Humphrey is travelling again in a location where posting on blogger tends to have non western orientated formatting. This article will be reformatted on his return to the UK.
News today in the media that the Territorial Army (TA) is losing over 1000 personnel per year, at a time when it is supposed to be expanding to meet the Governments remit of having a large reserveforce to meet the Force 2020 structure. This is apparently seen as a disaster for the military,seemingly blows holes in current defence policy.
The reality though seems somewhat more mundane – turnover in the TA (and other reserve forces) has historically been relatively high (some reports placing it as high as 30%). As an organisation, the reserves fall into a very peculiar place when it comes to a recruitment proposition. They are asking someone to join the military, albeit on a part time basis, and be prepared to spend a significant proportion of their spare time working, and then on a regular basis be prepared to deploy on operations, putting their civilian lives on hold with all that that may entail.
When someone joins the regular Armed Forces, they do so in the knowledge that this will provide them with a career, full time employment and a support package which will pay their bills and produce a challenging, but well remunerated way of life.
In the reserve forces, individuals may join for a variety of reasons, which include the chance to be part of the military, to try a new hobby or to simply earn extra cash. Whatever the motivation, the authors personal experience is that there is a high retention rate through basic training as the individuals experience fun new activities for the first time, do something different and enjoy a well designed training programme which is challenging, but delivers a sense of purpose.
The problem is that after achieving the real satisfaction of passing basic training, the issue becomes one not of recruiting, but retaining. As people become more familiar with the reserve way of life, the regular weekends away often prove to be an issue – as the author can personally attest, it takes a lot of moral willpower on a Friday evening to drive to a training location for a weekends working. As time progresses the work will become more routine, and the challenge of learning something new is overtaken by the reality that like any job, some things are actually quite boring. Getting up early on the weekend, then going home tired and cold on Sunday evening ahead of a weeks work is sometimes fun, but often can sap the morale of even the keenest volunteer.
At the same time, external factors begin to play a part – the partner or spouse who was initially keen to see their loved one in uniform, or to see them out of the house, may begin to tire of their regular absences, and put pressure on them to call it a day. Also, as work goes on in the real world, it can often be increasingly difficult to sustain reservist commitment and work at the same time. Many companies do not offer special leave (either paid or unpaid) to Reservists, which means taking two weeks training will often eat into nearly half of someone’s annual leave allowance. Add this to the demands from home, and suddenly its no longer quite as appealing to be a reservist.
Finally, deploying on tour can paradoxically be a reason to no longer want to stay in. Discussions on
the Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) suggest that after a mobilisation, some units see wastage in excess of 50% of those personnel who deployed. This is for many reasons from the obvious – people saw too many difficulties in mobilising for career or family reasons and don’t want to go again, to the less obvious, such as their realising that the deployment was the high point of their time, and that anything after this would be a letdown.
So, the reality is that many reservists see pressures on themselves that regular personnel do not have, and perhaps sometimes struggle to understand. It is not surprising that there is a relatively high turnover of staff in the TA – perhaps the surprise is that it’s as low as it is.
The point that the media seem to have missed is that retention of the TA (and wider reserves) is well understood, and planned for. Historically no single plan since the cold war has envisaged the entire TA turning out en masse at full manpower for an operation. Even if the Cold War had gone hot, then most publications suggest that up to 25-30% of the manpower may not have turned up on the day, often for good reasons.
The Army 2020 structure may show a growth of 30,000 in the TA, but this does not mean that 30,000 TA will be ready to deploy immediately on operations, in the same way that there will not be 82,000 regular personnel ready to deploy. Rather it is a planning figure which allows the Army to plan on certain manpower requirements to be available at varying levels of readiness and sustainability and spread across a range of ranks.
The issue is to ensure that sufficient personnel are recruited and retained so that they can deliver in the numbers required. In recent years, the main driver for the TA in some areas has been provision of junior soldiers, such as Privates or Lance Corporals, with a much lower requirement for SNCOs and Officers. Its actually relatively easy to generate junior ranks in the reserves – there is a fairly high influx of recruits, and they will often want to go on tour. If say a unit had a requirement to deploy 50 privates and 10 Sgts, then if after a tour, 30% of the privates quit, then there would still be sufficient manpower for the medium term to generate the Sgts plot of the future.
The reality is that people leave the military at all levels and at different times. There is a much smaller requirement for more senior personnel, so even if people are leaving the TA at a junior rank, then its usually sufficient to ensure that replacements will arrive, and those that are left can take on the more senior roles. The challenge arises when the more experienced people are leaving in such numbers that they cannot be replaced – particularly in specialist areas like medicine or intelligence analysis, where a lot of professional training is required and you cannot just appoint someone in.
So, in reality, although the papers are making out that the military will suffer, in fact this sort of attrition has doubtless been planned for and factored in when making manpower assumptions. People often don’t stay very long in the reserve forces – indeed, a lot of people don’t stay very long in HM Forces full stop. The author has been told that the average length of service in the military is 6-7 years, and a quick look at the very useful DASA stats site shows that there is a high outflow from all three services, even in quiet years without redundancy rounds.
While there are always ways that retention can be improved, it may be worth pondering that if retention was too high, then there would be too many people in the system, with too few opportunities for promotion, and with increasingly little incentive to stay (and thus the retention cycle begins afresh!). The reality is that a turnover of personnel, to bring more junior people in at the bottom is an essential part of recruiting a military force, and to help ensure that the right number of people are available at the right time for promotion.
There are many challenges for the Reserves ahead, particularly as they transition into an employment model which will see far greater calls on their time, and this will require the willingness of both reservists and their employers to be a success. However, just because people are leaving the organisation as anticipated does not mean that the entire structure of Army 2020 is doomed!