Saturday, August 25, 2007

"The Insider"

Spurred on by a discussion on ARRSE, I broke my routine and watched Channel 4's "The Insider" last night. The programme had Colonel Bob Stewart opining on the TA (torygraph article & you may also be able to see it on "4 on Demand".)

Before I lament the programme - I don't really think that Col Stewart is a TA "Insider". A regular officer from 1969 to 1995 and a commentator since then. Certainly, especially from his time in Bosnia, he had TA soldiers working with and for him but that is like saying I am a Tesco's "Insider" because I shop there, or that as an (ex) Bank security and fraud person, I have anything "inside" to say about the way local branches are run - or, to stretch the point in an intentionally demeaning direction, that a criminal is a police "Insider". I know the good Colonel has plenty to say about the effectiveness of the TA from the point of view of a regular Battalion or Battle-Group commander but that is not the same thing. However, in mitigation, he did interview Richard Holmes, who made it all the way to Brigadier in the TA.

That said, this was not a recruiting video. A number of serious issues to do with the TA were addressed - funding, training opportunities and standards, operational employment of senior NCOs and officers. He also made, in fact laboured, the point about on deployment family services and aftercare. So lets look at these.

Funding: I strongly believe that the military is not properly funded to do the role they are being asked to undertake - which is two hot wars, both with larger than brigade deployed forces, fighting counter-insurgency wars. Therefore, cuts get made - normally in the easy things to cut (i.e. those that haven't got contracts with penalty clauses attached.) In the regular military, just as in the commercial world, the easy things to save money on are travel and training budgets - and, these get cut. In the reserves, where people don't cost you anything if they are not signed-on, you can also cut "man training days" - MTDs. And they do. This, however, is a "Brown's Britain" issue, not specifically a TA one. Large sums of money get spent, often off balance sheet, on major projects and it is the "death of a thousand cuts" for actual service delivery.

Training Opportunities: With the regular military units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, they need training areas, specialist courses and firing ranges. Many of which have been sold off or are operating at reduced tempo due to the "peace dividend", post Cold War. We currently have 8 regiment-sized units in Iraq (with the equivalent of at least another 2 or 3 being made up of detached company units) and 16 + lots in Afghanistan. With 2 rotations per year, we are therefore training up 30+ regimental units for combat operations. This takes a lot of time and effort and the TA do lose out.

Training Standards: Just to explain a bit here, the TA is officially split into two (in practice, three) - Regional TA, National TA and, this is my bit here, the medics (who are officially regional TA but, in practice fill the same role as national - there are just more units of them about.) (Ed note: forgot here about the "Sponsored TA" - so that is officially 3, realistically 4). To simplify, Regional TA provide units which are either part of the reserve battalions of regular regiments, or are complete reserve units in their own right - e.g. the 6th and 7th battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, or 36 Signal Regiment. Generally, when people from the Regular TA deploy, they do it as individual replacements - filling in for manning and welfare gaps in regular units (often affliated ones), although there has been considerable success deploying company sized composite units in Iraq and Bosnia. To be utterly honest, except for recently ex-Regulars, it is very difficult for soldiers in this type of unit to be at the same standards as their regular counterparts (though some do manage it, and manage exceptionally well).

National TA (and Sponsored TA) units and the medics, are specifically there to apply their civilian skills within the military environment. Usually because the Army cannot recruit, train or retain those skills (and, often, all three). All though they won't reach the same standards of military training as their counterparts in either regular service or regional TA (the commitment is considerably less than for regional TA - 19 days versus 27), that is not what they are there for.

Operational Employment: the roles generally available for Regional TA in theatre are for lower ranks. You'll have observed that the TA guys on the Warrior IFVs were Lance Corporals and Privates. The only higher rank interviewed was the young (I believe Infantry) Lieutenant, who was the hospital watchkeeper. An important role but not exactly boots on the ground war-fighting. A regular CO, quite reasonably, with a gap for a Sergeant is far more likely to give acting rank to a first-class Corporal he has known for years than to bring in a TA Sergeant who neither he, nor the platoon or squadron, know from Adam (or Eve, if your Regiment allows it).

Family Services: Yes, the lack of the local regiment structure and the much more normal dispersion of families across a wide recruiting area, means that the TA can't do much and the deployed regiment may be in completely the wrong part of the country (or even in Germany) to help. This is going to be difficult to fix, unless it is made the responsibility of the Regional Division and Brigade structure which will, of course, take money and commitment.

Medical & Aftercare: I think this was bad, as was shown in the programme, but has apparently now been fixed. TA soldiers are not entitled to Army medical services but, as far as my information goes, wounded soldiers are now retained mobilised until their treatment is complete. This, of course, requires the injury to be obvious (if not actually the reason for) the soldier arriving back in the UK. Not always going to be the case with PTSD, among others. Mind you, as Tony McNally found out, being a regular soldier didn't help him get treatment for his PTSD.

Overall, a fair-ish programme but not one that the TA or Army hierarchy are going to be happy with.

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