I note from the Armed Forces bi-annual Diversity Report that as of the 1st October 2017, 23.6% of the UK Regular Forces and 13.9% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. In the last year, this has decreased by 1% in the UK Regulars and 0.9% in the Future Reserves 2020. Of the Officers, 7% of the UK Regular Forces and 5.3% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. At 1 April 2017 48% of UK Regular Forces personnel were under the age of 30. The overall average age was 31. The Army had the lowest average age (30), and the RAF the highest average age (33).
Both Officers and Other Ranks in the Regular Forces are younger on average than is the case in the Reserves. The average age of Regular officers is 37 years old compared to 43 years old in the Reserves while Other Ranks in the Regular Forces have an average age of 30 years old compared to 35 years old in the Reserves.
These average ages appear high. Average ages in the Royal Navy and the RAF are higher than the Army. We would expect that given the need for more technically qualified servicemen given the nature of their weapons platforms. There is also a minimum requirement, however much the Services have been cut, for command, control, support and logistics which would increase the average age.
Notwithstanding that the proportion of servicemen aged between 18-24 has declined in recent years. In 2000 this age bracket accounted for 31% of all personnel, in 2017 this had been reduced to 24% of personnel.
The ugly fact though, is that war fighting is a young man’s game. I have written before about how small the Infantry portion of the Armed Forces is. The same is true of the other combat arms, Artillery and Armour, but with at a best guess, less than 12,000 fighting infantry soldiers fit to fight, the government of the day has limited optionality in committing itself to any kind of armed response. Worse, if those available forces were to be committed they would again be at elevated risk because there are no great numbers in reserve behind them. In a worst case extreme scenario we could lose the fighting strength of the British Army in a matter of days bringing unthinkable last ditch options in play. In pursuit of short term gain UK governments have therefore lowered the nuclear threshold.
I would find reassurance in lower average ages across the board but what do I know? I’m just an old guy armed with a mouse and a keyboard.
Size matters. UK Regular Forces are 50% smaller than in 1980. The total strength of the full-time UK Regular Forces (trained and untrained) at 1 January 2018 was 147,033. Between 1990 and 1995 the strength of the UK Regular Forces reduced by around 72,500 personnel (a drop of 24%). The reduction in strength was a result of the MOD’s Options for change strategic defence review announced in July 1990. The review was intended as a response to the changing strategic environment in the post-Cold War era, establishing a smaller better equipped forces and making defence policy focused more on capabilities rather than threats.
Since 2000 the total strength of the UK Regular Forces has generally declined year on year (except for four years of slight growth in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010). The Regular Army has fallen in size in the last 12 months by 2.3% with rises in numbers of Gurkha's and Reserves off-setting some of the decrease. Overall, the Army has a 6.3% shortfall in manning from it's Trade Trained liability against 3.7% for the RN and 5.9% for the RAF.
The manning shortfall across the Services is not historically unusual. It has more impact now however because the overall size of the Armed Forces is dramatically smaller than was the case even since 2000. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review has indicated that the requirement for the UK Armed Forces would be 144,200 personnel by 2020. The 2020 target is 53,960 (27%) personnel fewer than needed at 1 April 2000.
Is the world 27% safer today than in 2000? With our Armed Forces at their smallest since the Napoleonic Wars we would wish that to be the case. Back on Planet Reality we know that is not so. In December the House of Commons Library carried out an analysis that looked at the real-terms (ie inflation-adjusted) changes to defence spending. It found that between 2010 and 2015 the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) budget had fallen by £8bn in real terms. That's a cut of 18% compared with the 2009-10 budget.
In January, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter said in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute that Britain "must take notice of what is going on around us" or that the ability by the UK to take action will be "massively constrained." For the CGS to speak out in public and in plain terms was unusual. In previous times his stark warning would have sparked a national debate about Defence. Not so now. The truth is few people care and why should they when dealing with their own busy lives? Nor do most politicians. The consequences of under resourced defence will be felt hardest by those serving if they are called to action. The repercussions though, will be felt by us all.