Another week passes and one with yet another silly story about Defence. Following the spurious, ‘Queen Elizabeth Sprung A Leak,’ tale we had the '£1 per head for Christmas in Afghanistan,’ then the ‘Be The Best,’ slogan being scrapped nonsense and now we have the over-the-top criticism of the Army’s new inclusive recruiting campaign which has driven retired officers to pen letters and columns for newspapers in apoplectic rage. We will be hearing more stories like this as more and more people become restless as the growing budgetary penny pinching bites harder. What all of this disguises though, is a real honest and open debate about the threat, what the government wants the Army to do, how it is going to man and equip it and how the Army will shape itself to meet its commitments. Quite frankly, I very much doubt if many in Whitehall can sensibly address that whether they be in uniform or not.
This though, is another storm in a teacup, just like the telephone answering thing last week that started up a whole convoy of Outrage Buses. My understanding is that the last 'Belonging' campaign is rated a success within the Army, (applications +34%). Capita, to whom the recruiting process is contracted, obviously, are not. The process is so designed, or ill designed, to present the potential recruit with so many obstacles most simply give up long before they enter any training depot. The scandal with Capita is that the situation does not appear to be improving year on year. Notwithstanding that, any effort to broaden the Army's appeal throughout society has to be a good thing given the pitiful representation of some ethnic groups. I discussed recruiting issues, and some modest suggestions in previous posts here and here.
Moreover, and this may come as a newsflash to some of my fellow retired brethren, the MOD has a Prime Ministerial, (David Cameron), target that 10% of all recruits to the Armed Forces should be from a Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) background by 2020. The Army meets this target, (as at April 2017), probably because of the Commonwealth intake; the other services fall well short. Additionally, the MOD has a further target of 15% of the services to be female by 2020 with women eligible for infantry and armoured roles from this year in a further crackpot farewell decision from Mr Cameron.
The armed forces face numerous headwinds, most of which we have previously discussed but in essence, may be summarised as follows,
- Near record employment (currently the unemployment rate in the UK is 4.3%, the lowest since 1975). The drop in unemployment in the 18-24 year old bracket is especially dramatic.
- Demographic change. The UK has an ageing population with those of military age declining as a proportion of the total. In addition, the proportion of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) members of the population is rising, a segment of the community which has, hitherto, shown a low propensity to apply for military service.
- The ending of the deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 has removed the “recruiting sergeant” of active land warfare operations, a factor which has traditionally helped to maintain interest among young recruits, who have regularly seen footage of British troops involved in overseas conflicts relayed into their homes.
- A shrinking military footprint. The MOD’s estate has been downsized in recent years, partly in order to meet other policy objectives, such as provision of land for housing. This has led to a situation where in many towns around the United Kingdom the only remaining military presence is provided by cadet units.
- These trends are exacerbated by other factors such as an increase in obesity in the United Kingdom in the past two decades plus an increase in post 16 year olds staying on in education (a factor which has particularly affected recruiting in the Army). The UK has the highest proportion of obesity of 27% in Europe, i.e. a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. A further 36% are overweight (BMI of between 25 and 30).
- Medical screening by Capita is bureaucratic, inflexible and has long time lines. 90% of individuals who are failed when attempting to join the Armed Forces do so on medical grounds.According to a “snapshot analysis” taken from the Army Recruiting Review in February 2017 over a twelve month period 14,269 applicants (both Regular and Reserve) were failed on medical grounds; as opposed to 575 who were failed for prominent tattoos; 262 for residency requirements and 182 for having unacceptable criminal records.
- The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 (SDSR 2010) led to four rounds of redundancy in the Army and two in the Royal Navy, plus reductions in the Royal Air Force. This drawdowns have tainted the recruitment picture, with the Armed Forces still attempting to recruit new (younger) personnel whilst making more experienced personnel redundant. This created a perception that the Armed Forces were no longer “open for business”.
