Recent headlines have revealed that our (tiny) Army is now 4 per cent undermanned and that it has recently launched a couple of new recruiting adverts. Even if the advertisements were not as pathetic as they are (and they are dire – the actors even have out-of-date equipment) I doubt this will solve the problem.
The shortfall is about 3,000 – the equivalent strength of four infantry battalions, although, of course, the shortfall is spread more widely. This means that most units are probably around 25 bodies short. That is significant and invidious. Significant as the reserves are in no state to make up shortages should we actually have to deploy combat power. The shortages could be filled from other units that were not deploying, as has been done in most recent campaigns, but that is robbing Peter to equip Paul. Invidious because it means that the undermanned bits get to work harder and with less realism, which drains on morale, which triggers more to leave.
Notwithstanding the plethora of expensive and advanced kit that the Army uses, soldiering is fundamentally a people game – particularly on operations, where individuals have to be inspired to stand and fight. While the shiny toys are important, the blokes (and blokettes) that operate them are fundamental. The Army seems to have forgotten this, and has outsourced recruitment to Capita. While this may make sense to an accountant and save a few quid, the result is entirely predictable.
Recruitment has often been challenging for the Army – the 1980s boom led to another problem time. However, even then there was wide disparity between the various parts. Even within the infantry, the heaviest user of manpower, some regiments consistently managed to do much better than others. They tended to be the ones that had managed to keep close and strong ties with their recruiting areas rather than the multi-battalion regiments (the exception being the Royal Anglians, but they operated pretty much as three county affiliated battalions who happened to share a cap badge). Problems have been exacerbated by the creation of a few large garrisons, rather than spreading locations across the UK. Again, this might well make sense to a second-rate accountant. The net result is that few people actually see soldiers.
And, of course, the current, seemingly never ending rounds of cuts hardly project a positive image and the abject failures of Iraq and Afghanistan remain in the public consciousness. The recent decision to prosecute two soldiers for an incident in Belfast (which has already been investigated twice) hardly boosts the attractiveness of a military career.
All of which is a shame. The Army was once a great engine of social mobility – saving many young miscreants from drifting. It was also bloody good fun and, post the Falklands War, the British Army was viewed as formidable by allies and foes. (Apparently, the Warsaw Pact adjusted their planning for World War 3 after they saw the British armed forces achieve that spectacular and unlikely victory).
Solving the Army’s manning problems is not easy – you can’t hire in a senior sergeant or major – you have to train them internally, which means recruit and retain them for over a decade. The missing 4 per cent includes much of the manpower pool that will produce the commanders for 2030.
Can it be fixed? Probably, but that probability is diminishing quickly. It will take strong political and military leadership (of a sort that the armed forces have not had for a decade or more) and a bit of money. But that cost is as nothing as the cost of losing a future confrontation, be it with Putin, Daesh or (more likely) some as yet unidentified threat to the realm. Soundbites, more new shiny weapons and platitudes are not sufficient.
While the senior military leadership is at fault, if they do not have a clear vision from the Government and a strong Secretary of State for Defence, it is not fair to park all the blame at its door. Finding a charismatic politician is always a challenge; it wasn’t Spreadsheet Phil and it sure as hell isn’t Mr Fallon.
(Image: Defence Images)