|EXCLUSIVE: Sean Parnell, FOI editor
From: The Australian January 23, 2010 12:00AM
DEFENCE chiefs are considering a secret plan to send more reservists to the front line, as battle fatigue takes its toll on Australian troops, particularly those on repeat, extended deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
In what may be the first large-scale use of part-time soldiers since the Vietnam War, Australia's army, navy and airforce strategists have highlighted areas in which reserves can relieve existing personnel or deliver their own targeted support.
While last year's defence white paper foreshadowed a greater use of reserves, it is understood recruiting shortfalls and the continued challenge of maintaining such a high level of activity overseas has put the issue firmly on the agenda.
The Weekend Australian has discovered that a detailed plan was delivered to Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston and department secretary Ian Watt last month and is under careful consideration, given the potential political and community fallout from any poorly delivered reforms.
The Reserve Reform Stream Implementation Plan follows personnel and capability reviews across all three services and an ongoing conditions of service review set to change the circumstances in which reservists are engaged and the expectations placed upon them.
The services have warned Defence chiefs that some specialist troops on repeated, extended deployments are being put under more stress and their relationships under greater strain as the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.
Of the 3884 Defence personnel to have had a disability claim accepted as a result of their service in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, one in four had a mental illness.
Studies of US troops in Iraq, detailed in the latest edition of The Lancet medical journal, reveal more American troops are being evacuated with mental illness, a trend the researchers partly attribute to the impact of repeat deployments and the additional burden carried by reserve troops.
Defence briefing notes for Dr Watt, obtained under freedom of information laws, declare: "Part-time personnel are critical to current operations, both domestically and offshore, and this is likely to increase as further core and niche capability is developed in the part-time force."
Reserves have already been put to use overseas, leading efforts in the Solomon Islands and bolstering some aspects of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, a lack of across-the-board training and battle-readiness has limited their availability for frontline warfare.
The reserves plan was intended to make use of the "cost-effective capability" of part-time troops.
The army has advised Dr Watt its reserves "will become more focused in achieving deployable (regionally and domestic) capability and, with greater integration with the regular component, achieve efficiencies for reinvestment elsewhere".
"The army reserve continues to provide considerable support to army's work, with army relying increasingly on its part-time forces to sustain the high operational tempo," it said.
"This has resulted in a greater operational focus for the army reserve.
"Under the (US's) Total Force concept, it is proposed that the primary force structure determinant for the army reserve would be the provision of forces to meet specified force generation and force rotation requirements that cannot be met by the regular component of army.
"Accordingly, the army reserve will supplement and complement the full-time force."
The army reserve, as at May last year, had 16,943 active members and 12,438 inactive members.
The army itself had 27,392 but has been aiming for 30,000 and, like all services, has also been looking at making better use of its servicemen and women to increase its operational capacity.
Defence Minister John Faulkner was not available for comment last night, but Labor has promised to reinvigorate the reserves.
A spokesman for Senator Faulkner emphasised that any such changes would be carefully considered.