» News » Glen Grant: Can Ukraine overcome history and politics to build a volunteer reserve force that works? [translations pending]

Glen Grant: Can Ukraine overcome history and politics to build a volunteer reserve force that works? [translations pending]

The subject of mobilization and reserve forces is one of the most politically charged subjects for any country because it touches the whole of society, not just the army.

The challenge for Ukraine is to overcome politics by building a system that is capable of delivering combat fighting power when needed and that is also fit for a society intent on having a NATO and Western future; not retreating to organizations of the Soviet past.

But the reserve structure must also be affordable. It cannot simply be a matter of numbers or the money will run out long before the structure can ever be used. The General Staff has devised a concept that needs serious public support but without first going for public consultation. With a subject as political as this it is not perhaps the best the way to bring success.

Creation of fighting reserves will not prove easy and the challenges in creating a working system that is both socially acceptable and works militarily are vast and not easily overcome.

Ukraine needs a system that is completely focussed on supporting the defense forces, is politically acceptable, but is not linked to any oligarchs.

It must not be a paramilitary structure that draws criticism from the international community. It must also not be some quasi “fighting in the forest” system that eats money but gives no real defense potential.

Most important should be the understanding that any mobilized reserves must fight in the same hostile environment as the armed force of Ukraine are fighting today – probably even worse. Certainly this will not be a static front line but high mobility will be needed. Therefore, wherever possible, reserves must be as close to being trained units and soldiers as they can be. Any less and they are likely to fail. A strong reserve will act as a serious deterrent to Russia, so it is important to be taken seriously.

The Ministry of Defence has set a harder task for itself than needed by largely destroying the very successful volunteer battalion movement that worked so successfully in 2014.

They have almost exclusively moved towards mobilization as the tool for reserves, even though the evidence for the effectiveness of this model shows poor historical results. The reason is likely that the general staff prefer a leadership method centralized control as their main personnel tool. I

In the forces, control itself as a concept has become de facto a law that governs all. This is despite the fact that dealing with reserves is not the same as dealing with contract soldiers and conscripts. Many reserves are mature figures and often have combat experience. Some are also experienced business leaders and need little management direction. They will not be pushed around and treated poorly as many soldiers are now.

Ukrainian society is turning against those historic Soviet methods and towards individual contributions to developing the nationhood.

It has been shown successfully in many other countries that a reserve structure should be based upon volunteers who work in permanent and coherent units. I recently spent time staying with and talking to Finnish army volunteers who are in reserve units but in the main army structure for war. Their enthusiasm for volunteer training and their professionalism was remarkable. Ukraine needs the same organisation and vitality.

The first reason why you need permanently formed units for volunteers to join and train is that if they are not in units they are always at the mercy of centralised staff programmes.

Soldiers become simply a number not a person. These programmes are always slow and heavy in execution and in all countries this training rarely gets more sophisticated than low level technical and tactical work and rifle shooting. The Staff in Ukraine have now started reserve training for over 3,500 soldiers. This is welcome progress.

But in doing this there are powerful steps needed to avoid breaking three strong military principles. These are first that reserve training must be regular and accumulative week on week, not one-off. Skills soon fade especially for technical activities and those tactical activities at company level and above.

Training must be conducted in formed units with the same command structure each time because unit coherence, the family feeling, and brother/sisterhood are what make a fighting unit. Lastly a one-off training session gives little or no chance to build trust with the commanders who will lead you in battle so training and exercising must be constantly under and alongside the same people.

The current training is armoured based. However to be of high operational military value, reserve unit training must include close work with other reserve team skills like supply logistics, medical, maintenance, air defence, ground to air communications, field artillery, bridge building, and field engineering. When there is no formed reserve unit for the population to join, then team training cannot be properly developed over weeks and months and any wellspring of volunteer ethos to support the country is wasted. When this happens then the real desire to support the nation and the AFU diminishes day by day as frustration sets in. People go and do other things rather than serve their country. This annoyance at the old system is clearly visible on Facebook so change to a new system is overdue.

