February 1, 2012  

Send in the reserves

Europe’s biggest military deficit is a lack of citizen-soldiers

Like the active components of many European militaries, the size and capabilities of reserve forces have plummeted in the past two decades. Many nations’ reserve corps, particularly land-based forces, have fallen to 10 percent of their former size. But with European budgets constraining military spending and the impending pullout of some U.S. forces, it’s time to look at increasing reserve forces as a way to boost capacity without breaking the bank.

During the Cold War, many nations boasted large mobilizable reserve forces. The 1989-90 edition of “The Military Balance,” published by International Institute for Strategic Studies, showed Germany possessed reserves in excess of 700,000, Spain had more than 800,000 people available and Italy 520,000. Even tiny Switzerland could mobilize more than 600,000 soldiers.

Today, no European nation save Finland comes close. NATO members such as Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands have less than 10 percent of their Cold-War reserves. Even non-NATO countries have far fewer: Sweden and Switzerland have only one-third of the reserve forces that were available in 1990.

Moreover, many of the reserves that do exist are no longer found in organized units, such as infantry battalions, but rather are individuals available for mobilization, or have no real combat capability at all, such as the French Citizens’ Reserve. Thus, they lack the proper structure for carrying out any kind of contemporary military missions.

Much of this is due, of course, to the disappearance of a credible military threat to most European countries. Absent a major conventional threat from the east, many states have concluded that they no longer need large defense forces, including reserve components.

The changing nature of military forces in many Western countries has also had an influence. Nearly all major European countries, and most smaller ones, have shifted to a professional active force or are in the process of doing so. One of the effects of this transition has been to limit the numbers of soldiers available for service in the reserves at the end of their conscription period.

Not only are there far fewer reserve forces, their capabilities are much diminished. During the Cold War, the reserve forces of many NATO and non-NATO countries could boast of being able to field, sometimes on very short notice, divisions’ worth of reasonably well-trained and equipped soldiers, with clear missions to carry out. With the exception of Finland and one or two others, that is no longer the case.

Several cases in point: According to “The Military Balance,” Germany in 1990 could field a dozen homeland defense brigades, 15 homeland defense regiments and 150 homeland defense companies. By 2010, German Army reserves were listed at 144,000, but no organizational data are given. According to German government documents, only 2,500 reserve slots are funded per year.

France has a similar situation. In 1990, it could field, upon mobilization, three divisions, seven territorial defense brigades and another two dozen territorial regiments. Today, France has about 100 units of company size (about 100 soldiers). So, too, with Italy, which could field 240,000 soldiers in seven brigades in 1990; in 2010, it had only 38,000 Army reservists and no organizational structure.

Some Case Studies

A useful overview of European approaches to managing their reserve forces and different strategic requirements may be gleaned from a closer look at Britain, France and Finland.

The U.K. maintains one of the more robust reserve force sets of capabilities in Europe. Despite nearly a halving of the force, from 250,000-plus in 1990 to around 130,000 in 2010, Britain’s significant reserve capability stands in some contrast to the decline of its active forces.

There are two decidedly different views about the reserve forces in the U.K. One side takes the view that the reserves ought to be smaller and integrated with the active force, while the other side sees the reserves as a somewhat larger force with a different role, taking on those tasks that a small active force cannot do. The Reserve Force Act of 1996 envisioned both kinds of forces: a Regular Reserve of former active-duty soldiers who could act as a strategic reserve for the active force and a Voluntary Reserve to carry out other kinds of support to the civil authority. Indeed, the Regular Reserve does reinforce the Army. About 10 percent of the soldiers deployed by Britain over the last decade have been from the reserves.

The U.K.’s Strategic Defense and Security Review of 2010 envisioned three distinct missions for reserve forces: first, to support regular (active) units that are committed to overseas operations; second, to support national resilience (in support of the civil power); and lastly, to connect with the nation.

