(Re)Serve to Lead: Advice on Leading a Reserve Subunit
By Chris, Mike and Chris
Much ink has been spilled around Regular subunit command in this journal, but none about Reserve subunit command. Reserve subunit commanders (henceforth referred to Officers Commanding – OCs) who are about to take over subunits deserve some advice written specifically for them.
This article fills that gap.
As a Reserve OC, the trick is getting a good balance between getting valuable training done with a decent user experience. User experience is key because it can kick off a cycle, either vicious or virtuous. A circle of attendance, which in turn affects recruitment, retention and ultimately the ability to offer capable Reservists to support the Regular Army. As the OC, you are key to defining some of the user experience that will power that cycle. The advice in this article will go some way to making sure that you do this well.
The Integrated Review is explicit in that it wants persistent engagement across the globe. Given the Regular Army is shrinking and appetite for deployment is growing, nights out of bed for Regular soldiers will increase. Reservists will be a welcome addition to any deployment and a useful pressure valve for Regular Forces. Therefore, the authors think Regulars could benefit from reading this as well. It is written from a dual Regular/Reserve perspective but is also aimed at Regulars who hold the levers of policy changes which would improve the Reserve experience. These policy changes have the power to increase the velocity of the virtuous circle, ultimately leading to more qualified Reservists available to support Regular soldiers.
The authors have used the Defence Lines of Development as a framework for their advice with the addition of ‘E’ for Employer. The largest sections are Training and Personnel since Reservists are almost always in some form of training. It is written from an Infantry perspective but the lessons are likely to be applicable to other arms and services.
Training is your biggest job. When you take over your subunit ask to have a detailed training programme resourced for three months and a rough idea for three months after that. Some Reservists will attend all training that you do, some will only be able to attend a few things. You will get somewhere between four and twelve weekends per year from an engaged Reservist. When you remove travel time to and from training areas, this is probably 6-18 days. Equally, some weekends may be used for essential promotion or upgrading courses, so do not assume that all that time is yours.
Measure the basics but deliver more
Battalions are measured on how many people pass their Certificate of Efficiency. For each soldier this means passing Mandatory Annual Training Test, attending an Annual Training Event of around 15 days, and having done 27 days of service in total in the year. This is a low bar and offers no skill progression, yet the modern workforce are looking for constant learning from their employers. But because it gets measured, it gets done. The real benefit lies in delivering more effective and personalised training.
The Reservist Combat Infantry Course cannot, for reasons of time, replicate Regular Combat Infantry Course. Weeknight and weekend training should be closing the gap between the two courses or refreshing skills that may have gone stale. To that end, having an easily accessible list of Regular Combat Infantry Course Training Objectives would be helpful, as would lesson plans that follow the Combat Infantry Course field modules. Some repeatable Combat Infantry Course lessons, digital and available over Defence Connect, would be really useful. If you do not have standard lessons it will lead to variable training standards across units. The Army’s new Muster digital training records may help solve this issue – make sure you understand the tools you have at your disposal to help you overcome this issue.
Understand the motivations and capability of your people.
Many Reservists are graduates. In one of our units over 50% are, which reflects a wider societal shift towards university education. Being more educated than most Regular soldiers and with experience of working elsewhere, they may well be more willing to question why the Army does the things it does and, by extension, the chain of command. At times this may seem disrespectful. It probably comes from a place of curiosity as opposed to an afront. They may even have some really good ideas for improvements that you could use. As a Regular Infantry Officer told one of us:
‘We had around 15 Reservists with us for [OPERATIONAL DEPLOYMENT]. When they first arrive and for about two months we were wondering if we had made a mistake asking them to deploy. A month later, they were taking charge of tasks. Regulars were asking them for advice’
This encapsulates what some Regulars find working with Reservists. It also begs the question: is the standard Army 40-minute lesson, tailored for a Regular soldier with only a handful of GSCEs, right for a Reservist? Graduates are likely to have experienced both remote and self-paced learning. In their civilian jobs, Reservists may have hyper personalised training, so by comparison, repeating lessons trying to keep everyone at the same standard is central to a poor user experience. The communal weeknight is an important motivator for Reservists. To capitalise on this, troops should come together on drill nights at Army Reserve Centres but do different, individualised, training. A drill night could involve a communal PT session followed by nationally or regionally delivered online modules, based around Combat Infantry Course Training Objectives or other courses. This offers genuine skill progression and is exactly what Commanding Officers should be encouraging.