The concept of using reserves and the principles behind reserves are important to get right before creating structures and spending money. Recently I was a speaker at a conference in Warsaw, Poland. A member of the Ukraine National Security and Defence Council suggested that they were putting forward to Verkhovna Rada a new law on reserves based upon Territorial Defence. The head of NSDC, Oleksandr Turchinov, added recently that layered territorial units were the way forward.

I argued openly at the conference that this was not the best idea for several reasons. First, there is generally a poor understanding of what the concept of Territorial Defence is actually designed to do. It is not a concept of providing local defense forces that are armed to defend their locality or fight in the forest.

This is what many countries did unsuccessfully against Russia after World War I and World War II. The nationalistic narratives always sound better than the military reality actually was.

Territorial defense is a concept where balanced military organizations are deployed in separate parts of the country because the territory is too large or geographically complex to move forces quickly from one side to the other. The problem with this concept is that it is unaffordable for any country except the USA and China.

It simply demands too many vitally needed resources and instead of providing fighting capability it completely waters down the whole system. Countries like Serbia, Sweden, and Finland have tried to manage territorial defense for decades with expensive and serious military consequences.

They could not afford to maintain the infrastructure, manpower or training and gradually units were cut down or made into reserves; the organizations became hollow shells and eventually existed only on paper. They could not afford to maintain, keep, or procure the high numbers of new equipment needed. In the late 90s Sweden and Finland were giving away huge amounts of equipment because it was no longer usable and was wasting precious defense money on storage and maintenance. This focus on Territorial Defence over the years also punished officers professionally by giving them hollow careers where they really led no one on a daily basis and had no chance to practice their trade in the field.

When they did have soldiers they were of a low level of training and needed to be organized and taught by sergeants rather than officers. This concept failed to train officers properly for senior appointments. But the worst point is that this doctrine of trying to have everything everywhere wastes vital money needed for more important things – today the front line. Money can only be spent once and structures you cannot use for war immediately are a liability, not a capability.

Another problem is that layered defense of independent brigades and battalions goes totally against the current staff wishes for control. This type of dispersed defense needs high levels of inter-unit communication (and many, many, more radios than the front line has) at the battalion level, and extreme levels of localized decision making and unit self-reliance. All these attributes are being squeezed out of the current system by the previously mentioned emphasis on extreme top-down control.

There is also a need for a vast amount of communications and a complex logistics network to make this type of organization work (no ammunition, food, fuel, and maintenance = no fighting!). This means moving huge resources in manpower, equipment, and stores into the rear areas to support the extra units. The country needs to judge carefully if it can afford this system without in the process weakening the support for the front line.

The idea of training reserves for partisan warfare is essentially flawed. If the Ukrainian military has learned anything from four years of war, it should be that force structures must be balanced. Tank and Infantry units on their own without supplies, maintenance, intelligence, indirect fire, air defense, drones, and engineers are simply targeting to be killed by the enemy. Even Javelin cannot defeat Russian long-range artillery.

Weapons must always be used as part of a coherent system. World War II experience and more recent experiences from Afghanistan, Donbass, and Syria showed that a determined enemy like Russia will simply destroy anything that is less than fully combat effective, even by using chemical weapons. But there are also other human challenges. Troops tasked with a territorial task become fixated to their local position.

The Latvian military found during their independence war in 1919 that they had troops available but these had territorial tasks. They had not been designed for mobile warfare and they also initially refused to leave their local positions. They existed as troops but they were operationally unusable where and when they were really needed. Thus, this idea of linking reserves formally to a locality needs more thought and discussion.

So to create a proper reserve one needs some foundational principles:

It makes sense that if you want reserves to work then most should be in properly organized units not called up as individuals. There are exceptions for this rule which will be discussed later.