This last mission is one that appears with some regularity among the rationales for reserve forces. The advent of professional militaries has, in many instances, resulted in a separate caste, a parallel society, a state within a state for the military with respect to the broader society. Hence the importance of locally raised and stationed reserve forces to sustain the contact with the general population that is often lacking with professional militaries that spend much of their time deployed or in remote barracks and lack this contact.

The principal force within the voluntary reserves is the Territorial Army, with a current strength of nearly 40,000. Territorial Army units are found throughout the U.K., with a significant number found in Northern Ireland, where they serve as the backup to regular British Army units deployed there on security duty. The Territorial Army also includes the 13 Civil Contingency Reaction Forces. Built around one infantry battalion apiece, these reaction forces are the principal units available to civil authorities for operations related to the British concept of resiliency and are thus a major part of the country’s method of defense support to civil authority.

However, the British concept of such support calls for the active force to take the lead in supporting the civil power, with the Territorial Army in a supporting role. As a practical matter, most contingencies see the Ministry of Defence task a Civil Contingency Reaction Force, as there are often too few active forces able to respond in a timely manner. However, for some contingencies, such as dealing with industrial actions like strikes by essential service providers, the Territorial Army is prohibited by law from taking part and these operations must be carried out by the active Army.

Like the U.K., France has two types of reserve forces: an operational reserve and a citizens’ reserve. However, French reserves barely total 20,000. France also has a militarized police force, the gendarmerie, with a potent, 40,000-member reserve of its own.

The operational reserve, composed of volunteers or former soldiers, is the only one of the two that is a true operational reserve. These volunteers serve one to five years in the reserves, with one-third of them available for mobilization within two weeks. Soldiers leaving active duty in the French Army are required to serve up to five years in the operational reserve and may serve both in France and abroad, each member receiving several weeks of training per year.

They are organized in about 100 company-sized units called Reserve Intervention Units, in addition to a small number of so-called Reserve Specialized Units of similar size. During a crisis, their duties in support of the civil authority include providing general reinforcement of public order forces, aiding the population and maintaining continuity of essential public services. In cases of extreme emergency, the civil authorities can also use these reserves for internal and border security, including protecting public facilities under a French anti-terrorism program known as Vigipirate, in which French military personnel conduct armed anti-terrorism patrols in key transportation, government and tourist facilities.

The Citizens’ Reserve or Réserve Citoyenne has an entirely different role: to maintain the French concept of l’ésprit de defense, or the spirit of defense, perhaps in response to a France in which the ordinary citizen has lost interest in things military. Indeed, in 1998 France instituted a “day of introduction to military service” (journée d’appel de préparation à la defense). This reserve is intended to assist with recruiting, to maintain liaison with the public and reinforce emergency response mechanisms. However, its members are expressly excluded from military tasks and thus can carry out only civil assistance operations of a nonmilitary nature. In essence, they carry out representational efforts and, in any event, their numbers are very limited.

Finland, as one of the last European countries with conscription, as well as a completely different threat perception, has chosen to retain many of the features prominent in reserve force organizations during the Cold War. Finland’s strategic and geographic environment, coupled with a high level of public acceptance, means that Finland can retain rather large and highly capable reserve forces which complement its small active component.

At 280,000, Finland possesses one of the largest reserve forces in Europe, though considerably smaller than the 460,000 it could muster during the Cold War. Much of the Finnish Army is based on its reserve component. At 16,000, the active component is simply too small to provide more than a token fighting force. Indeed, the active forces populate at most one of the nine brigades of the Finnish Army; the rest are mobilization brigades.

Every conscript has a reserve obligation of 40 days over a 30-year period up to age 50. Some 25,000 Finns complete their active training each year, providing for fresh inputs into this force. In addition to this force, Finland has a paramilitary Border Guard force of some 15,000 soldiers, including 11,500 reserves.

As a result of this unique configuration, which is supported by a large majority of Finnish voters, Finnish defense forces carry out a broad range of defense and civil support activities. As Finland is not a member of NATO, territorial defense, particularly with regard to its Russian neighbor, remains the military’s most important role. But Finnish forces carry out many other civil support functions, including forest firefighting, search and rescue, and explosive ordnance disposal. They may also supplement law enforcement organizations. These executive assistance tasks, as they are known in Finland, remain quite common. Nearly all of them are carried out by conscripts on active duty who will soon become part of the reserve force structure. The presence of Finnish citizens in uniform on the streets of Finnish cities remains a common sight, even as it has faded from most other European cities.