Build a deep bench
The Army also wants a Reserve face on Reserve training. To do this, you will need a deep bench of qualified Reservists, which takes time to develop. Training pipelines are far too narrow to create enough Reserve instructors to conduct even the mandated training. By way of Infantry example, the Annual Combat Marksmanship Test requires Range Management Qualifications. In training year 21/22 there are 80 spaces for Range Management Qualifications across the Army Reserve, the qualification needed to run the Annual Combat Marksmanship Test. The Infantry has 44 of these, roughly one slot per Company. Compare that to a Regular rifle company where around 20 people will be qualified to run a range.
Also consider that qualifying courses tend to be two weeks long; this is an NCO’s Annual Training Event for a year which then means that they may not be available to run the Annual Combat Marksmanship Test on the unit’s Annual Training Event. You begin to see the scale of the issue you have to overcome. On top of that, instructors will not be able to make all of the training events that you have or may drop out late due to civilian work. You need backups. So begin making the bench deeper for the next OC from day one of your tour.
(As an aside, the fact that Infantry Platoon and Section commanders do not get any safety qualifications as part of their professional development is madness.)
To try and give some guidance for instructor development, the table below shows what people should aspire to be able to do and at each rank.
|Rank||Within two years of promotion you should be able to:||Example infantry qualification|
|Lance Corporal||Teach a MATT||Skill At Arms (SAA), RMQ, Chemical Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN), Battle Casualty Drills (BCD) Trainer, Physical Training Instructor (PTI)|
|Corporal||Teach a MATT and be safety staff||Either RMQ or SA(M), (K) and/or (E)|
|Sergeant||Teach a MATT and run a range||RMQ (or if held something else)|
|Colour Sergeant||Teach a MATT, run a range and be LFTT safety||RMQ and SA(E) or SA(A) if time permits|
|Second Lieutenant||Take a tactics lesson||PCBC, DTTT, All Arms Basic Tactics Instructor|
|Lieutenant||Teach a MATT or run a range||RMQ, SA(M), (K), Land Nav or Urban Warfare|
|Captain||Teach a MATT and run a range||RMQ, SA(B), Land Nav or Urban Warfare|
Table 1 – Example Career Guidance given to all ranks
It would be good to see centrally run instructor theory lessons (Skill at Arms, Range Management Qualification, Battlefield Casualty Drills Instructor) remotely, every drill night. Students could come together for practical weekends, speeding up the process of producing these desperately needed instructors. This would be good, purposeful training for Junior NCOs during the week. Suggest that this is run at your unit or Brigade.
Drive driving forward
As with the Regular Army, drivers are essential and hard to come by. This problem is likely to get worse as fewer people choose to learn to drive. Try to get everyone in your sub unit learning to drive or moving onto their next license. Since General Service driving courses do not count towards a Reservist’s Annual Training Event, yet cost them a week of civilian holiday, they are not popular. Some of the course could be done remotely as part of weeknight training, or asynchronously, with the practical parts done on a weekend.
All three authors have all been surprised by how little Regulars understand about Reservists: who they are; their motivations to serve; how they work; and how they can best be used. A section on this on the Subunit Command Course could be a good addition. In short, Reservists range from bankers to builders and everything in between. They are seeking a way to serve their country and a different challenge from their civilian careers. Bounty hunters are few and far between, although few will turn down a bounty. They will, by and large, do as much Reserve Service as they can within the bounds of the time off they can take. If they come to you give them your low-level tasks initially. They need a soft place to land but will be quick to learn working alongside Regulars and will learn heaps just by osmosis. The highest compliment you can give them is to let them know that you wouldn’t know that they are a Reservist.
Spaces on Regular training events and courses are routinely offered up to Reservists. Long may this continue. If you are a Regular OC offering this, be aware that three months’ notice is best for a good uptake for events. Like you would if you were an airline, overbook seats on courses and expect late drop outs. Circumstances can change quickly, sometimes outside of Reservists’ control and they must put their civilian employment first. With training events, the more flexible Regulars can be the better; if a Reservist can attend two weeks of a four-week event and crack at least some training objectives, that is a win. Some units are better at this than others. If you wanted to measure how good they were, giving Regular battalions a budget of Reserve Service Days each year would act as a good proxy by which to evaluate Regular-Reserve integration.
