The Government's £1.8bn plan to create a 35,000-strong reserve force by 2018 to compensate for the loss of 20,000 sacked soldiers in the coming years will need a "minor miracle" to succeed, Lord Dannatt, a former Chief of the General Staff, has warned.
Experts calculate that at the current rate of recruitment it will take 433 years for the plan, known as the Future Reserve 2020 (made up of Army, Navy and RAF reservists) to meet the target pledged by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
Cuts to reduce the Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020 were agreed on the basis that a large force of reserves, or part-time soldiers, would fill the gap.
But the trained strength of the reserves is currently 22,010 – an increase of only 30 personnel compared with 12 months ago – according to statistics released by the Ministry of Defence last week. The bulk of the reserves is the former Territorial Army, which accounts for 19,150 (down 50 from a year ago). As for the regular armed forces, they are significantly under strength – with the deficit of the full-time personnel having soared tenfold in four years.
"There is no plan B," Lord Dannatt said. He described the past 12 months as a year of "treading water", with the MoD's IT system "unable to do the business".
Asked whether the 2018 deadline is achievable, Lord Dannatt admitted: "On the face of the current evidence it will take a minor miracle to achieve it, but people are trying to make that miracle happen."
The former head of the British Army added: "It was difficult enough to recruit enough reservists when we had the potential excitement of Iraq and Afghanistan."
Another challenge is establishing whether "employers of small and medium companies are going to be willing to take the risk of one of their valuable employees having up to a year away every now and then", commented Lord Dannatt.
There will be a three-year gap, between 2015 and 2018, when "they won't have recruited the reservists and we won't have got the regulars" – which means the Army may not be able to take part in meaningful action overseas. "That's an acknowledged risk the Government's going to carry," he added. "Maybe it will be OK, maybe it won't."
Mr Hammond, said last month: "Army Reserves will be critical to mounting military operations in the future and we intend to grow the number significantly by 2018."
But an MoD spokesperson admitted yesterday: "We have always recognised that growing our Reserve Forces to 35,000 by 2018 would be a challenge... We know it won't happen overnight."
Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Defence Secretary, said: "It is incredible that as the Defence Secretary says his plans to recruit thousands of new Army reservists are on course, the figures show that the number of reserve soldiers is actually falling."
Even if the MoD's plan works, the Army in 2020 will be at its smallest for nearly 200 years.