrunk dramatically after the cold war, training sporadically but to be used only in extremis. In recent years the reserve developed a more “professional ethos”, says Patrick Bury of the University of Bath, shedding its old (and unfair) reputation as a “drinking club”. Reserves made up 15% of the deployed force in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, the idea is that they should play a larger and more routine role in military activity. One spur for change has been the pandemic, during which the armed forces have driven oxygen tankers, built hospitals and delivered vaccines, most recently to combat local outbreaks in the north of England. That response was possible only because reservists brought skills from the civilian world. Mr Sullivan’s staff corps also responded to Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in 2017, the collapse of a dam at Toddbrook reservoir in the Peak District in 2019 and last summer’s explosion in Beirut.

Mobilising civilian expertise is nothing new. The staff corps was formed in 1865, to ensure privately owned railways would serve the state in wartime. Military doctors have long worked in the National Health Service to keep their skills sharp. But the renewed emphasis on reservists also follows from a broader shift in the nature of warfare: away from manpower and towards technology and information. During the cold war the cutting edge of technology lay in defence laboratories. Now many advanced military capabilities—cyber-security, space, artificial intelligence and robotics—lie largely in the private sector.

Meanwhile a growing emphasis on propaganda and battles of narrative lends itself to skills found in creative industries. “If you want a good television cameraperson for countering Russian media operations, you’re better off recruiting somebody from the BBC to be a reservist than trying to bring them into the army and then expecting them to maintain their skills level,” says Paul O’Neill, a former head of “people strategy” at the defence ministry and now at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank.

That is precisely what 77 Brigade has done. The army’s specialist unit for information operations—in large part, psychological warfare—it has more reservists than regulars. They include journalists, psychologists and executives at social-media firms. Many have the opportunity to use skills such as hacking in a way that would otherwise be illegal.

Attracting such talent will require greater flexibility than is usual in armed forces. Already cyber reserves, who contribute to the new offensive National Cyber Force, need not satisfy the same age and fitness standards that bind other reservists. Mr Sullivan’s terms of service allow him to keep a beard. Lord Lancaster’s own reserve career involves working two days a week as a brigadier at Britain’s Strategic Command, which co-ordinates cyber and special forces, among other cross-service capabilities. Such part-time involvement currently requires special permission, but the armed-forces bill introduced in May would put it on a regular footing. “Being a reservist fits with the gig economy,” notes Mr Sullivan. “More and more people now have portfolio careers.”

Also being considered is allowing experienced civilians to enter at higher ranks, rather than working their way up. The rank system itself might need to adapt, too. Mr O’Neill gives the example of a hypothetical barrister who wants to “run around Salisbury Plain as an infantry soldier”. He or she might be recruited as a junior officer, vaulted to lieutenant-colonel when the army needs legal expertise and dropped back when the need has passed.

That still leaves bigger questions about the reserves’ raison d’être. Regular forces are now very lean by historical standards, and would need augmenting in time of major war. But using reserves for this purpose would be tricky. Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think-tank, who once commanded a reserve-heavy brigade in Bosnia, points out that whereas the army reserve is a microcosm of the regular force—a little of everything—the navy and air-force equivalents focus on niche capabilities. They could not be called up as complete squadrons like America’s Air National Guard.

Raw numbers are also an issue, however. In March, as part of a radical defence review, the government said the regular army would shrink to 72,500 soldiers, its smallest in centuries. Lord Lancaster’s review envisions not just reservists who are more actively engaged, but alongside them a “largely dormant” pool of ex-regulars, who could provide “surge capacity” in a crisis. Yet the government has given no sign that reserves will grow. Patriotic hackers and bored lawyers will not be enough to make up the numbers.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Not your dad’s army"


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