Kevan Jones, the Shadow Minister of Defence, recently asked in a written question what the shortfall was in Infantry establishment numbers. The answers are a cause for concern.
The very first thing which leaps off the page is the total number. As of the 1st December 2016 the British Army had a total Infantry strength of 19,420 against an establishment of 20,164. Of the serving total, some 4,380 were serving outside their parent regiments in training establishments, Special Forces and the like leaving an available Infantry pool of 14,860. That is a risible number for a country of our size and commitments. Life in the infantry is very physical and injury is common. It would not be unreasonable, (although no figures are quoted), to suppose that at any time between 5 and 10% of the nominal roll is unable to fight because of short or long term medical issues. If we take the lower end of that we have a fighting strength of 14,117. I do not doubt for a second that those 14,117 men are any the less soldiers than any of their forbears but the number is simply not big enough to prosecute anything but the most modest localised conflict.
Then we have the Reserves. Of a Reserve Infantry establishment of 6,048 the actual strength is 6,240 of which 1,420 were serving outside their parent units on 1st December 2016 leaving 4,820 available for Regimental duty. That apparent surplus is encouraging. It would be interesting to know though how many of the 1,420 serving outside their parent units are actually serving with regular battalions and does that in itself improve, at least optically, the poor regular Infantry numbers? Also, I can't reconcile the numbers in the written answer with those provided in the table above which was published with the answer and which reflect, apart from the Parachute Regiment, a recruitment and retention shortfall of great concern. For example, the London Regiment is shown as being 38.6% below establishment, the Yorkshire Regiment 30% and the Royal Regiment of Scotland 24%. The huge shortfall in Junior Non Commissioned Officers must be a particular worry.
Ever since the unseemly rush to reap a so called peace dividend with Options for Change in 1990 all three Armed Services have been the larder that successive governments have raided to pay for other vanity projects. The Reserves have been lauded as a plausible adjunct to total strength to be called upon when needed allowing regular infantry numbers to be hosed. It seems to me that is not quite how life is working out, either for the regular or the reserve infantry.
Why is that? Why are young men seemingly increasingly reluctant to join the regular or reserve infantry and what can be done about it?
The reasons are many and varied but a good starting point is to accept that it has never been easy to maintain the Infantry at full strength, especially during times of relative economic health. Even during the 1970's, (although infantry battalions were significantly larger than they are now), it wasn't unusual for a battalion doing an operational tour to be supplanted with men from another battalion to bring them up to full strength. Moreover, the Army is in a constant state of renewal needing a steady intake of new recruits throughout the year, every year. On average, it is a young man's game. Without recruits from the Commonwealth the numbers would be even worse. They matter more than they did then however because the overall numbers are so low. A recruiting shortfall seemed serious back in the days of a 165,000 strong Army. It's a bit more of a wide awake moment when the Army is less than half that size.
It is also common to lose experienced young Officers and NCO's after a prolonged conflict. Many feel they have 'done the script,' and when it looks like years of training and routine lie ahead rather than adrenaline-pumping action they leave. That sentiment spills out into recruitment. While it sounds perverse, it is easier to recruit in times of strife than in peacetime. While the Army probably needs a prolonged period to gather itself after years of active service and to execute the latest reorganisation it doesn't help recruitment.
Somewhat at odds with this is a reluctance among the soldiery to be posted far from home when in the UK. Being close to Mum and girlfriends at home is considered a good thing which is probably why when I look at the Arms Plot the Army has made efforts to keep regiments as close as is practical to their home recruiting areas. More important from an infantry perspective is that many recruits are sons of soldiers and while some fathers are proud to see their sons join their old regiments many advise them to go in the opposite direction with the echo of words from their own fathers and grandfathers ringing loud, 'get a trade son.'
The amalgamations of the 1990's and 2000's which turned much of the infantry into multi battalion super regiments have not helped. Generally, regiments which retained their identity and culture such as the Parachute Regiment and the Guards have fared better than others like the Royal Regiment of Scotland who are some 12.6% light on establishment numbers. The creation of the RRS was not especially well managed when compared to others like the Rifles but the RRS faces other headwinds with constant reruns of IndyRef on the front page not helping either officer or soldier recruitment.
