Australia’s Reservists have played a phenomenal role in supporting the country during national emergencies. However, this has come at the expense of developing the country’s Reservists for the next war. What can Australia learn from the IDF’s application of Reserve units to get the most out of the nation’s Reserves?
Over recent years, Australia’s Reservists have become an essential tool in the Commonwealth’s response mechanism to national emergencies. Whether it was the Governor General’s call out during Operation Bushfire Assist, their ongoing support during floods or even Operation COVID Assist; members of the military have prioritised disaster relief over combat training.
The result has been a tumultuous two years for Australia’s Reserve forces. Many Reservists have also experienced major disruption to their training schedules since the beginning of the pandemic, often forcing soldier to sign in and train remotely during periods of intense COVID outbreaks.
Australia’s Reservists are at an interesting juncture. As the Reserves are utilised more and more for non-combat domestic operations, the less their training focuses on warfighting. This means more time learning skills suitable for the High Risk Weather Season, and less time on the tools of war.
An Australian perspective
In early 2020, Reserve Commander of the 8th Brigade Mike Kalms penned his thoughts on contemporary applications of the Army Reserve for the Australian Army publication The Cove. Simply, he argues that the skillsets held by Australia’s current Reservist battalions “are too small, fragile or expensive” to integrate into the broader regular forces in the event of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.
As a result, Kalms suggests moving away from burdening the Reserve with training for combat situations. Rather he presents three options for the future of the Australian Army Reserve: firstly, the Reserves could be positioned “as a response tool for national emergency”, secondly, they could be employed as an “economic plug in the event or regional or national economic instability”, or finally they could be used to “build, educate, grow, repair and sustain communities” in the Indo-Pacific.
Firstly, Defence has a finite budget. It would be misuse of the Fefence budget to use funds earmarked for Reserve training and deployment for national emergencies, many of which are under the firm remit of state governments. If the Commonwealth and state governments project that at natural disasters are likely to increase over coming years, it would likely be cheaper to support the professionalisation of organisations such as the RFS and SES, which already have operational knowledge of national disasters that the military simply does not.
Secondly, hindsight has proven interesting on the notion that Reservists could be used to plug gaps in the national economy. While Australia has experienced supply chain disruptions, much of it has been overcome by staff redeployments (such as baggage handlers finding employment at Woolworths) and incentive programs to encourage employment. It is also unlikely that many amazing warriors who have served as members of the regular army and transferred into the Reserves would continue to support the ADF if they are deployed to undergo fruit picking.
However, Kalms’ third suggestion that Australia’s Reserve forces could support nation building overseas achieves the country’s operational-strategic objectives of an Australian-led Indo-Pacific. Building critical civilian infrastructure for poorer nations in the Indo-Pacific will increase the propensity that they will support Australia’s efforts in a future conflict and reduce their reliance on overseas aid from Australia’s potential adversaries.
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Nevertheless, while Australian military analysts battle with the raison d'être of our Reserve forces, the Israeli Defence Forces have demonstrated that you can employ a Reserve force both for both domestic and offensive operations.
Learning from history: Israel’s force structure
Faculty member of the IDF Command and Staff College and former infantry battalion commander Dotan Druck writing in the RUSI Journal provides insight into how the Israeli Defence Forces have regularly updated their force structure over 70 years to best utilise their Reserves in line with Israel’s contemporaneous threat environment.
Druck cites Major General Moshe Bar-Kochba to best define the current role of Israel’s Reserve force as “the initial breakthrough must be achieved by the military’s best units. Later, other units are inserted, able to achieve their goals using lower quality platforms, requiring less resources”.
This definition of Reserve responsibilities was refined after decades of multi-domain conventional conflicts encompassing both regular and Reserve forces. In fact, Druck explains that Israel’s doctrine has revised from an original notion that “the regular army will hold and the Reserves will decide” to “the Reserves will allow the regulars to decide”. Such doctrinal changes arose in line with a changing threat environment and fewer battle ready Reservists, resulting in integration difficulties with regular units.
This integration was evidenced during the 1956 Sinai War in which Reservists were unable to integrate effectively into the regular army despite an existential threat to the State of Israel.
“Some Reserve brigades faced difficulties due to low competence, leadership and combat fitness, to the extent of failing to accomplish their missions. The commander of one such brigade, Shmuel Goder of the 10th Infantry Brigade, was even removed from his position,” Druck argues.
