Belinda Brown: Part-time soldiering and feminisation weaken our army

The army is undergoing a radical overhaul, “Army 2020” is the transformational aim.  Forced, I suspect by budgetary constraints, they are reducing the size of the regular army by 20,000 and in its place doubling  - to 30,000 the size of the reserves.  The army has in recent years been somewhat neglectful of the Territorials and recruitment has suffered so this will be addressed  as they  build up their newly named ‘adaptable’  as opposed to ‘reaction’ or regular  force.  The impact of military service on family life has been a key issue for staff retention so the army is adapting to the demands of contemporary British society and increasing levels of flexible employment. This, I would suggest, needs to be managed very sensitively otherwise it could deal a life blow to operational effectiveness and undermine the British Army as a global force.

Underlying this decision  is an unwavering faith in the productivity of flexible employment which has in fact been very difficult to prove. While there may be evidence that it increases staff retention there is little  return on investment analysis because it has been so difficult to count the costs. To the extent that companies have  adopted  these policies – this is a result of strong government pressure, suggesting they  would have  been unlikely to do so if it were only market forces at work.

While these flexible strategies may have worked well for certain types of employer they could be  diametrically opposed to the ethos of the army. Flexible employment is about quality of life, pursuit of personal  goals, putting oneself or one’s family first. The ultimate goal of the army is to maximise ‘operational effectiveness’ and this explicitly requires limitations on individual freedom, subordinating one’s interests to those of the unit. Ultimately, it is not possible to reconcile individual or family interests with the possibility of having to lay down one’s life.

Underlying the move towards flexible employment is the belief that encouraging women to join the army is the best way to address the challenges of recruitment – however, this policy could seriously backfire. For men, doing a job is less about achieving status and self-fulfilment – although of course these are important. Rather, I suspect that doing a job for which you are needed and uniquely well suited plays more of a role.

As women enter the army in increasing numbers the ethos of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment is likely to be diluted on the altar of flexible employment and serving in the army will become a job like any other. If the army no longer makes special demands of men as men, it will lose its attraction for them and, as has happened in the Anglican priesthood with the introduction of women priests, the numbers of applications from men will inevitably go down.

One of the main aims of the flexible strategy is to increase family stability and here too the law of unintended consequences needs to be factored in. While in the past army wives at least had the security of knowing that when their soldier went on tour he was in an all-male environment, as units become increasingly mixed, even this small security will fade. This could threaten family stability and the enormous dependency which the army has on military wives’ support.

A key strategy of Army 2020 is integration between the reserves or ‘adaptable’ forces and the regulars or ‘reaction’ forces. This will happen through a system of  ‘pairing’ where the units will train together and that is how they will be deployed.  While these two forces will be regarded as professional equals, it seems likely that the reserves will have a greater predominance of women and flexible employment will have much more of a role. Differences in use of flexible employment can breed resentment  in regular businesses  - it is going to require very skilful management to ensure that its  application  in this context  neither erodes army values nor, more importantly,  the social cohesion that is so fundamental to the operational effectiveness of the unit as a whole.

There will be a reduction in the army’s capacity for deterrence and defence which is deeply regrettable. However, opportunities also abound. The army is keen to develop overseas engagement and through this head off conflicts before they arise.  It plans  to strengthen homeland resilience although this is particularly necessary partly, I would suggest, because of its weakness abroad.  The reserves will be deeply involved in all of these activities and this provides hugely interesting opportunities for civilians, especially those with ethnic minority backgrounds if they would like to get involved.

At the same time the army will have a higher profile in society as it comes to depend more on reserves and processes of recruitment and as we increasingly come to depend on it to protect us from crises at home.  This provides a unique opportunity for the values of the army to become valued by us all.  Discipline, selfless commitment, limitations on individual freedom, courage, integrity, loyalty. These are values from which we would all benefit were they gradually to filter into society at large. However, for this to happen the army should not capitulate to the shabby, lax demands of a mainstream society where the overriding ethos is that we should be able to ‘have it all’. It should lead rather than follow. It should uphold its right to have values and standards which are different from society in order to achieve operational effectiveness  –  the ‘need to be different’ not the right to be different as General Sir Richard Dannatt sets out.

To do this it should temper its willingness to capitulate to an ideology which equates sameness with equality.  With the money spent on discrimination and harassment cases, higher levels of hospitalisation required by female soldiers, subordinating unit cohesion and  physical fitness to requirements of  ideology, there is an awful lot to lose.  If retention is the issue,  money should be  invested in  supporting military families through improved accommodation, educational advantages for their children, improved health facilities. These would all achieve the same aim.  In terms of recruitment, if strategies focused on upholding military values and attracting men rather than women   I suspect in the long run recruitment would be more likely to go up.

The spin-offs of such a strategy could be very beneficial. It would provide a system of British values providing an alternative for those who seek a perverted heroism abroad.  It could provide a valuable role and source of identity for the constantly maligned British man. It would  strengthen the British Army and increase our capacity to deal with threats from abroad.

Belinda Brown