The UK Government’s Integrated Review introduced the idea of a ‘civilian reservist cadre for support in times of crisis’. (See previous Resilience First news article Prospects for as civilian reservist cadre.) This follows a statement in the same review on the ‘plan on making greater use of the military reserves in supporting domestic national security priorities’. Greater national resilience is another priority that would be potentially served by such forces.
The deployment of reservists is not new. Besides the Home Guard in the Second World War and the Territorials (now the Army Reserve) in more recent times, there has been the Civil Defence Corps (1949-1968) and the Royal Observer Corps (until 1992). However, there is a much older organisation that has long being fulfilling the function of reservists. The Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps (ELSC), otherwise known as The Staff Corps, is currently part of the Royal Engineers in the British Army Reserve but its history stretches back more than 156 years.
The objective of the early Engineer and Railway Staff Corps was to ensure ‘the combined action among all the railways when the country is in danger’. In recent times, recruitment has diversified to cover not only all aspects of engineering but also everything from logistics, data and digital, through to healthcare. The organisation was renamed the Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps in 1993. It was incorporated into the current 77th Brigade (a non-kinetic unit) of the British Army in 2015.
The establishment strength of ELSC is 120 and it currently has 95 members. The members are senior business leaders who are commissioned as officers in the Royal Engineers; they are embedded in 77th Brigade.
Membership is by invitation only and promotion generally follows seniority with some discretion to allow for an individual officer's status in his/her profession and level of participation in the Corps. The current officers are mainly chief executives and senior directors of 60 different engineering, transport, IT, healthcare and logistics organisations which together employ around 750,000 people.
Staff Corps Officers are not under direct military command, do not often wear uniform, and retain their civilian positions. The current Commanding Officer is Gary Sullivan, Chairman of Wilson James Ltd. In 2020, he said: “If I have to sit in front of a three-star General and explain that he or she may be wrong, I need to be able to do that without wearing a rank slide”. (Gary spoke to Resilience First members in a members’ forum on 30 July.)
Personnel undertake tasks in: engineering (infrastructure and systems); information, data and digital; logistics, procurement and supply chain; corporate support; and the health sector (non-clinical). The role is fulfilled by being a critical friend or subject-matter expert, as well as providing private-sector reach-back, non-executive member (NEM) support, and theatre-level support. NEMs coach commanders and mentor subordinate commanders and COs when required.
The Staff Corps has advised British forces operations, including wars in the Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, there have been peacetime roles in infrastructure, training, planning and logistics. Most recently and conspicuously at home, the Corps was involved in the building of the Nightingale hospitals in 2020 to the face of Covid-19, as well as help with mass testing. Reinforcing the dam at Whaley Bridge in 2019 was another urgent task. Further afield, the Corps was called to help with the aftermath of the massive explosion in Beirut in 2020 (Operation Grumium).
The Grey Zone
Discussions are underway inside government on the prospect of using civilian reserves in that part of the spectrum sometimes referred to as the’ grey zone’ where there may be options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict.
This is in response to adversaries exploiting information technology vulnerabilities to achieve an outcome. Our increasing connectivity and reliance on information technology are vulnerabilities that are being targeted by two key threats, namely cyber attacks, and the subversion of our democratic institutions and social cohesion. Both are recognised challenges to our national security. Hence, it is timely that those responsible for implementing a national strategy, as outlined in the Integrated Review, include the ELSC as one valuable component of any citizens' reserve.