And a request: if Reservist soldiers come to work with Regular soldiers for a protracted period of time, please send them back more qualified than they arrived, even if that is just Mandated Annual Training Tests. Things as simple as Basic Radio User, Endurance Training Leader, General Service Driver Training, Defence Train the Trainer (none of which are more than four days long) make a real difference to a Reserve Unit. Ideally a short 4-8 sentence report by email would help.
The power of the Permanent Staff Instructor
Your Permanent Staff Instructor has an outsized effect on the quality of training; for better or worse. The job is harder than Regulars give credit for. The authors know this because they did not give enough credit when they were serving in the Regular Army. The autonomy that Permanent Staff Instructor work with sometimes feels like a rank above the one on their chest. Regular Commanding Officer: please send someone who you think will have a positive impact on training, which probably means a willing volunteer, if you have one.
Prepare yourself as well
Finally, a checklist of pre-requisites for command would be handy in the period before you take over. In the three months ahead of assuming command refresh yourself on ranges, LUMS, JAMES, Account Manager training and do as much of the Sub Unit Command Course as you can manage. The build up to command tends to be quieter than command itself. Make the most of the preparation time.
Lay aside 15 minutes every week to do equipment checks of one kind or another and probably another two hours a month for serial number checks. Every officer and senior NCO should be involved. The Stock Available For Issue (SAFI) is useful for your Company G4 staff to know about and have access to.
Be generous lending kit to others and they will be generous back. People rarely break things on purpose. If something comes back broken do not refuse to lend to that unit again on the grounds that they broke something once.
The best G1 is for your soldiers to be in stable civilian employment. If Reservists can pay their rent or mortgage they are probably more likely to attend Reservist training, too. But note that this employment does not need to be full-time. Having multiple income streams is becoming more common. The Army Reserve may make up one of two or more of these.
Of course, making sure your Reservists have enough income streams to pay the bills is not within your gift. You cannot ask to see pay slips from elsewhere. Beyond trying to make sure that they are ok, the authors have little practical advice. But remember that by having soldiers come in regularly to do odd jobs (weapon cleaning, driving) you may inadvertently be blocking them from gaining civilian employment. This would be a failing on your part. In this case they are being used as quasi-Regulars but without the benefits of accommodation, medical care or pension. This is not fair to them, so counterintuitive as it seems, you should help them find employment.
Ask yourself how you could help individuals find employment. Look for the win-win. A C+E driving license goes a long way these days, no pun intended. It is not glamourous but it is a start. If they do not have a job they might have the time to go to an Army driving course, then get a job and hopefully be able to drive for you at the weekends as well. Make sure your Reservists know about and use their Standard Learning Credits. They may help them to gain qualifications that help them gain civilian employment.
Avoid the report writing hurt locker
Try to have a minimum of three months of report writing breathing room before taking over. If in doubt, ask the incumbent to get reports written before they leave. Three months in Reserve terms could be a single drill night; not much to write a report on.
Report writing will soak up a lot of your limited time. The amount of time spent report writing is basically the same as a Regular soldier who works for probably 8-10 times longer on a days-per-year basis. If a Reservists attends a two-week course, the report should form the backbone of their O/SJAR, especially if that is their Annual Training Event for the year, with an insert slip from their Chain of Command for their work on drill nights and weekends. This moves the reporting responsibility from the OC (who might see them a couple of drills nights a quarter) to someone who has seen them perform over a concentrated period.
Historically, one of the biggest causes of Service Complaints are MPARs. Given that ten days’ of service triggers an MPAR, giving something of reasonable quality can be really hard. A month or so before you need to write the MPAR, ask the individual what they have done through this training period, who they worked with and their contact details. You could even ask the soldier to write their own MPAR.