Engaging Capita to manage military recruitment was a grievous error which no one seems to want to admit or correct. I have met many young men and women in recent years who have been driven to exasperation trying to navigate their way through the recruitment process. Required standards of entry, specifically medical, have also been too onerous. If a potential recruit had a bad cough at the age of six its enough for Capita to bin the application. A risk averse recruitment policy will get you exactly what it sets out to do but it ignores the fact that our infantry have always been imperfect. Many have come from broken homes, have endured various kinds of deprivation in growing up either social, educational or parental but have transformed themselves and their life chances after time in uniform. Capita have quotas. They don't have imagination. They are also inefficient. The MOD signed a contract with them in 2013 partly to 'mitigate the risks of ICT.' The new computer system is still nowhere in sight.
Another drag on recruitment may be the perception that Her Majesty's Government in general, and the MOD in particular, are not quite as loyal to the Armed Services as one might like to believe. The recent scandalous hounding of former servicemen for made up crimes in Iraq, done without a squeak of protest from Main Building, is a disgrace. So too is the interviewing of former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland which includes Chelsea Pensioners, one of whom was questioned in relation to a 45 year old incident when he returned fire on a terrorist. What makes this much worse is the long roll of terrorists who were given a free pass by Tony Blair. Military housing and education for dependents also require attention as do other areas of concern such as mental health support.
Finally, David Cameron's feckless political decision to allow women to enlist in the infantry is unhelpful in maintaining the tight bond which is built and nutured in infantry sub units. Without engaging in operational arguments I simply contend that it produces another headwind to core Infantry recruitment and retention.
So, what is to be done?
I have a simple plan, the implementation of which should be immediate and which will lead to recruiter postbags overflowing with applicants forthwith.
It's good to talk
Get every Infantry CO and RSM in a room and ask them what they think the problem is. Then, have a big dinner and give them half a cellar of wine and find out what the problem really is. Spend two days in sub groups coming up with plans specific to their regimental recruiting needs. Subject to that,
Ask the Rank & File
Get out and nail down a large sample of recent leavers. Ask them why and ask them 'what would it take for you to come back.' Do the same with a large sample of recent applicants who didn't ultimately enlist and ask them the same. Then, issue an essay competition with a reasonable cash prize and invite officers and men to present their own solutions. There are a lot of creative and active minds in the Army. Unlike the Americans however, new thinking is rarely encouraged or listened to. Rather, based on often erroneous assumptions, decisions are made and then magically become 'the way,' and are adhered to without measurement or review. Afghanistan was a rather shining example of that but lets not go there.
Sack Capita and end the obsession with digital recruiting. It isn't working.
Looking from the outside in it has never been more difficult to enlist, at any level. The roadblocks and timelines presented to potential recruits deter all but the most enthusiastic. That may be the plan but it is not a very clever plan. There are no end of vacant high street properties on which very short leases could be taken for the establishment of temporary 'pop-up,' recruitment offices. They should open in the evenings and weekends with effort focused on those regimental recruiting areas where there is a shortfall. Get back to basics. Social media is a tool to be used where appropriate, not a means to an end.
Create an 8 Week Outward Bound 2nd Chance course for teenage offenders.
Take over an old camp like Cultybraggan in Perthshire and recruit 'lite' offenders who both want and would benefit from a second chance. If they can prove themselves through the medium of civilianised adventure training that they have the potential to become self motivated individuals with a sense of self worth and pride then they win the opportunity to apply for military service and other government and local government agencies including the police, fire brigade and ambulance service with a line through their conviction.
The Royal Navy has taken a proactive and creative approach to filling some of the critical skills gaps which it faces. The Army should too but the best actions need to be taken at a political level. Resurrect the plan I presented to the then Minister, Bob Ainsworth, seven years ago which I described here. That is, to offer any serviceman serving a minimum of five years fully paid tertiary education on resettlement, from an MBA, degree to apprenticeships. US Armed Forces benefit from this in something called the Montgomery Amendment to the GI Bill. Give soldiers a reason to enlist and stay for longer than three years.
