Sunday, June 16, 2024
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We need crack troops, not sulking teenagers


IT MAY or may not be the case that the majority of the public support ‘some form of national service’  but Mr Sunak’s surprise scheme has about as much chance of solving the Armed Forces recruitment and retention problems as Sir Keir Starmer has of answering a detailed question on any policy matter. It’s notable that this lunatic idea has been promulgated only when the MoD and the rest of the civil service is in purdah so the generals can’t comment.

As I have written before (repeatedly), 16 people leave the Armed Forces for every 11 that join, and that’s not sustainable. Hitherto most service personnel join for least three years. Basic training takes three months, followed by specialist training which can take another six. It’s even more for officers. That effort delivers what are generally regarded as some of the best junior servicemen in the world, capable of operating the sophisticated weaponry of modern warfare. They’re prepared to put their life on the line and tough enough to kill.

A large part of that is down to the simple fact that they are volunteers: they endure the considerable physical and mental demands of training (and subsequently serving) because they want to. Rather than seeking to shirk they strive to excel. That was not typical of national servicemen. By the time conscription ended in 1963 the Armed Forces had got thoroughly fed up with conscripts. It’s not just the British; the US found out the hard way in Vietnam what happens when you send conscripts to war and ended the draft in 1973.

Even if Sunak’s 30,000 a year who chose 12 months in the Armed Forces (as opposed a few weekends of non-military public service) forgave him for replacing their gap year on the beaches of Bali with square-bashing at Catterick, spending six months training to get a usable junior soldier for just six months is a very expensive and inefficient way of increasing numbers. Training soldiers properly is not cheap and as any Russian or Ukrainian conscript will tell you, poorly trained soldiers die like flies to little military effect.

Which is not to say that the Armed Forces are not in trouble, with recruiting and retention failure close to the top of the pile of problems. Any sensible incoming Secretary of State would immediately increase the pay offer to recruits and junior soldiers, sailors and airmen. They would then move on to resolving the MoD’s housing problems – these have been going on for years and a botched privatisation and concretisation has not helped. Cancel the contract and make housing of soldiers a military command responsibility.

Then make serving fun. That requires lots of time on exercise, doing the things they joined for. This means keeping kit maintained and working, increasing the spend on spare parts, fuel and ammunition. Demonstrably well-trained armed forces are a more visible and credible deterrent than nuclear weapons, and used earlier in the escalation process. Delivering that is money well spent.

At some stage the almost 500 officers of Admiral, General or Air Marshal rank must explain quite how they allowed the armed forces to get into such a sorry state. Although politicians and civil servants have much to account for, so have the top brass. Jack Tar and Tommy Atkins are voting with their feet because of leadership failure; that starts at the top.

Then comes the hardware and organisation. As it has since Nelson was a lad, the Navy needs more frigates. Order them and speed delivery. That might mean finding more shipyards as Harland and Wolff might be in the EU for state aid purposes, courtesy of Sunak’s Windsor Agreement

The military utility of the 18 battalions of unarmoured infantry that the army maintains needs to be questioned (hint, not much). They either need armour (probably Boxer APCs) or rerolling. Then there is the problem of a shortage of tanks and modern, self-propelled artillery – of which the Army currently has none.

The RAF needs a sensible number (more than the currently ordered three) of the Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft – without which their F-35s and ageing Typhoons are useless (unless operating under control of a friendly power). There’s also a debate necessary on the second tranche of F35s – do they need to be carrier capable (like the first 48)?

All of this could have been done a decade ago, but the Tories kicked the can down the road and then fell into the delusion of cyber warfare being a substitute for motivated, committed service personnel. It isn’t, never was and never can be; as the previous head of the Army, General Patrick Sanders said a couple of years ago, ‘You can’t cyber your way over a river.’

Fixing the armed forces won’t be cheap, but the country needs credible combat power, not 30,000 crying conscripts.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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