MoD up in arms over sponsor plan

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British Aerospace, GEC and other defence suppliers could soon have their own "sponsored" units in the armed forces under plans currently being discussed in Whitehall.

The concept of a "Sponsored Reserve", where contractors lend employees to the Ministry of Defence in time of emergency to help service and maintain equipment, was first raised by Malcolm Rifkind when he was Defence Secretary and is now being considered by his successor Michael Portillo. A Reserve Forces Bill is expected to be included in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

However, sponsorship and other measures mooted for the reserve are meeting with stiff resistance in some quarters of the MoD. Under the new sponsorship scheme, as part of a contract to supply equipment, the manufacturer would agree also to provide the staff to service the equipment. Such personnel would receive some military training, although they would not be required to take part in front-line fighting.

But some in the MoD regard this hi-tech civilian force as another example of privatisation creeping into the military. They fear for the engineers, mechanics and other regulars whose jobs could be under threat from civilians seconded from companies eager to win orders.

Another proposal, which Ministry critics fear is designed to obscure shortfalls in the regular forces, is the widening of call-out rules for reservists to cover peace-keeping humanitarian and disaster relief operations. At the same time, those with specialist expertise - linguists, medics and technicians - will be encouraged to join a new High Readiness Reserve, which officials admit has been conceived as a stop-gap for skills shortages in the regular forces. Members of the HRR could be required to serve at any time, for up to nine months. "Who, if they are any good, can just take nine months off? What we will get will be the freelancing, self-financing adventurers or back-room people - just the sort we do not want," said one regular officer.

Mr Portillo is also planning to make it easier for reservists to serve with the regular forces for a set period. This too is being viewed with scepticism, as a charter for the unemployed to become soldiers. However, it is understood that Mr Portillo will leave alone the powerful local reserve associations, headed by retired military top brass, which act as a buffer between the MoD and reserve units.

Labour is preparing for battle, saying the reserve is being used as a smoke screen for failings in the regular forces. David Clark MP, shadow defence spokesman, said: "We want a properly resourced armed forces, not a part-time force."