Recruitment will be an ongoing battle for you. In his book Mission Improbable, Dr Patrick Bury reckons that Reservist soldiers serve for about four years, which is close to the authors’ anecdotal observations. If the average subunit is around 100-strong, that means 25 new bodies through the door every year. When the authors arrived in their subunits they assumed that, much like Regular service, this would be done for them. They were wrong. You will need to have a much more active role. Do not underestimate how much time and effort recruitment can take.
The Army Reserve are trying to get more involved with employers who are already pro-Reserve. One author asked large employers (think 500 people or bigger: Tesco, Amazon and National Westminster Bank) who were Gold Defence Employee Recognition Scheme signatories to an open evening at their Army Reserve Centre. They invited local store managers of big employers within our recruiting ‘catchment area’. Civilians seem particularly interested in military leadership whose style are seen as unique. With that in mind, they had a gallantry award winner come in and speak about the leadership under fire in Afghanistan. The employers agreed to a twice-yearly visit to their place of work, around Armed Forces Day and Remembrance Day, to offer information to their employees on Reserve Service. The combination of Gold Scheme members’ paid leave policy and regular employer engagement at a local level leads to some excellent recruitment.
Regular OCs, if you have Regular soldiers leaving please do encourage them to find out who their nearest unit is and at least consider Reserve service. It is a good safety net if civilian employment falls through. If they want something different from what they used to do, this should be encouraged. An infantry soldier can become a logistician, with its associated qualifications; please do not dissuade them. The alternative may be that they leave the Army altogether.
The authors recommend transferring straight to the Reserves as opposed to leaving and re-joining. There can be significant delays (anecdotally in excess of a year), including the hassle of medicals and kit issue. If a person, very reasonably, wants to put establishing their civilian career first, then they should transfer and go straight to what is known as the ‘ARRG 4’ for a year, where there is no commitment. Reserve OCs understand that the first couple of years in a new job is critical to success and be sympathetic to this.
Your best retention plan is a good training plan. Reservists are there to learn something and develop personally, whilst shooting guns and throwing hand grenades. Give them that and they will keep coming back. Of course, remember that this relies on having qualified instructors…
Do not assume that a route to promotion is critical for retention. Believe it or not, some Reservists, do not want to promote. They just want to contribute. The career management model has no way of catering for these individuals. When they have done their time in post they tend to move to the ARRG where they may be forgotten about. They then leave the Reserve, taking with them their training and qualifications which have taken literally years to accrue.
Being on ARRG 3 creates time for getting courses done (even an instructor’s course!) but this is difficult without a unit to sponsor an application. Giving an individual a ‘budget’ of days to use for courses while on ARRG would help.
Finally, Regular soldiers have a fixation about Reservists doing their civilian job as Reservist. They expect every car mechanic to join the REME Reserve. This is rare. Reservists want something different on their weekends, as everyone does. Imagine it is Friday, you have just come off exercise, cleaned your weapon and washed almost all of the cam cream out of your ears. Then someone asks you “Hey, I know you have already in your free time, but would you like to repack your Bergan and head back out onto the Plain this weekend?”
You can have a pretty good stab at your answer. So, before you expect to recruit a subunit of electricians into the REME, consider that Reservists look for variety and adjust your expectations. There are some exceptions. National Reserve units such as for Medics, Engineers and Cyber will happily do their civilian job at the weekends in MTP. But they should not be considered the norm.
Information is much easier to pass around than in years gone by thanks to WhatsApp groups and the tools available through Defence Connect. The endless requirement for paper forms is an Army wide problem that is felt more acutely in the Army Reserve. Reservists are only in a Reserve Centre one night a week and printers are becoming a rarity. Make sure all your forms are done on Defence Connect. Make electronic signatures the norm.
Doctrine and Concepts
Erwin Rommel said “The British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate their officers do not read it”. The first bit is still true. Prove Rommel wrong on the second part. Use the access you have through the Defence Gateway to make training relevant and up to date.
Ask your Adjutant for a copy of your subunit’s 8005. This is the table that lays down the people and qualifications of the subunit. Then decide on what is realistic and achievable for a Reservist and focus on that. There are long courses that the authors do not believe are achievable for Reservists. As an Infantry example, the mortar Lance Corporal to Corporal course is 14 weeks long. Yet the Reserve two-week version does not qualify someone for operations, but uses time that could go towards courses such as range management or instructor qualifications. So, concentrate ruthlessly on what will make your subunit better.
