2010/12/06 - Armed Forces 2020: Reserves in Transformation Conference

Speech delivered by Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans at the Royal United Services Institute, London on Monday 6 December 2010.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Andrew Robathan

Thank you Michael [Professor Clark, Director, RUSI] for that introduction, and for asking me to open today’s conference on the future of our Reserve forces.

At the start of June, I gave two speeches to RUSI in the space of the week.

How long ago that seems:

Nick Clegg adorned every student’s wall;

This on the record so sorry boss: David Cameron was popular with Harrier pilots;

And Ed Miliband was looking forward to Christmas with his brother…

Some things stay the same, however - always a pleasure to be here at RUSI.

Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning.

When we published the Strategic Defence and Security Review just over a month ago, the Prime Minister commissioned a six-month review of the Reserve Forces.

We’re calling it the Future Reserves Study 2020, or FR20 for short.

It is chaired by the Vice Chief, General Sir Nick Houghton.

And supported by my friend and colleague, Julian Brazier, MP, who is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Reserves and Cadets, and was a TA officer for 13 years; and by Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb - a distinguished career soldier, with whom I was a Troop Commander nearly 30 years ago.

And I am delighted that subject matter experts drawn from across the Defence community have also agreed to support the Study.

We could not be in better hands.

Obviously, there’s a limit to what I can say about FR20 without pre-empting its work.

But I want to set the scene for today’s conference by explaining the SDSR context in which FR20 will operate; and the principles that will guide us.

The past few months have been unsettling for all of us in Defence, because we knew that change would come.

The first fundamental re-think in 12 years had to acknowledge:

  • that we are in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in a generation
  • that we inherited a national debt that was growing at a rate that could fund three Type 45 destroyers per week
  • that we also inherited some restrictive but binding, contractual arrangements
  • that security and defence are indivisible these days
  • and that we needed to increase investment in certain priority areas such as cyber security

On top of this, we had to reach our conclusions while our Armed Forces are fighting hard in Afghanistan.

In this context, the fact that the Defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction than many other government departments shows the priority across Government that we attach to national security.

The SDSR protects our mission in Afghanistan and provides a template for our future Defence posture and capabilities, but there is still a great deal of work to be done before the detailed picture of what we call our Future Force 2020 emerges.

It includes this fundamental review of the Reserve Forces’ role and structure.

When I spoke here in June, I summed up our approach to the SDSR in three words: relevance, realism, and responsibility.

We will also apply these principles in FR20.

First - Relevance.

The Strategic Review of Reserves 2009, led by Major General Nicholas Cottam, focused largely on improvement to existing roles and structures.

It was a valuable piece of work.

Yet the SDSR was clear.

Our posture and capabilities must be relevant to the challenges we will face in 2020 and beyond.

FR20 will build on the proud history and traditions of the Reserves, and the vast operational experience many of them have gained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But its overriding task is to ensure that the Reserves fulfil a meaningful operational role within our Future Force 2020, and beyond.

To do that, FR20 will explore the role of the Reserves as part of the Whole Force Concept - looking not just at the Regular/Reservist balance, but full gamut of non-Regular manpower, including the roles of contractors and civilians.

The second principle is Realism.

Affordability will always be a constant pressure on Defence.

So this Study must be anchored in the art of the possible.

Equally, we must challenge the view that Reserves are somehow seen as ‘Defence on the Cheap’.

They are not.

They are part of the inherent structure of Defence.

And employers who release Reservists for duty get an excellent return on their investment.

Estate issues will also be a key area of FR20, because as you will know, the volunteer estate was already lagging behind structural changes since the last Defence Review in 1998, and needs to be realigned with Future Force 2020.

Although no decisions have been taken about precisely how the volunteer estate will change, it is likely that the total number of sites will reduce, but will be more suitable for the 21st century tasks required.

The infrastructure that remains must enable, not constrain, the organisation it is supporting.

The third principle is responsibility.

Serving in the Reserves must remain attractive, relevant, and beneficial.

And we must ensure that they are looked after properly during and after service.

We have another responsibility: to tell the public about the magnificent contribution our Reservists are making - month in, month out; year in, year out.

In the 1980s, when Only Fools and Horses was the most popular TV show, the nation instinctively laughed when Marlene told Del Boy that she wasn’t pregnant because: “Boycie fires more blanks than a Territorial!”

We laughed because Reserves were seen as the modern day equivalent of Dad’s Army: admirable in many ways, but perhaps taken more seriously by themselves than the British public or their Regular counterparts.

In reality, time after time our Reserves have come to Britain’s aid - supporting the Regulars.

Military chiefs know that Reservists contribute a huge range of skills and capability to the Whole Force.

They know how dependent operations in Afghanistan are on Reservists - particularly the specialists.

And to the Regulars’ credit, the Reservists I’ve spoken to say how well they’ve been looked after and integrated.

Let me be clear - the Reserves remain integral to the future of Britain’s Defence.

Throughout this process, we will seek ideas from across the Services - Regulars and Reservists - and from close friends and allies, think tanks, and international organisations.

We will consult through direct engagement, seminars, presentations, and focus groups.

We will look at international models, noting the cultural context, and draw any appropriate lessons.

And we will never forget the important place that our Reserves have in society.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have long admired Dr. Johnson’s observation that “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea” - and I of course extend that to airmen.

But it’s often forgotten that, in both World Wars, it was the Reserves who filled the gap and saved the day after the Regulars were hit hard in early battles.

They’re on the frontline again, in Afghanistan.

They are not the ‘weekend warriors’ of popular myth.

It takes a special kind of person to volunteer to serve in the Reserves - balancing the demands of 21st century civilian life with the demands of 21st century warfare.

They bring incredible skills, experience, and capabilities to the Defence of the Realm.

And they do so willingly.

We must maximise their talents in a structure that serves the nation as well as our Reservists have always done.

Today’s event is a chance to be bold and innovative, to challenge assumptions, and to think at a strategic level.

I look forward to hearing your views - now and in the months ahead.

Published 6 December 2010