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British Regimental System - The Arms Plot

The term "arms plot" referred to the arrangement of reliefs and the rotation and deployment of units as units, rather than individual replacement. The Cardwell regimental system from 1881 was one by which every battalion abroad should have a battalion at home corresponding to it, and the battalion at home was not to be filled with trained soldiers in time of peace but was only to have a small proportion of trained soldiers and was to be filled up on mobilisation from the Reserve. The recruits came to the depôt, stayed there a short time, and went on to complete their training in the second battalion. That was a localised system, in which every battalion had its local connection. The battalion abroad came from a local source; the battalion at home was local; and the depôt was local.

Little changed over the next century. Certain units in the Army — the front-line units — moved as formed units because that is how they fight. Those units, and their families, were based in a range of locations in the United Kingdom and abroad. Some of those locations are arduous, and units can be posted to them for only limited periods. The Army calls the process of rotating front-line units through locations the arms plot. Two factors drove the arms plot: the maximum amount of time that units can remain in an arduous environment, and the times of the year when they can be replaced. Most arms plot moves, like individual moves, take place in the summer holidays, because the Army wants to reduce the impact of these moves on service children.

By 1969, as a result of the Government's new deployment worldwide, there were far fewer accompanied stations, fewer places where units can be deployed and have their families with them. Moreover, it was policy to have fewer accompanied tours and to send larger numbers of units overseas without their families because it was cheaper to organise deployment in this way. The result was that great difficulties arose when units come home in the expectation of having some time with their families after a period abroad unaccompanied only to find that they have to go off again to somewhere like Northern Ireland.

By 1991 there was widespread doubt that 36 infantry battalions was anything like enough to carry out future commitments without being overstreched. It was difficult for those who were not intimately involved in drawing up the arms plot to spell out the figures. There was no doubt that there was enormous concern among those who have operated the system. Those people who understood the arms plot understood how difficult it was for understrength battalions, those which had too heavy a program and those which had not had enough leave to get the job done — the problem of overstretch.

At that time the UK had to produce two divisions of three brigades each for NATO's rapid reaction force — one at home and one in the British Army of the Rhine — which works out at 12 infantry battalions. In Northern Ireland the UK had to provide about 10 battalions. There was then a battalion in Belize, part of a battalion in the Falklands, and one and a half in Cyprus. Adding the battalions in the air mobile brigade to the total of 36, only three were left to carry out the entire home defense role. The Foot Guards arms plot consisted of the movement of battalions between London and operational tasks outside it.

By 1993 in the Army there were two types of tours. Arms Plot Tours were are accompanied tours for a minimum of two and a half years. Emergency Tour Plots were for six months and were unaccompanied. The Ministry of Defence had decreed that no unit should undergo a second six-month unaccompanied Emergency Tour without a 24-month interval between tours. That not only enables a family to be together for 24 months; it also ensures that the unit is carrying out its primary role for an unbroken period of two years. To sustain any one infantry battalion on a six-month unaccompanied tour requires five other battalions.

By 1997 single battalion regiments were going through a complex arms plot over a series of years, and to some this was not the most effective use of manpower. The regimental system, as designed by Lord Haldane, was a multi-battalion regimental system, which enabled reservists from the same regiment to be added to those on the front line. The Army could save a great deal of manpower in the overstretched infantry if it moved back more self-consciously to a multi-battalion regimental system. That would not to go all the way towards a corps of infantry.

Under the "arms plot" whole units were moved around together. There were those in the services who consider that to be a source of inefficiency and misuse of manpower. A move towards multi-battalion regiments, in which sub-units and, indeed, even individuals, could be posted on a rolling basis, would provide for more flexible arrangements when long overseas postings are necessary.

The Army provided for operational and geographical variety for the infantry by moving battalions between locations and roles every few years - the infantry arms plot. This process inevitably took battalions out of the order of battle while they were moving and training for new roles. It also added to turbulence. The Government needed to ensure greater capability from the infantry, improved continuity, better careers for infantrymen and more stability for their families. The infantry arms plot was therefore phased out in 2004.

The Secretary of State for Defence announced in July 2004 a rebalancing of the Army designed to make it better able to meet the challenges and threats of the 21st century. Of the 40 battalions in the then-current order of battle, as many as 11 were likely during any 12-month period to move location or re-role. At any one time, as many as seven may be unavailable for operations. This was simply not efficient. The logic was undeniable: at the end of this process, many more, if not all, of the future 36 infantry battalions would actually be available for operations. Phasing out the Arms Plot would mean that the infantry was able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families. It would also allow career development for both soldiers and officers to be much more carefully planned, while keeping the variety, opportunity and challenge of new roles and locations open to all soldiers within large regiments. It would give greater brigade cohesion by maintaining units within formations.

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Page last modified: 25-04-2013 17:44:05 ZULU