Written by Adrian Hill
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This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit. We republish it with their kind permission.
You can read Part I here.
Selection and Training
Ideally AVR recruit soldiers ought to complete the same basic training as regulars before acceptance by their voluntary reserve unit. Young people employed by business and industry who are keen to serve part-time, moreover willing to reach that professional level of training and fitness, need the government to make it contractually and financially possible. To give an idea of what’s involved at present AVR candidates must complete a twelve day infantry course before they may volunteer for airborne forces selection. During a period of twelve weeks they next must spend six weekends bringing their fitness and stamina up to the level required for selection tests that take place over four days. Compare this with regular army volunteers who spend six weeks completing basic training, another eight weeks preparing for selection tests that last a further week. Regulars are fitter and better prepared so the reserve volunteers need much more determination to pass selection. Those who are successful go on to parachute training – three weeks for a regular, two weeks for a reservist. As one can see, our volunteer reservists must do a great amount of preparatory fitness training – far more than any regular recruit does in their own time – before they begin six weekends of fitness training. I confess to avoiding such obvious clashes of interest – I volunteered while still a teenager at school though took the precaution of giving my occupation as student in case I was sent home! As a regular young officer in the Royal Engineers I spent a great deal of my spare time with the Army Physical Training Corps instructors playing basket ball and circuit training with weights – those were the days, I really was super fit!
Called up for active service, AVR formations still cost less than regulars. When not on operational tours, however, they cost only the sums required for a volunteer reserve formation – much less than regular soldiers – for they do not require housing and feeding, nor do their dependents, nor need MOD to provide schools for their offspring. An operational tour finished, AVR soldiers return to their homes, families, jobs and contribute to the nation’s wealth. The present AVR is 33,000 strong, its budget £ 350 millions a year. Leaving aside equipment, an AVR with a strength of 100,000 would require a budget of roughly £ 1 billion a year and one 200,000 strong, at least double that sum. As our target I think a professional core around 60,000 strong backed by an AVR around 100,000 strong is the attainable first stage zone we should be looking towards. At least that would bring us close to Liddell-Hart’s 165,000 strong army fielding six-and-a-half old style divisions re-organised as a dozen smaller strategically and tactically mobile ones.
Before this suggestion is ridiculed by armchair generals let me remind that two armies still employ this system with conscripts. I’ve had a bit to do with both. One fields nine strong brigades, each of eight infantry and armoured units of battalion size with reconnaissance, supporting artillery, engineers, signals and logistics and has far more tanks in working order than the German Army just up the road. The other fields no less than twenty-four armoured brigades, ten infantry brigades and two parachute brigades organised in over a dozen divisions. The first has not fought a war for more than 180 years but manages to keep its 200,000 troops fully trained with 4,000 regular officers and NCOs as an instructor corps. The second has fought three major wars and although vastly outnumbered by its opponents, never suffered a defeat. They have populations of 8 millions and 9 millions respectively. The first has a GDP almost double the second’s. They are Switzerland and Israel.
Volunteer reservists bring more than just themselves. They bring an attitude, an approach when tackling challenges and tasks. They bring their knowledge, experience and imagination. Suppose the retired doctors and hospital staff had been invited to organise themselves as a reserve reinforcement of the NHS. Would they have sent each other fifty question forms? No. Would they have created a mammoth bureaucracy? No. Would they have tackled the task centrally? No. Would they would have worked locally – because they all know each other and have worked together for years. Yes. Would they would asked the local NHS surgeries and hospitals how they could help. Yes. There might have been some form of national council but only so nobody doubled the effort and squared the error, to quote a late friend from Vietnam days, Sir Robert Thompson of Malaya fame.
Switching from all regulars to many more AVR formations requires a phased programme over several years. Changes in the Law will be needed but much has been done already because of the need for comparatively small numbers of AVR soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reduction in the regular pay roll would allow the Army once more to create large combat formations while affording a better funded equipment programme.
Such an expansion of combat and support formations would allow the Army to also restore lost capabilities. For a start corps and divisional headquarters should be restored and thereby the ability to mount large scale operations. The present six divisions on the order of battle would become real formations rather than administration headquarters bearing famous numbers and names. Major armoured formations of brigade size could once again join the battle line and preserve a hard won expertise. Common sense suggests that apart from its tank crews and helicopter air and ground crews, our new army should field largely AVR formations. Professional officers and soldiers at last would benefit from a proper career structure – at present we are close to melt down in all three armed services – and consequently far fewer experienced middle rank professional officers and NCOs would leave the colours. Nor would their families suffer repeated separations during far off and all too frequent operational tours.
An early priority and bonus is releasing the 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade from line duties and holding them as strategic and tactical reserves. Elite formations are loathed and envied by the rest of the Army. Generals complain how they grab the best officers and NCOs although invariably think of them first when despatching troops for the tougher jobs such as taming Helmand. That nearly always happens but it’s not always the way to employ such troops. Helmand probably needed two brigades plus the Airborne or the Commando Brigade as the original strike force and then reserve – commanded by a divisional headquarters. This force, of course, would have required many more helicopters; fortunately the latter arrived with a US Marine Corps brigade. Afghanistan operations at their peak level required three large brigades – one fighting, one training, one resting – for a single brigade in the combat zone. The training brigade would need to work up full time for three or four months so an AVR solution would provide three strong brigades for the cost of one-and-a-half professional brigades. In other words half price. Moreover, increased manpower allows a shift to much stronger battalions, thus a further move towards small divisions, formations capable of developing more than a single manoeuvre at a time.
Small divisions allow us to design formations around the operational task. For planning I think we should allow that apart from a headquarters such divisions would include a reconnaissance regiment, and depending on the operational task, at least four or five combat units – meaning armoured regiments or infantry battalions. The traditional ratio has merit – one armoured unit to four infantry units or vice versa. Basil Liddell-Hart was a protagonist of the thumb and fingers system – namely that an infantry battalion resembled the human hand, the support weapons company provides the thumb for the rifle companies’ four fingers. Likewise a brigade’s four infantry battalions were the fingers for the armoured regiment thumb. This argument was tested by the US Army many years ago with a Pentomic division where all units were broken down into five manoeuvre parts and formed into a small division of five battle groups. Later BAOR led by that brilliant mind, Frank Kitson, adopted a similar concept for the armoured division during the 1980s. Eventually conservatism won with a reversion to evenly hedged bets but modern communications make the five concept worth another look. Perhaps combinations of six or seven or eight manoeuvre units are easier to command because five units demands the most mental agility from the division commander?!
[To be continued with Part III tomorrow]