This is a remarkable insight as Druck explains that many of the Reserve commanders who took part in the failed regular-Reserve integration during the Sinai War had significant first-hand combat experience during the War of Independence. However, with sufficient time lapsing between bouts of combat, even the most adept military commanders who had won significant victories lost their warfighting capabilities.
Following the disastrous implementation of Reserve forces during the Sinai War, Israel’s military commanders sought to incorporate the Reserves into operations more frequently to support their interoperability during periods of total conflict.
Over the following years, Druck notes, “Reserve forces made it possible to provide a reasonable level of both inland (Gaza and West Bank) and border security, while allowing regular forces to be positioned in higher friction areas and to be employed in offensive operations.”
This interoperability between regular and Reserve forces reached an apotheosis during the Yom Kippur War, when in 1973 an Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israel in which Reserve forces were deployed both for domestic and offensive operations. The interoperability between both proved successful, with Israel stemming the invasion and expanding its controlled territory.
The Reserves proved themselves.
Following Yom Kippur, the military and government felt more confident to allow the Reserve forces to undertake routine domestic operations which enabled the regulars to undergo tougher and more specific training.
“The IDF’s general concept was that the Reserves supplement the regular forces, augmenting their ability to perform routine security tasks and allowing them time for training. Consistent with that approach, the Reserves were to free regular forces from routine security tasks and allow them to be employed in limited operations that did not require the IDF’s full military might, including a wide-scale Reserve mobilisation,” Druck argues.
Such interoperability has enabled the IDF to pursue the policy of “the Reserves will allow the regulars to decide”. A strong, competent and well trained Reserve force allows the regular army to focus on offensive operations without having to expend resources or manpower on traditional domestic or security operations.
While such functions of the military are limited in Australia, rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific may require Australia’s Reserves to undertake defensive and security operations either domestically or in secured territories, thus enabling our regular battalions to fight offensive tasks. Therein lies MAJGEN Bar-Kochba’s notion that “the initial breakthrough must be achieved by the military’s best units. Later, other units are inserted, able to achieve their goals using lower quality platforms, requiring less resources”.
A new Israeli model: the differential competence scale
Since 2016, Israel has begun slowly moving into a new doctrinal direction.
As the threat of full-scale conventional war in Israel has diminished over recent decades, the requirement for the country to mobilise the entirety of its Reserve forces has become less likely. As a result, the military has scaled down the size of its Reserve forces – preferring fewer, better trained and better armed Reserve soldiers that can perform both domestic security and offensive duties.
“The [Gideon] plan (2016–20) was to create lethal, smaller, more efficient ground forces that can more effectively deal with current and future threats. It outlined a reduction in the Reserve force, while proposing that the remaining Reserve soldiers will be trained, equipped and more qualified for a war. The plan was replaced by the Tnufa multi-year plan in 2020,” Druck wrote.
Interestingly, throughout the Gideon Plan, not all Reserve forces – even indeed regular forces - would have equal priority, funding or equipment. Reservists and regulars in more high risk areas would receive preference for better equipment and training.
“As part of the plan, Eizenkot set a differential competence scale, prioritising units (regular and Reserve) according to the operational concept; brigades that aim to fight in Lebanon receive preference to brigades that aim to fight in Judea and Samaria or that reinforce the defence lines along the borders. These preferences are reflected, therefore, in the required competence and readiness level. This scale influences the operative plans in which they are included, the fighting and support equipment they receive, their ammunition and weapons supply levels, priority for personnel reinforcement, and yearly and multi-year training plans,” Druck argues.
This is an interesting theory.
In an Australian context this may result in Reservists in Darwin receiving EF88s, while Reservists in Hobart receive F88s. It might also result in some specially trained Reservists in high risk areas receiving priority for courses over regular members in lower risk areas. Such a model may also see Reservists in Sydney and Melbourne specialise in purely urban training packages.
However, such priority allocation does not come without potential risks. While the ADF will have a better trained, more knowledgeable and stronger Reserve force, they are ultimately less adaptable.
Over recent years, questions have arisen over the raison d'être of Australia’s Reservists.
Should the nation’s Reserve forces move to a national emergency model or bolster the warfighting capabilities of the army?
Are the lessons from the Israeli case study applicable in an Australian context?
As always, join the conversation in the comments section below.