Your Army Reserve Centre will probably belong to your local Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, known as RFCA. Getting changes made, even something as small as painting, requires the support of your Quartermaster and RFCA’s agreement.
Many Army Reserve Centres will be used by civilian organisations when you are not there. Examples include the Police for training, schools for exams and civilian sports clubs for events. You get a small slice of this sub-letting cash for your subunit fund. If you think that your Army Reserve Centre is underused and you know of an opportunity then let RFCA know. Your subunit may benefit.
Your planning horizon should be about three months. This will break down for a couple of weeks of discussion around training and what you want to achieve, a couple of weeks to write outline paperwork and a couple of weeks to get requests in. Then about six to eight weeks lead time for most stuff like ammunition.
A good Permanent Staff Instructor will take care of the logistics planning.
The relationship between soldier and employer is their own, not yours. Many want to keep it that way. If they are happy that you engage direct then a once- or twice-a-year digital newsletter combined with an employer (or manager) contact list offers the best return on your time. A bit of headcam footage from a live firing range, a log run or a weekend with particularly grim weather gives you the content that brings what your soldiers do to life. This is time consuming. The benefit is almost certainly intangible. Yet it is worthwhile.
At the corporate level, Defence Relationship Management does a good job of making links with large employers. The authors do not see much benefit from their work and so are trying to work more closely with Defence Relationship Management account managers to get local contacts to begin working with. Giving local managers a few drinks and a glimpse at what their employees do on their weekends highlights the benefit the employer gains in return for the time they spend time swapping shifts to accommodate Reservists. Focus messages on leadership and resilience training for best effect; these are seen as unique military strengths.
Today’s Reservists are smart, enthusiastic and keen to learn. But developing capability is lengthy. The dictionary definition of holding a reserve is ‘the act of keeping something or a supply of something until it is needed’. The authors believe your job as an OC is to close the gap between Regular and Reserve training to increase that supply. But this is not a formal outcome. As a result, activity remains focussed on achieving Certificates of Efficiency, a low training bar which does not offer progress and does not help Reservists to support Regulars on operations.
The Army Reserve has had an influx of former Regular soldiers. They bring skills, experience and qualifications that help facilitate training goes some way to closing this gap and improving the capabilities of Reservists. For the authors, this was their way of continuing to contribute to the Regular Army: by producing Reservists capable of serving alongside Regular soldiers.
Good training is the key to retention and retention is essential for capability building. The Reserve is hamstrung by a lack of qualified instructors. The pipeline for creating instructors is too narrow. More instructors should start a virtuous circle of better training leading to better attendance, leading to improved retention, ultimately leading more qualified individuals able to support Regulars.
If you are a Regular OC, the Integrated Review intends to ‘create armed forces that are more persistently engaged worldwide through forward deployment’. So, if you think you will need support from Reservists to do this, you have a dog in this fight as well.
Remember that recruitment is an important and time-consuming task. Going to big organisations that have already demonstrated a commitment to Reserve service is a good start. Include your soldiers employers only with their permission. Some video and a newsletter are a good start and if they will join you for a glass, a photo with a sniper rifle and a dit or two, they will love it. But never forget that the best G1 you can give is to make sure Reservists are in employment – if you undermine their main employment you will both be worse off for it.
In summary, being an OC is time consuming on top of a busy civilian job. Most OCs are doing an hour a day, every day, on Reservist work. Running a range weekend or section attack lane usually makes this time worthwhile. But only just. People are increasingly unwilling to accept a poor user experience at work and this includes Reservists. They are, after all, doing their ‘other’ job’. So they have higher expectations of what they experience in their spare time.
But the rewards of commanding a subunit make it all worthwhile. And do not forget to enjoy the experience.
About the authors: Chris, Mike and Chris are three former Regular Infantry Officers who all now command Reserve Infantry sub units. Between them they have a combined 30 years of Regular service and around 20 in the Reserve. They have over 10 medals between them including an MBE, a Mention in Dispatched and a Queens Commendation for Valuable Service.
If you want to read the rest of our popular Sub-unit Command Series, with advice on leading companies, squadrons and batteries, then read the full series here: The Sub-unit Command Series.