by Thomas Heyen-Dubé, second year War Studies student and Montreal native.
‘Transforming the military is not an event: it is an on going process’. The words of Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defence, could not be more accurate today. The vast majority of the NATO countries are not only re-organizing their military to respond to new threats and new budget cuts, they are actively changing the nature of their armed forces. Faced with new challenges, the governments are reducing the size of their regular forces, augmenting the strength and funding of their special forces and stepping up the training of their reservists. This might seems very trivial, but in reality, this is a deep shift in mentality and will have important consequences for the military in years to come.
The post-Afghanistan military establishments are now striving to be ‘lean and mean’, to use the expression of the Marines’ cadence. Their goal is not only to reduce their spending, by reducing the size of their regular forces, but also to create a more adaptable, rapidly deployable and highly trained force. For the British Army, the new program ‘Army 2020’ embodies these two seemingly contradictory goals.
The first step in this transformation is the drastic reduction of the regular force personnel from 102 000 servicemen in 2010 to 82 000 in 2020. This means that units throughout the country will either be amalgamated, as one can see in the Royal Armoured Corps, or simply disbanded, as it is the case in the Infantry. However, this decline in numbers does not, in theory, mean a decline in capabilities. The creation of the Rapid Reaction Force, a highly trained and extremely quick to deploy force made up of the best elements of the Army, coupled with new material acquisition in the form of improved armoured personnel carriers and light reconnaissance vehicles and new higher standards of training mean that the Armed Forces of the next decade will be ready to take on a vast array of challenges.
Secondly, this cutback in the regular force is also accompanied by a new bigger, better trained and equipped reserve force, now working very closely with their regular counterparts instead of being the stereotypical ‘weekend warrior’. The reserve will also change its focus to deploy on a more regular basis, alongside the regular force, be it in operations overseas or in training exercises. Therefore ‘the Reserves will be used routinely rather than in extremis’.
Thirdly, like many other NATO countries, the United Kingdom is now working to augment the size and budget of their Special Forces. Following the model of the United Sates, where the budget for the Special Forces is five times the amount it was 10 years ago, the Army is investing heavily in this particular branch, seeing the advantages of a more discrete and efficient option. Again, reservists are a valuable component of this upgraded service. Not only are they able to support regulars in the field, they will also be able to join the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and other commando units. This is a major shift, because in the past, reservists were relegated to support duties, in local units. They were not serving in the most prestigious and demanding service.
Is this old wine in a new bottle?
Backed up by glittering brochures and new advertisement, the Army 2020 plan might seem like the next great thing. Enhanced capabilities, reduced expenses leading to a bright and glorious tomorrow for the British Army. However, this is not the most likely outcome.
Crippled by the lacked of funding and will to commit new resources, the Army might turn out to be a ‘hollow force’ to use the words of General Nick Houghton. If on paper, reservists are considered as proficient as regulars in their ability to wage war the reality is other. The Reserve is mainly made up of older soldiers, trained to very low standards compared to the regulars and often not available for mobilisation making them very unsuitable candidates for the high-readiness units presented in the plan. Under manned, under-trained and under-equipped, the Reserve units across the country are not what one could describe as a élite force. Even the Army policies make it clear that reservists are not the equivalent of the their full-time comrade, transfer between those two elements being impossible without starting the training over and full-time posting for reservists in units of the regulars force being extremely rare. Therefore, the Reserve, even with the change of name and the new upgraded training plans, remains a Territorial Army, suited to respond to national emergencies at home and limited deployment roles abroad, but not the fast-paced, highly technological and extremely specialised warfare waged by the regulars.
If the Army 2020 plan is to achieve its ambitious goal, the UK should look to their NATO allies for inspiration in organizing their Army. The Canadian Army, even though it receives very austere funding from the federal government, is still able to take a leading role in NATO operations, as seen by their worldwide commitment in the past decade, due to their highly trained and proficient reservists. In Afghanistan, at any given time during the Canadian involvement, around 30% of the force was made up of reservists. Far from being ‘weekend warriors’ or the stereotype of ‘Dad’s Army’, they were trained from the beginning of their career to the same standards as the regulars, training alongside them in most of their postings. Furthermore, due to their equivalent training, reservists can serve full-time (a sizeable number of them do) and further increase their abilities and bring their reserve units to higher standards of effectiveness, thus lessening the gaps between the two components. Some of these policies applied to the British Army could not only lessen the gap between reserves and regular but also provide the UK with a cheaper and efficient alternative of dealing with situation at home and abroad.
The Frog and the Cow
After more than a decade of COIN operations, the post-Afghanistan era seems to be a time of soul-searching and gruelling redefinition for the British Army. With new tensions rising due to Russia’s aggressive policies and the disturbing expansion of the so-called Islamic State, the UK Armed Forces need to re-discover the ability to wage large-scale operations and conventional wars. The Army 2020 plan seems oddly out of place in this context. If the United Kingdom wants to fulfil their ambitions of ‘strong global role’ and keep ‘the most capable Army in its class’, then the reforms are far from a step in the right direction. Britain has always portrayed their Army as being able to ‘punch far above its weight’. It is now time to commit to this project or lose the empty rhetoric.
Heyman, Charles. The Armed Forces of the United Kingdom 2014-2015, R&F Defence Publications, London.
Army 2020: Transforming the British Army, July 2012. Ministry of Defence.
The Economist: June 20th-26th 2015. British Strategy: Doing less with less.
Foreign Affairs: November\December 2012. The Future of Special Operations: Robinson, Linda.
Foreign Affairs: Volume 81, no. 3. 2002. Transforming the Military: Rumsfeld, Donald.
Globe and Mail: October 26th, 2010. Replenishing Canada’s reserves: Pratt, David.
 Rumsfeld (2002), p.27