Great Britain wants to make better use of civil reserves


GARY SULLIVAN is chairman of Wilson James, a security and logistics company. But when Covid-19 devastated Britain last year, he took off his suit, put on a uniform and helped build a hospital in a convention center in east London. In addition to his main job, Mr. Sullivan is also the commanding officer of the British Army’s Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps, a group of high-ranking executives who volunteer for the armed forces. Its intersection between civil and military worlds could be a model for the future.

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Last month the government released an independent review of military reservists conducted by Mark Lancaster, a Conservative colleague and former military secretary. His recommendations are the “greatest adjustment to reserves since 1914”.

The British Army Reserve has existed in one form or another for over a century. As a Territorial Army, the name used until 2014, its reputation was that of avid amateurs who played soldiers on the weekends. Reserves were warm bodies used to massage and sporadically exercise an army that had shrunk dramatically after the Cold War, but only used in extreme cases. In recent years the reservation has developed a “professional ethos,” says Patrick Bury of the University of Bath, and is losing its old (and unfair) reputation as a “drinking club”. Reserves made up 15% of the armed forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now they are supposed to play a larger and more routine role in military activities. One spur for change was the pandemic, in which the armed forces drove oxygen tanks, built hospitals and delivered vaccines, most recently to combat local outbreaks in the north of England. This reaction was only possible 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 on Toddbrook Reservoir in the Peak District in 2019, and the explosion in Beirut last summer.

The mobilization of civil expertise is nothing new. The Staff Corps was formed in 1865 to ensure that the privately owned railways would serve the state in wartime. Military doctors have long worked with the National Health Service to keep their skills updated. The renewed emphasis on reservists also results from a broader shift in the nature of warfare: away from labor and towards technology and information. During the Cold War, the state of the art was in defense laboratories. Today, many advanced military capabilities – cybersecurity, space, artificial intelligence, and robotics – reside largely in the private sector.

Meanwhile, a growing emphasis on propaganda and narrative battles lends itself to skills found in the creative industries. “If you’re looking for a good television cameraman to counter Russian media operations, you’d better be someone from the BBC Being a reservist rather than trying to get them into the army and then expecting them to keep their skill levels, “says Paul O’Neill, former Head of Human Strategy at the Department of Defense and now at the Royal United Services Institute. a think tank.

That is exactly what 77 Brigade did. The Army’s special unit for information operations – mainly psychological warfare – has more reservists than regulars. These include journalists, psychologists and executives from social media companies. Many have the opportunity to use skills like hacking in ways that would otherwise be illegal.

Attracting such talent requires greater flexibility than is common in the armed forces. Even now, cyber reserves that contribute to the new National Cyber ​​Force offensive do not have to meet 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 includes working two days a week as Brigadier General at the British Strategic Command, which coordinates among other things cyber and special forces. Such part-time engagement currently requires a special permit, but would be placed on a regular basis with the Bundeswehr Act presented in May. “Being a reservist fits in with the gig economy,” says Sullivan. “More and more people now have portfolio careers.”

Consideration is also given to allowing experienced civilians to move up into the higher ranks rather than working their way up. The ranking system itself may need to adjust as well. Mr. O’Neill gave the example of a hypothetical lawyer who “wants to run around Salisbury Plain as an infantry soldier”. He or she could be recruited as a sergeant, promoted to lieutenant colonel when the army needs legal expertise, and thrown back when the need is over.

That leaves even bigger questions about reserves Raison d’etre. The regular armed forces are now very lean by historical standards and should be reinforced in times of a major war. But using reserves for this would be difficult. Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think tank who once commanded a reserve-heavy brigade in Bosnia, points out that the army reserve is a microcosm of the regular armed forces – a little bit of everything – the navy and the air – Force equivalents focus on niche skills. They could not be called up as complete squadrons like the American Air National Guard.

However, raw numbers are also an issue. In March, as part of a radical defense review, the government said the regular army would shrink to 72,500 soldiers, the smallest in centuries. The review by Lord Lancaster not only provides for reservists who are more actively involved, but also a “largely dormant” pool of ex-regulars who could offer “excess capacity” in a crisis. Still, the government has given no indication that the reserves will grow. Patriotic hackers and bored lawyers won’t be enough to make up the numbers. â– 

This article appeared in the UK section of the print version under the heading “Not Your Father’s Army”

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