Part-time troops get tour of duty: Operation marks start of new era for Army's reservists, Christopher Bellamy reports (CORRECTED)


A RADICAL change in the role of the Territorial Army was marked this weekend by the arrival of reservists in the Falklands.

A team of 38 men from the Royal Irish Rangers landed for a six-month tour of the South Atlantic islands in an exercise that spells the start of a new era for the Army's 63,500 reserve forces.

Instead of taking part in occasional exercises and waiting for call-up at times of war, this TA troop will be engaged in a tour of duty usually associated with the full-time regular Army.

The trip to the Falklands is the clearest indication yet of the changes being made to the TA. This week, as the Government reveals the latest round of cuts in the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (up to 22,000 jobs will go), it is also expected to announce a new role for the TA.

From being an all-or-nothing device, only called out in dire national emergency, the TA, which costs pounds 300m a year, will be transformed into a pool of reservists with a wide range of skills, to be called on to support the regulars as and when required.

And on Thursday, when the Government announces the results of its defence cost study, Front Line First, it will also announce the formation of a new 25,000 strong rapid-reaction force. Although the main units will be full-time professionals - the Royal Marines, the paratroops of 5 Airborne Brigade, the air cavalry of 24 Airmobile Brigade - the reconnaissance element will be made up of the TA Special Air Service.

Next week the future strength of the TA is expected to be finalised: its size is likely to be cut from 63,500 to about 56,000, though its role is set to increase. Under the terms of the Reserve Forces' Act, due to come into force next year, the jobs of people called away to take part in what are now called 'operations short of war' will gain added protection.

Even before this week's defence cuts, the regular Army has complained of being overstretched, with 20,000 troops in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

Brigadier Richard Holmes, the only TA officer to hold that rank, said reservists would have to be on different states of readiness, with different degrees of commitment. He said the system must be flexible enough to allow the young, keen and single TA soldier to go to Bosnia for six months without insisting that the older, more settled ones with families must do so.