‘Strategic reserve’ force and sending troops to Ukraine, but away from frontline, should be considered – former minister


The UK should consider sending troops to Ukraine to give training and other support to Ukrainian forces in their war with Russia – though away from the frontline, former armed forces minister James Heappey has said.

Mr Heappey also told Sky News that Britain needs to be better prepared for war at a time of growing threats, including by reinvigorating a large “strategic reserve” force of thousands of veterans who could be required to serve again in a national crisis.

In a wide-ranging interview, the outgoing MP for Wells in Somerset repeated a call for an immediate increase in defence spending to close gaps in capability – such as being able to defend UK airspace from missiles – and eventually to regrow the size of the military.

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“There’s really two things that I have set myself to achieve in my remaining time as an MP, given the knowledge that I have as a long-serving minister in the MoD [Ministry of Defence],” Mr Heappey, 43, said in an interview at his home.

“Firstly, to make the case for more defence spending: 2.5% [of national income, up from just over 2%] now. Three per cent by 2030.

“And secondly, that we reinvest and refocus in our strategic resilience as a nation and our capacity to war fight and withstand any other type of crisis that might come our way.”

The comments came after Sky News revealed last week that the government has no national plan for the defence of the UK or the mobilisation of its people and industry in a war.

In a series - called Prepared For War? - Sky News explores how prepared the UK is for the possibility of armed conflict
In a series called Prepared For War? Sky News explores how prepared the UK is for the possibility of armed conflict

Officials have started to develop a cross-government “national defence plan”, but any shift back to a Cold War-style, ready-for-war footing would require political leaders to make defence a genuinely national effort once again.

Mr Heappey, who stepped down as armed forces minister last month after four and a half years in the job, underlined the critical importance to British and wider European security of supporting Ukraine in its war against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

He urged the UK and its allies to go even further with the types of weapons they are willing to give Kyiv as the Ukrainian military struggles to withstand renewed Russian attacks.

“I think we’ve got to shake the tree again right now for what more we could give from our current inventories – What is the next capability threshold that we could go to beyond Storm Shadow [cruise missiles]?”

The MP, who will quit politics at the next election, would not be drawn on what munitions he was suggesting but he did voice support for comments made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron about the potential need to deploy western forces to Ukraine.

British Army personnel teach members of the Ukrainian armed forces are taught how to operate L119 Light Guns by the New Zealand Defence Force and British Army - to defend itself against Russia - on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. Picture date: Saturday June 25, 2022.
British Army troops teach members of the Ukrainian armed forces how to operate weaponry in 2022. Pic: PA

“Some of the things that Macron has suggested recently, I think are things that really do deserve consideration,” the former minister said.

Asked if he meant the idea of boots on the ground, he said: “I think you’ve got to be careful about how you do it. I think definitely nowhere near a combat zone. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful not to make it into a Russo-NATO war.

“But I do think it is worth exploring what in the sort of deeper – in the depth of Ukraine – the donor community could do.”

As for whether this meant things like deploying British troops on a training mission inside Ukraine, Mr Heappey said: “Well, I think it’s worth considering.”

Reviving the strategic reserve

Closer to home, Mr Heappey said he would like to see a modern-day version of a Cold War system of preparing the whole of the nation – military, industry and the public – for the possibility of armed conflict.

This included reviving the strategic reserve – which comprises everyone who leaves the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for a set period of time.

Pic: PA
Minister of State for the Armed Forces James Stephen Heappey speaking to the media following a Government's Cobra emergency committee meeting at the Cabinet Office in London, to discuss contingency arrangements for strikes, the second time ministers, officials and military chiefs have come together this week. Picture date: Wednesday December 14, 2022.
James Heappey said care will need to be taken not to turn the current conflict into a Russo-NATO war. Pic: PA

“Rewind 30 years, when you left the military, you were left with a set of uniform, there was a requirement to go for training exercises once a year, just a weekend, just to check you could still shoot straight and that you could still run,” he said.

The obligation to serve as a second layer of military force to support the regular military in a war of national survival still exists – including for Mr Heappey as a former army officer.

“So I’d better get on with some press-ups and some running,” he said with a smile.

Renewing contact with this group of veterans is something defence chiefs are exploring.

“I think that they are looking at how they’ll do that,” the MP said.

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“Contacting them is one thing… but it’s what you do with them… are we going to start to say to them that there is some sort of liability whilst they’re on the strategic reserve?

“These are discussions that are under way, nowhere near to a policy announcement, but they are under way.”

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He said he thought it would be a good idea to re-establish such a link and some kind of annual training, though he recognised this would require a lot of equipment, such as rifles and uniforms, as well as serving soldiers, sailors and aviators to run the exercise.

As for the message this would send to the UK’s enemies, he said: “I think it would be quite powerful… all of a sudden, our adversaries are looking at a force that is the regular force… and then 200,000-250,000 more beyond who have a skill at arms, who have a familiarity with military tactics, and could in extremis be mobilised, and that changes their thinking again.”

Asked about the strategic reserve, a MOD spokesperson said: “Our armed forces reserves are an essential and extremely valued part of defence and the contribution that they make to resilience and our ability to call on additional personnel when required are vital. We regularly update our records to ensure that we can call on ex-regular personnel should they be required to serve and have modernised our processes.”

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