The reasons for needing a unit structure are rooted in human nature. People fight best with their friends and in organizations they know and understand. The volunteers in 2014 showed this totally. In fact, working as coherent units brings a level of satisfaction and motivation to defend the country that is remarkable. People do not feel safe in places with people they do not know. They certainly do not want to risk their lives under leaders who they do know or possibly trust. This is a strong lesson from every war and especially so from the volunteer units formed in 2014. A properly organized reserve unit means several things:

It needs a proper and clearly defined military task that supports the military system and is clear to all. If there is no clear military task within the organization that supports the AFU then the organization should not exist.

It needs a base, a commander, a flag, weapons, vehicles, equipment, and training. It needs a small core of professional soldiers to manage the administration and training. There is a lot of social sense in basing units around individual localities (and preferably close to current brigades) so that reserves can get together and socialize and train. This social “need” to build trust between people who have to fight together should never be underestimated. Trust in each other and in their commanders is the most powerful motivating force a unit can have. It is further reinforced by having a local or historical name or battle flag. The British comedian Spike Milligan wrote movingly about his own war experiences. In the first book of his four-part trilogy “Adolf Hitler – my part in his downfall” he told how after a period away from his unit he found himself in a rear area holding camp for reserves. He discovered that he was going to be redeployed to a new unit. He was horrified that he might lose his friends. Rather than let this happen he ran away from the camp and hitched a lift in a military vehicle to the front line to rejoin his own unit.

Reserves must be available as quickly as an enemy can attack. This means several things. In today’s world, this means that there is no time for mobilization staff to deliver complex organizational programmes of “force creation” as was planned in history. Large mobilization in WWI took months and many quickly put together units were still not ready to fight for several years. There can be no searching for ammunition, stores, vehicles, equipment or weapons to give a unit. They must be already at the unit and ready to use. Units must be already allocated to tasks and be organisationally ready and fully trained to deploy where they are needed as fast as people can get to the unit base. The battle staff needing the reserves must only have to deal with the unit commander to get the unit to deploy not hundreds or thousands of individuals. Staff procedures to deliver properly trained units to the front must really be as simple as just one phone call. If units are not already trained properly in battle procedures then they are no more than cannon fodder like the WWII citizens of Stalingrad and Leningrad thrown forward simply to die. Isn’t Ukraine surely now a better country than this?

A command and control structure and training for reserves should be based on the doctrine of maximum decentralization of decision-making. NATO countries like to call this enabling “the strategic corporal” to make decisions based upon the real events as they unfold. This is vital because an all-out war where reserves will be in the most demand would most likely result first in the complete obliteration or negation of the current military command structure. The reserve force will need to know how to operate quickly and successfully with other units alongside them, either reserve or professional. They may even have to operate alone if needed. This means they must be fully capable of delivering their own logistics and combat support. Moreover, a reserve force properly trained to use the digital world, drones and in joint warfare will be able to compensate for its relative lack of sustained training with an increase in operational efficiency. But this costs money. It also demands staff resources that the general staff does not have.

Most importantly it needs to be under command of people who are as committed, intelligent and thinking as the reserves are likely to be. If second rate or uncommitted professional officers are chosen to lead reserves the idea will fail.

There are several areas of reserves where experience shows that a few well-trained individuals can have a serious value. The first of these are the soldiers who have recently left a frontline unit. They still have friends and trust in the unit, and equally the unit trusts them. They can and will fit back into the unit immediately and will also bring not just experience but the added value of the “thinking” they have done whilst they were away. This time spent reflecting on past training and operations can often be worth diamonds. The length of time that someone should remain “on the books” of their old unit is no more than a year. This should be a normal process. You leave a contract and 1-year reserve is compulsory. After this period the soldiers should be encouraged to join volunteer reserve units and use their expertise to train others.

This returning to a unit is harder for officers to manage as they may not have a post available for them. Some can be deployed to their old Battalion or Brigade as staff or liaison officers and obviously as casualty replacements but they still need to be properly fitted into teams for this. Officers who have recently left the forces are usually better being encouraged to form the core of new volunteer reserve units where their skills and experiences are vital to raising the standards quickly.

