There has been much chuntering in the UK media this morning over the the announcement that the Army Reserve is planning to raise the age limit for recruiting ex regular soldiers from 45 to 52 and for specialist officers (like medics and linguists) to 50. There’s a good example here.
Personally, I can’t see the problem. The age limit is being changed but the entry standards are not: 50-52 year olds will still have to meet all the other requirements for entry and if they don’t, they won’t be allowed to join. The anonymous army reservist who told the Telegraph that the Army Reserve will ‘take anyone with a pulse’ is wrong. I happen to know this because, in my military role (as a 50 year old army reservist), I’m directly involved in the selection of potential officers for both the Regular Army and Army Reserve and standards have not changed. I agree with Julian Brazier MP, Minister for the Reserves: casting the net a bit wider is simply a more flexible and intelligent approach to take in a difficult recruiting environment.
A lot of the angst stems from a fundamental misconception of the principles of the current programme of Army reform. The intention is not to recruit reservists as ‘one-for-one’ replacements for regular personnel but to create a more streamlined regular force with a wider reserve which can be utilised as needed to supplement the Regular Army. It really goes back to the principles of Haldane. Without a significant ‘existential’ threat, and notwithstanding the activities of Putin’s Russia we don’t have one, we do not need a large regular army. The pre-1914 regular army was of the same order of magnitude as the modern regular army but was responsible for garrisoning an Empire covering nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface and we managed OK back then. If a serious threat does arise from Russia or elsewhere, the Army Reserve can be the basis of regeneration for larger regular forces but we are a long way away from needing that.
The key to making the reformed Army work will be political will. Politicians need to develop the cojones to mobilise and deploy reserves in good time to get them trained and ready for future requirements, a lesson we ought to have learned from the fiasco of 2003. The US Army doesn’t have a problem mobilising the National Guard and our politicians should learn from them.
What we seem to have lost as a society is the idea that membership of the Reserves brings with it a social good. In many ways, the Territorial soldiers of 1950 up into the 1980s were the successors to the ‘Pals’ of the First World War. I went on Exercise Lionheart in 1984 (I was a university student and a member of the OTC back then) – a huge exercise in Germany involving many thousands of TA soldiers – and was attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Volunteers. They had whole sub-units comprising workers from Rowntrees in York, the ‘Northallerton Slaughterhouse Platoon’ and so on. The Commanding Officer was Headmaster of a local primary school. The old TA was a part of the community and it generated its own recruits from within that community. It was what they did because they thought it was right to do so.
The difficulties we are facing in recruiting for the Army Reserve now come, at least in part, because we have lost that link with local communities. Since the end of the Cold War, the TA has been repeatedly cut, reorganised and centralised: many small to medium sized towns have lost their TA Drill Halls and reservists often have to travel forty or fifty miles to get to their ‘Army Reserve Centre’, usually after a hard day’s work, and that is a disincentive to joining in itself. It isn’t the fault of the current government or Army leadership but it will take a while to reverse the trend and if that means we should take a look at a few fit and motivated fifty year-olds, well, great, bring ’em on.