The British Army
A changing force
The British Army is taking on a radical new shape
LIEUTENANT Christopher Hill is one of the last of his kind. The 25-year-old chose to join his unit, the fourth battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, because he knew it was earmarked for one of the British Army's final deployments to Afghanistan. “I wanted to get an operational tour while I can,” he explains, standing by a six-wheeled Mastiff armoured vehicle.
The last British outstation in southern Afghanistan, an observation post called Sterga 2 above the Helmand river, closed in May. Camp Bastion is the only base left. The army will cease combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014—a timetable determined by Barack Obama, but which, as one soldier points out, happily provides a four-month buffer before the 2015 general election. As a 13-year campaign winds down, the army will change dramatically.
Next month Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Carter will take over as chief of the general staff. The army's new boss is also its architect: asked to find savings of 5.3 billion ($8.9 billion), he devised a plan to cut the number of full-time soldiers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2018. But some are sceptical. A report by Parliament's defence committee earlier this year doubted whether the plan will meet Britain's security needs.
According to a senior British officer in Afghanistan, the army at first wished to restructure the infantry by cutting two Scottish battalions. That suggestion caused a row and is no longer on the table. Instead some battalions will have fewer regular soldiers. During operations numbers will be boosted by paired reservist units providing up to one rifleman in three. Overall, across the army, reservist numbers will increase from 19,000 to 30,000.
Reservists can work well. Lieutenant Colonel Graham Johnson, commanding officer of a medical regiment in Afghanistan, said part-timers make up 10% of his unit. “The military offer a lot of leadership skills and development at the lower level,” he explains. “And we benefit from their clinical competence.” But with infantry the situation is trickier. There are too few reservists, and many are unable to drop their civilian jobs at short notice. Regular commanders calling on their reservists could receive fewer than they need.
The army has advertised heavily for reservists, and increased the bounties paid to regular soldiers leaving the army who join the part-timers. But Britain lacks the legal and cultural apparatus to sustain a large reserve. In America part-time soldiers who fail to show up face serious sanctions; employers keep reservists' jobs open. By contrast the British Territorial Army, recently renamed the “Army Reserve”, has been a more amateur affair, regarded by some as a drinking club. One London-based reservist, who has completed an Afghanistan tour, wryly said his bosses regard him as comparable to a maternity risk.
A recent survey showed that only 42% of regular soldiers who had worked with reservists saw them as professional. Even fewer thought they were well integrated. “The army know they have to be seen to make the arrangement with the reserves work, although privately they doubt that it will”, says Professor Michael Clarke, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank.
The reforms could also create fissures among full-time soldiers. Under the plans, the army will be split into “reactive” and “adaptive” forces. The reactive side's job is conventional fighting, though it will have fewer tanks than formerly. The adaptive force will sit at lower readiness. It will train foreign troops, something “the British military has done ever since the early days of empire”, says General Sir Peter Wall, the current chief of the general staff.
Because the reactive force will be first to deploy to a major crisis, the new system risks creating a two-tier army. The problem is potentially acute in the Royal Armoured Corps, operators of Britain's tanks. Regiments there will be permanently streamed to the reactive or adaptive forces, with fewer opportunities to cross-post soldiers than in larger infantry outfits with feet in both camps. Adding this fuel to the existing rivalries between regiments is a risk.
But the most obvious change to the armed forces is a straightforward one: Britain will probably not be engaged in a major foreign war in the near future. That may hamper recruiting. It will also divide those entitled to wear operational-services medals and those who are not. This is why officers are keen to get whatever residual action they can. “There were very competent guys who I went through training with who were just unfortunate, they didn't go to the right place at the right time and they didn't get an operational tour,” says Lieutenant Hill. Still, he knows his billet is more comfortable than his predecessors endured. He regrets the fact that, since he is based in Camp Bastion rather than an austere forward base, he can go to a shop and eat an ice cream.