It seems sensible with the current AFU structure to first create spare battalions for each Brigade. This does several things. It immediately gives the reserve unit a home, a senior commander and a clear operational link to the Joint Force area. The unit knows where it must go immediately in a time of crisis. They will always be up to date on the battle area. They have a Brigade Commander to train them and to set their standards. It allows people to stay within the same Brigade when they leave service. It allows the unit to train with a Brigade during the rest and retraining periods. Even if the unit starts without weapons and equipment, the advantages of being in an operational brigade for coherent team training, ability to be ready to deploy quickly and trust-building are huge and worth the organizational effort.

There should also be thinking about replacing regular soldiers with reserves in some units that are not being used full time in the Joint Force now. The professional army should be concentrated upon the core activity of fighting and where possible reserves and volunteers should manage the rest. This will free up more professional officers and soldiers for the front line. This could be considered for activities like headquarters, engineer bridging, air defense, transport, storage and even some artillery that is not being held forward in Minsk camps. There can be no excuses that these officers or soldiers are not trained for frontline duties. They are professional and must serve where they are sent. Infantry training can be organized and given quickly whatever rank people are. In the first Gulf War air defense units not being used were reorganized immediately as Infantry – and needed no extra training.

Many NATO countries have shown that even very high-quality equipment can be mastered by reserves. All these areas benefit from the latest civilian business experience. In many cases, they will be far ahead of a professional military. Indeed the current commander of the UK training contingent in Ukraine, Col Sion Walker, is by profession a school teacher. I had the privilege some years ago of meeting a National Guard A10 team at Aviano airbase in Italy. The pilot was a dentist and the maintenance sergeant was a pharmacist. Both were on their second tours supporting NATO in Bosnia. It can be done.

There needs to be another category of reserves and those are the people who are more valuable to the civil system than they are to the military. This needs careful management but some people in the defence industry, IT, power, and financial institutions are too valuable for the operations of the country’s infrastructure in a crisis to be lost. In UK during WWII, one in ten conscripted people did not wear a uniform but were used to work down in the coal mines. They were known as the Bevin Boys after the Minister who organized this. This no-military work does not, of course, include a safe haven for oligarchs, sons, and daughters of oligarchs, senior politicians, or the majority of senior civil servants, although I am sure some of the population would love to send all these groups down the mines for a spell!

The challenge with reserves will be not only organizational but also with the concepts underpinning the use of human resources. There are many people who can and will fight but they do not wish to be used or wasted by a system that apparently still sees them as a cannon fodder or does not care if the country wins or loses. Some long-term volunteers still do not have combat status. The current staff and HR system has often shown itself to unable making these things work and it might be better to set up a completely different HQ and staff system for managing and handling reserves based upon experienced war veterans. This would give more confidence to people that being a reserve has human value and their contribution is truly needed.

The same principles apply for all areas of the Armed Forces not just the army and parachute forces (Please someone tell me why they are separate from the army– they do exactly the same work?). The SOF, Navy and Air Force also have many tasks that are not fighting posts, nor needed full time and could be given to volunteer reserves. The money saved in all three services could be huge.

Recruitment will be the big challenge. If the army thinks that continuous mobilization of reserves will work they are wrong. People will simply leave the country or become sick. Employers will soon tire of losing key workers and their company losing money. The political pressure will soon grow to change the system. Reserves will tire of centralized exercises that repeat what they did last time or that are clearly time-fillers, not advanced training. The system needs to be created where a person can join a properly constituted team in the way he would join a sports club. Any less will not work.

In summary – reserves must be created and ready to fight before they are needed, not pulled together in mass mobilization as an afterthought when Russia invades. The Scouts motto of “be prepared” is everything. This means a clear and new concept of operations of how to use and manage professional people and to get the best from them. But this must be value for money and it must not eat money still needed for the front line. This means that numbers must be controlled carefully or there will simply be men and women filling units with no proper equipment. The front line is vitally short of much equipment now – they must be served first.

Most importantly creating reserves means creating a means whereby Ukrainian society has a chance to do what they do best – volunteer – to help gain true national independence. This vital capability must not be messed up by poor and Soviet thinking.

By Glen Grant for Kyiv Post