In these times of budget austerity, imagine if someone came up with a proposal that could potentially save the Defence budget tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from its bottom line without impacting on overall capability. Indeed, a plan that could actually enhance performance while significantly reducing expenditure.

Far from being a pipedream, this kind of potential exists within the Australian Army Reserve, just waiting to be unlocked by the right combination of reforming zeal and political will.

As Australian Army Major Mark Smith has argued, the Reserve is disproportionately expensive for the capability it provides and the impact it has on advancing Australia's national security interests.

This is not a criticism of the men and women of the Army Reserve, 'chocos' as they are affectionately known, who have proven themselves over many years of continuous deployment both at home and abroad in scenarios as diverse as domestic disaster relief to counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Rather, it reflects the fact that the Reserve is operating in basically the same way that it has done since the Vietnam War.

Sure, the powers that be can point to Plan Beersheba, the Strategic Reform Program, and other measures as evidence of recent attempts to modernise the part-time force. However, these initiatives dance around the edges of the problem and do nothing to address the structural inadequacies of the current system.

With the Army Reserve no longer deployed in the Solomon Islands or East Timor, now is the time to review our approach to part-time military service with a view to enhancing efficiency and reducing costs.

The core problem is the Army Reserve force structure, which is based on conventional principles of military organisation whereby soldiers are organised into battalions and regiments, which are then grouped into brigades and subsequently divisions. While this structure has worked well for the Reserve and its equivalents around the globe, it is patently unsuitable for a part-time force where units which should consist of 500+ personnel often attract less than a hundred to training. Additionally, individual readiness requirements are met by barely 50% of Army Reserve members.

The end result is an unwieldy system where there are too many officers and not enough soldiers. It is further exacerbated by the fact that the Reserve has to comply with essentially the same corporate governance regime as its full-time counterpart. This means that time and resources that could be spent on training are instead diverted to activities such as assessment reports for soldiers who may have performed as little as 20 days of duty over the course of a year. 

Ask reservists themselves, and most readily accept that the system is in need of an overhaul. Many would even forego the current lucrative (but administratively intensive) retention bonuses if these were replaced by reforms that more clearly defined the role of the Army Reserve and the expectations placed on its members.

So what should a reformed Army Reserve look like?

One option, advocated by Mark Smith, is to consolidate the existing force structure into fully-manned units that incorporate a broader range of capabilities (such as infantry, artillery, signals) but under a single administrative regime.  

This model represents a radical departure from the status quo yet there is sufficient precedent to suggest that the upheaval would be justified. Indeed, modern armies are increasingly organised into multi-faceted 'battlegroups' in which troops with differing specialities (and originating from separate units) are brought together under a unified command based on the specific operational requirements at hand. While such arrangements are almost always temporary, with the detachments returning to their parent unit once a task is complete, it provides a potential basis for the reorganisation of the Army Reserve. 

Permanently maintaining the 'battlegroup' structure for the Reserve would have several advantages, not least of which would be a significant cost reduction associated with administering the many disparate, under-manned units that currently constitute the Army Reserve. Additional benefits would include the pooling of equipment, the rationalisation of scarce resources and enhanced interoperability between the sub-units.   

There is no doubt that the above proposal is a controversial one insofar as it would involve disbanding units that trace their history back as far as World War One and the Boer War. Indeed, a battalion such as 4/3 Royal New South Wales Rifles can trace its lineage to both world wars.

The key point is that the Army Reserve is badly in need of reform and that this proposal has the added attraction of potentially saving the Government significant funds at a time when it is looking for savings across the range of Commonwealth responsibilities.

Photo courtesy of Australian Department of Defence.