Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.
Much of the public discussion around the Integrated Review of security and defence is focused on one issue – the size of the Army. Here on ConHome, Allan Mallinson recently asked a critical question: What is the Army for? It’s a good question – for too long we have been shaping our forces around “defence planning assumptions”, despite the fact that many of our wars and campaigns have been wholly unexpected; the First World War, the Falklands War and 9/11’s triggering of the Afghan campaign are examples. While the purpose of the Royal Navy and RAF are obvious, with Russian incursions into our air space and territorial waters and Chinese threats to our shipping routes, the Army is more like an insurance policy: there for when you need it.
Richard Haldane was the last minister to ask the fundamental question. Field Marshal Haig – not a man known for humility – wrote in 1918, six years after Haldane’s tenure ended:
‘… the greatest Secretary for War England has ever had. In grateful remembrance of [Haldane’s] successful efforts in organising the Military forces for War on the Continent…’
Haldane believed that Britain, with her commitment to a strong Navy, could never afford a peacetime Regular Army large enough to be sustainable in a major war. So, first, he honed a highly professional regular expeditionary force as a gallant vanguard. Then, he brought together the various reserve elements which Field Marshal Wolseley had built up (and drawn on in the Boer War) into a Territorial Force twice the size of the Regular Army. This ‘Second Line’ would be a vehicle to mobilise the nation.
That Second Line delivered surprisingly fast. Sir John French, our first commander in France, commented that:
‘“Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.”
Haldane’s vision extended further. Alongside the Territorial Force, he developed OTCs and cadet forces in universities, schools and communities, all positioning the Army closer to the wider public. Hitherto, cultural isolation had encouraged notoriously little public support for soldiers. Unlike the Navy, with a merchant marine (then) visible in ports in most of our great cities, the Army badly needed citizen advocates.
In the Second World War, Territorial units fought in every theatre. Some of our most innovative leaders, from Bill Slim (Birmingham OTC) to David Stirling (pre-war Guards reservist), came through “Haldane” routes rather than regular officer training.
Today this is the model across the English-speaking world. The National Guard and USAR – America’s twin volunteer reserve forces – together number the same as her Active Army. The Canadians and Australians also have a higher proportion of volunteer reserve units in their armies than we do. In autumn 2002, one fifth of our forces in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan were – simultaneously – from our small reserves. The Americans used much larger proportions.
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Army was well over a million – today it is under 250,000, but Russia can still mobilise an enormous army. One Russian soldier captured by the Ukrainians was a tractor driver from Siberia in his day job.
The Regular Army needs high professional standards (which it has), good quality training (currently hampered by Covid), modern equipment including digitisation (far more to do), decent conditions of service (housing is the Achilles’ heel) and a command structure able to operate at levels above its actual strength. We have just two divisions, but we need to think and plan for corps and armies, in war. They won’t, mostly, be regulars.
Some say what is needed is technology rather than mass, but digitisation is far ahead in the civilian world. It is no accident that Defence’s best cyber defence unit – as measured in the top US competition – is an Army Reserve unit. More broadly, mass will continue to be critical in the messy business of land warfare. The concrete urban sprawl which covers so many of the world’s trouble spots can suck up brigades to the acre, as recently seen in Mosul. Our present structure, 80,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists, is small.
The good news is that the Army has made progress in integrating reserves. A philosophy of backfilling regular units, rather than using formed bodies which build leaders and comradeship, had wrecked the Territorial Army by 2010. The smallest ever reserve officer intake to Sandhurst dwindled to just seven cadets. Last summer all 100-odd places were filled, with more turned away.
Capability is rebuilding too. Reserve battalions have started covering the Cyprus UN commitment again, a reserve light recce squadron is currently patrolling the Russian border in Estonia and, nationwide, reserves have been visible manning Covid testing stations.
At a time when some are questioning our ability to operate armour affordably and at scale, the one reserve armoured regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry has progressed from backfilling individual crew members for regular regiments to exercising regularly at squadron level. The Army Reserve remains exceedingly small, as a basis for regeneration, but the direction of travel is right.
The other two services have a long way to go. Unlike the Americans and Israelis, the RAF still discards its expensively trained pilots (£13 million for a fast jet) when they finish full-time service. Fixed wing transport apart, it has no flying reserves. The opportunity to run-on Tornados in reserve formations was lost. There is hope, however, as the RAF Board have appointed their first reservist – with a successful military and civilian career – to join them.
The picture in the Naval Service is mixed. The Navy has a highly cost-effective Reserve Flying Branch – manned by ex-regulars. In contrast, the Royal Marines Reserves are expensive (e.g. regular Lieutenant Colonels commanding company-sized reserve units), unscalable because they have almost no young officers – instead being run by a generous scale of costly regular permanent staff – and are now hamstrung by slashed training budgets.
One development would have Haldane turning in his grave. The property and advocacy for the reserves and the management of the cadet forces are handled by an independent set of regional institutions called Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations (County Associations, when Haldane established them). These attract high grade people onto their councils who serve unpaid; one regional chairman, for example, is both former chief executive of a major power company and a former reserve major general, another owns his own 500-person business. The small, locally embedded, staffs they employ are far more efficient than the wretched organisations who ‘manage’ MoD’s estate.
In a fit of institutional hysteria, MoD is seeking to turn these RFCAs into a conventional quango – the first shots were fired against this in an excellent House of Lords debate. This idea should die.
That great historian and Territorial officer, Richard Holmes, used to say that anyone who designs reserves around defence planning assumptions has forgotten what a reserve is for. We need to extend that view to the Army as a whole, and Haldane’s approach remains the best: a high quality regular leading edge, with reserves providing both depth and integration with the nation as a whole.