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“Utrinque paratus” says the Paras motto. But but can the Army really be ready for anything in 2020?

2012 June 21

Public sentimentality over historic cap badges has, apparently, stayed the Government’s hand over plans to axe big-name regiments like the Black Watch in the forthcoming reorganisation of the British Army. But battalions within those regiments will go in what will be the Army’s biggest structural overhaul in half a century. It will leave us with fewer regular soldiers than at any time since the Boer War.

Public spending cuts are a driving force, of course. But military chiefs are also addressing the question of what kind of army Britain needs in the 21st century? The old certainties on that have gone. Technology, it had been thought, meant that it was possible to defeat an enemy from the air, with the minimum loss of life of our own troops, and without the need to look into the eyes of those we were killing. Peacekeeping would be an increased proportion of our infantry’s job. They would need training in a lighter more agile style of combat. Soldiers behind computers would need to experts in cyber war.

Two decades of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan have given the lie to the notion that the old expeditionary style of war is over, though those years have also reduced the appetite for similar adventures – something William Hague would do well to remember that before making unrealistic noises about “no options being ruled out” in Syria.

The threats of the future look many and varied. North Korea is on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. That, along with the rise of China to superpower status, could prompt the re-armament of Japan. Russia appears to be reverting to confrontation with the West. Then there is the global politicisation of Islam from South-West Asia to North Africa – running through a Middle East primed with the explosive combination of oil, religious extremism and deep-seated anti-Western resentment.

In between is a world of belligerent nationalism, disgruntled ethnicities, failed states, disenfranchisement with the global order and growing “asymmetric threats” from organized crime, warlords and international terrorism. Conflict is possible over everything from water and mass migration to interventions over gross violations of human rights.

Our Army therefore needs to be nimbler and more versatile. Certainly it will need the expertise to help build security in troubled nations. But it will also need skills more commonly found in civilian life, in science, IT and logistics. But, the military reformers have concluded, it will not be cost-effective for the Army to maintain, full-time, the entire range of niche cyber, medical, intelligence or other specialist capabilities it might need in emergencies. So the plan is to cut the number of regulars and increase the number of reservists.

There is a problem with this. A surgeon I know has just submitted her resignation to the Reserves because, over the past four years, she has spent more time in war zones than she has at her civilian hospital. It has taken a toll on her career but also on her family life and general psychological well-being. The new plans will exacerbate this, for the proposal is that reservist medics, cyber-geeks or logisticians will be called up for six to nine month spells, far longer than at present.

Many individual reservists, and their employers, are bound to resist this. The Army needs to rethink the notion of increasing integration between the army’s regular and reserve components. Increased reliance on part-timers, however dedicated, is neither fair nor effective. The way forward lies in an undoubtedly smaller core, but one which is better-paid, better-trained, better-equipped and better-supported by the Army in preparing for their after-Service lives.

The Church Times

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