Armed Forces Day came into existence in 2006 at a time when the reputation of the armed forces was at an all-time low, this by no means due to the actions of the service men and women going about their jobs, but the price paid for the political decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sole purpose of the day is to enable society to celebrate, and show their support for, the contribution of regular, reserve and veteran service personnel.
Much has changed in the intervening period since 2006. Withdrawal from Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014) has come alongside the reshaping of the armed forces through Army 2020 in light of Strategic Defence and Security Reviews. As part of this the 2011 paper “Future Reserves 2020” (FR20), outlined by the then Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, announced the increase in funding for the training of more Army Reservists with the objective of more frequently deploying entire Army Reserve units much like in the United States, Denmark and Norway. Under the reform plan, the total force of the British Army will be restructured so that, by 2020, there will be 120,000 soldiers, of which 84,000 will be Regulars and 35,000 Reservists (a ratio of 70/30). The Territorial Army was renamed under that plan, becoming the Army Reserve.
With this greater emphasis on growing the reserves comes an extra reputational building burden for the Government. Not only has there been a drive to attract more potential reservists but also to win over the employers and families of these civilians in full-time employment, who are professional part-time service personal as well. Enter Reserves Day, which it is it today, now in its second year and replacing ‘Uniform to Work Day’ which was previously linked to Armed Forces Day.
One can’t hide, as the previous paragraph alludes, from the fact that the reserves concept is still being worked-out. Whilst it is clear that there is a role for reservists how government engages in dialogue through policy and media with those serving, interested in joining as well as the societal support structure behind them has some way to go. Of course it isn’t easy in a society where people find it hard to relate to the lives of others, particularly across a civilian-military workplace divide, and where computer games offer instant gratification for many of the young; why would you join up when you can experience the excitement from home and why risk incurring the misconceptions of your employers?
This is clearly why recruitment hasn’t been as successful as the Government had initially hoped, despite marketing campaigns on radio and TV full of excitement and promises of ‘a better you’, The Daily Mail pointing out in one article that ISIS had recruited more people in the last year than the army. More is being done than ever to attract and retain reservists through pensions, paid leave, medical services, a tax-free performance bonus and continued service incentives. There are more discounts on goods and services as well as care and support offerings for those injured or transitioning from regular to reserve service (further financial incentives are offered to regular personnel transferring to the reserves) than ever before. However, in comparison with the United States, which has in excess of 800,000 reservists, recognition and reward in the UK as well as legal protections and anti-discrimination protections are far inferior.
Against the backdrop of decreased spending on the Armed Forces, reservists are cheaper to maintain than regulars, and a requirement for dynamic and adaptable skills that often can’t be trained from within, reservists are vital. There are also many benefits for employers whose staff receive leadership and teamwork training as well as the reservists themselves finding their civilian skills being called upon in situations that might not come naturally in their day-to-day employment.
The truth is that, despite the current nationalist post-Brexit fervour, the UK is not in a position where ‘it can go it alone’ in major military interventions. In reality we will nearly always operate in the internationalist space of NATO and coalitions. Humanitarian missions, like the Ebola Response to Sierra Leone in 2014/15 may well yield more for the UK in soft power trade and good faith returns than kinetic interventions. Perhaps then it is no coincidence that the current Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, has announced on Reserves Day that the UK is to step up its peacekeeping in Africa. It is in this climate that the specialist skills of reservists can deliver the most value for the country’s interests.