Sarah Macken: At a time when we may need more Reservists, Labour's misunderstanding of the role of the Territorial Army is alarming
News that the Government is to reverse its decision to shut down Territorial Army training and weekend exercises, if true, is welcome. But the fact that this proposal was ever on the table shows an alarming misunderstanding of the TA’s role in current operations.
The decision to pull all TA training was rightly met with outrage and derision. And although it looks like the U-turn is more about saving face than protecting the lives of our soldiers, it is the right decision.
Those who will welcome this most are those Reservists committed to going on operations in Afghanistan next summer. Their confidence in the Government’s commitment to support them, however, must surely have taken a knock. These soldiers will be amongst roughly 1,200 reservists deployed annually to areas throughout the world.
TA soldiers come from all walks of life and provide support across many areas of military operations - from communication systems, to life saving treatment in the medical corp.
The role of the TA has been transformed in recent years and many Reservists have experience of active operations. If I was to point to just one example, and there are many, it would be the 90 Medic Reservists who were cheered in the streets of Exeter by hundreds of local people when they returned from a three month tour of duty in Afghanistan. This company were involved in staffing a newly-opened medical centre in Helmand province, which took the place of a tented field hospital that had been opened since 2003.
As trained volunteers, TA recruits can be called out in times of crisis, war, and for humanitarian, peacekeeping and disaster relief operations. But with the threat of closure of regular training facilities across the country, the ability of the TA to continue to provide the same level of support clearly comes into question. According to the MOD:
"anyone joining the TA can expect to be mobilised for operational service within five years, unless you join within 3 years of leaving the Regular Army when mobilisation can be deferred for up to 3 years."
To prepare for mobilisation, essential training is done at weekends, when soldiers leave their day jobs behind, put on their uniform and take part in exercises. It is this training that the Government was proposing to slash, despite the fact that this regular pattern of weekend activity builds up experience and confidence in reacting to unpredictable environments. Along with a two-week annual course, this is the only time a Reservist can train for action.
There were of course reassuring messages about pre-deployment training, which takes place immediately before operations overseas. But this course is designed to refresh and build upon the extensive training which should have already taken place. It is no substitute for weekly exercises where field experience becomes embedded and the ability to make quick decisions in potentially life threatening situations ingrained. Regular training boosts confidence and saves lives.
The nature of asymmetric warfare in places like Afghanistan means that battles aren’t only fought on the front line. Any soldier in the field may have to use their weapon to defend themselves. They and their colleagues need to be absolutely confident that they will be able to do this without hesitation. If the closures go ahead, when the deployment period comes around next summer, many Reservists won’t have put a uniform on for six months.
No one can deny that budgets are tight but to shut down the TA is without question the wrong decision. It will unnerve those who are prepared to go into the field and puts those young men and women at unnecessary risk.
The TA is obviously seen as an easy target within some quarters. The Conservative front bench has done a good job of ensuring that this decision is exposed and reconsidered.
A cautious estimate predicted that the TA would lose 10% of its force through this move. But those who know the TA well, know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The damage will be far greater to both morale suffering and those who were previously committed finding something else to do with their time, unlikely ever to return.
With the intensity of current operations already putting so much pressure on UK Armed Forces, it is possible that more may be needed of our Reservists. At the very least this is an option that needs to be kept open. To inflict such damage at this time would leave our Armed Forces further exposed with no back up plan.