Pay & Conditions
Give all servicemen an immediate 10% pay rise. OK, even with reduced manning numbers I guess no government will do it, such would be the noise generated by every other public lobby group, (although it didn't stop Mrs T). The government could think smarter though. Long term government borrowing rates have never been cheaper. The government should issue government backed bonds to raise a fund and use it to offer 30 year fixed low rate mortgages to servicemen with low deposit and credit requirements. To administer it the MOD have a choice. HMG could buy what remains of the Co-Op Bank, (no one else wants it); go ahead with the planned divestiture of Williams & Glyns from RBS, (which was recently put on hold) and use W&G as a Services bank, (HMG still owns 70% of RBS) or sub contract it out. Once the platform is proven they could extend the offering to NHS staff, Emergency Services and so on. Our Armed Forces have a tradition of breaking the cycle of limited life aspirations for men and women who have not enjoyed great life chances in childhood. Time for politicians to convert words into action.
A cycle of UK training in geographically limited training areas with occasional spells training in Canada and the odd tour every 20 years to the Falklands and Belize interspersed with the odd tour somewhere dusty to train tribesmen has a somewhat limited appeal after the first three years. Time for the Chiefs of Staff to get on the phone to their US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand counterparts and ramp up Long Look, (if they still call it that), the exchange programme with other armies. Get the numbers up and spread it through the ranks, send whole platoons or companies to Fort Bragg for six months. Why not? Soldiers need challenge and they need variety.
Time for a root and branch review of the super regiment structure which can start with the CO's and RSM's conference above. What and where are the good, the bad and the ugly. Can it be more successful with tweaks, does it need a major overhaul or should we dial back the clock? The Army has been in a constant state of reorganisation for 26 years which has mostly been a challenging game of how to do more with less while retaining the look and feel of a serious and credible permanent member of the Security Council. More dramatic change could be detrimental in the short term but it is more important that the platform is robust to serve with a long duration view.
Raise a new Regiment / Battalion
The infantry has been in organised numerical decline since 1991. Enough. No one wants to join an organisation that is contracting with all the implied career implications that entails. A boost with the raising of an additional battalion would lift the Infantry and indeed the whole Army. In any event, we badly need a lift to the infantry establishment. Only a fool or a general quietly hoping for a knighthood would agree that we have sufficient fighting strength. The options here are varied and open, ranging from taking the Argylls back to battalion strength from their current company sized ceremonial role, to bringing back a regiment from suspended animation to adding a battalion to one of the better recruited super regiments or perhaps a second guards battalion to the Grenadiers or Coldstream. Obviously, another Gurkha battalion could be raised in a heartbeat.
More imaginative thinkers may wish to consider that with 15% of British citizens having been born abroad the Army no longer reflects the national demographic. The discussion about creating a Sikh regiment pops up now and again, (it's always the Sikhs), and perhaps one day a company or battalion may be formed. More striking is the absence of recruits with names ending in -'ski' of Eastern European origin. A composite battalion might be the answer but there is definitely a job waiting for a charismatic and thoughtful leader. Such a leap forward into the past could only be done if mandated by the government but why not?
In summary, the numbers in the tables above tell the story. The Army has halved in size yet shortfalls currently exist across the Infantry. Not only does that reduce our fighting capability but it also reduces the available pool from which to select candidates for promotion or for Special Forces duties. The danger of then falling into a spiral of falling standards and morale and yet larger shortfalls is never far away. The life of an infantryman is far from glamourous. They though don't need our love or a cuddle. They simply need respect and the knowledge that there is switched-on support behind them. There is no organisation on the planet better able to 'make do,' than is the British Army, just as there is no organisation less able to say 'no,' or to admit to weakness. As voting taxpayers, concerned citizens if you like; we have a part to play in highlighting the structural failings of the Army, and those of their political masters, because if we don't who will? If pressed, I would put the whole thing into one sentence by asking the MOD and Chiefs of Staff, 'why are you going out of your way to make the Infantry so unattractive and difficult for our sons and nephews to join?'