A Renaissance of Reserves?

Traditionally, reserve forces have served as a country’s strategic reserve, mobilized only when national survival is threatened. Many reserve units also have an alternative role as a fire brigade of sorts, available for other nonmilitary national emergencies.

In these roles, reserve forces offer several advantages over active components. They are decidedly cheaper, of note in an era when personnel costs are the largest item in many countries’ defense budgets. A reservist who trains several weeks a year often costs a tenth of what an active solder costs on a yearly basis. Reserve forces represent a very attractive alternative to complete reliance on expensive professional soldiers for a broad range of contingencies, particularly domestic ones.

Moreover, such forces can draw on the skills and expertise gained by their members in their civilian employment, especially in disaster relief or emergency response. This is particularly true with regard to doctors, pilots and engineers.

Finally, reserves are more closely tied to the communities in which they live and serve. This is key to rapid and effective response in cases of disasters, as the reserves are part of the community and often know the unique characteristics and personalities involved. They also serve as the link between a society and the armed forces that defend that society — a link which all too often is missing when forces are professionalized and citizens have little or no contact with their military.

But the lack of investment in reserve force structures and the relative lack of mobilization readiness have undermined both of their missions. Given this precipitous decline, it is by no means clear what roles and missions Europe’s reserves will be expected to handle in the future.

Generally speaking, today’s European reserve forces cannot be counted upon to provide much assistance to civil authorities in a reasonable time. These reserve forces simply are not structured and manned to provide anything approaching the readiness of, say, National Guard units in the U.S. to provide disaster relief. While certain numbers of individual augmentees would certainly be available in most countries, they lack the structure and organization necessary to make an important contribution to the range of civil assistance operations.

And their ability to carry out their most prominent Cold War mission, that of homeland defense, seems to have disappeared with the external threat. Unlike the reserve components of the U.S., which have been equal partners of the active forces in the prosecution of that nation’s wars over the last decade, European countries are no longer in the position to call up reserves in anything like the number and type that might be needed for homeland defense, let alone for overseas deployments. Nevertheless, a residual requirement for some level of homeland defense exists, if only to ensure against an unanticipated external threat. This is particularly true for those European states in the eastern part of the continent. The structure, organization, equipment and training for this mission differ from those required for overseas stability operations.

Yet, given the nature of the force structure found in most European countries, it would seem to make sense to vest this mission in the reserve forces, as there is likely to be a very substantial period of warning should these forces ever be required. This would mean transferring the bulk of the heavy force structures to the reserve, which would likely need additional, if modest, investment — but certainly less than the equivalent cost for a comparative active force. This would retain a capability for homeland defense at a much lower cost than that of using active forces.

This logic would also seem to apply to missions involving support of the civil authority. As these are not annually recurring events (in most instances, fighting forest fires being one of the exceptions), it would seem expedient to vest most of these missions in an enhanced reserve force structure. Reserve forces that can draw upon civilian expertise and are properly equipped for this role could provide a major boost to the civil support capabilities available to government at minimum marginal cost. Certainly, this capability would be less expensive than detailing active forces for the same purpose. Thus, the time may be ripe for a renaissance of reserves.


The reserve force capability for most European countries has diminished to the point of near invisibility. Yet, at a time of major financial straits and an increasing demand for forces to support civil authorities in cases of national emergency, it would seem an auspicious time to re-examine the current emphasis on professionalization of the force at the cost of a healthy reserve force structure. This is not to imply that professionalization is the wrong path, but given the expense of a professional force and the current threat environment in Europe, a more robust reserve force capability would seem to offer a cost-effective solution to these tasks while binding the armed forces closer to the society they serve and defend. A revitalized reserve component is a cost-effective solution for the kinds of contingencies that most European countries face. AFJ