- In 2013 the waiver of the 5 year residency requirement for Commonwealth Troops was terminated. This has led to a significant reduction in the number of Commonwealth recruits. In 2016, with Home Office agreement, a limited exception was made for 200 in restricted trades. Currently there have been over 13,000 applications for these places – the window for applying has been closed for the next two years as a consequence. Given the competition for places, the successful applicants are some of our physically fittest recruits but the resultant gap of over 500 recruits has had to be filled elsewhere.
Lower retention than expected and a failure to achieve recruiting targets means under-manning is deteriorating. The Royal Navy and the RAF are now running at around 10% short of their annual recruitment target, whilst for the Army the shortfall is over 30%.
The imaginative among you will already have figured out a variety quick fixes to the immediate manning problem which might include for example lifting barriers to entry for the Commonwealth and that traditional source of fine fighting soldiers for the British Army, Ireland. Capita also need to be gripped, low and hard. I hear and read much anecdotal evidence of their shortcomings but the systems failures are known and documented. A paragraph from the 2017 Tri Service External Scrutiny Report (published in July 2017) bears repeating at length, as it acts as a very good summary of the problems inherent in the current system. Although this relates to the Reserves, the problems are very similar for the Regulars as well.
“It is commonplace on every unit to hear that default referrals have been based on instances such as nonrecurring childhood ailments (brief use of an inhaler or a very minor fracture); precautionary prescriptions that were then never used; or emotional stability because of stress/counselling in the wake of, say, a family bereavement. Medical deferrals also receive a bad press from recruits, especially in the case of manifestly athletic candidates (in at least one case playing at national level) to whom a rigid Body Mass Index has been applied. As we say earlier, we acknowledge the grounds for a specific medical standard but it does seem clear to us that in too many instances it is being applied without adequate background knowledge or common sense. We are also told that the medical opinion being applied differs widely between locations. One unit which initially experienced a near 100% referral rate, went to the lengths of making their local Capita assessing GP an honorary unit member to address the problem – which it did. As medical assessments are now conducted under civilian contracts it is reasonable to assume that the assessing GPs and their staff have little Service background. If they are to deliver this Service effectively, they need better instruction/direction and we sense there needs to be better quality control across the regions. The single Services should review their recruiting medical contracts to ensure assessments are carried out with a greater degree of consistency and common sense.”
Capita took responsibility for recruiting in 2012. They should hang their heads in shame at their performance. Regular solider applications, which were c70,000 in 11/12, fell to c45000 12/13 and has remained broadly at around that level ever since. Regular solider enlistments fell from c10,000 in 12/13 to 6,500 – 7,500 from 13/14 onwards.
Many of the comments following last weeks furore which I have read in the press and on social media show a lack of appreciation for the way in which life for the average student at school has changed over the years. Given the shrinking size of the UK’s Armed Forces since World War II and also the shrinking footprint of military installations around the country, unless they have served in a cadet unit, or already come from a military family, most people leaving school have very little, if any, experience of or exposure to the Armed Forces. Something which I have highlighted since the inception of this blog. Decision makers probably overestimate the degree to which young people understand the military and its ethos and in fact some surveys have shown that they have very little understanding at all. The annual PWC Forces for Change survey found that 18-34 year olds were less aware of the job opportunities provided by the armed forces with only 75% of respondents believing the Armed Forces were important to the UK economy in offering jobs and employment opportunities compared to the national average of 81%.
Things though, are not quite as bleak as they might appear. While the institutional historical memory may be dimming, and the lights may have gone out altogether for the retired cohort, the Army has been here before.
I joined in 1978 which was not a particularly good time for the Armed Forces. Money was short. Training, ammunition, clothing and supplies were all rationed, (unless units were heading to NI). Recruitment was challenging and it wasn't at all unusual for battalions to do an operational tour with a platoon seconded from another regiment to bring it up to strength. Indeed, my CO at the time offered £20 a head to anyone who brought new recruits to the regiment. Observers fretted about 'society going down the tubes,' with the advent of punk rockers and political instability saw soldiers clearing up rubbish in the streets and on fire duty in place of those then on strike who anyway were paid more than the soldiers brought in to do their work. It all changed when Mrs T was elected the following year. For my part, and those around me, we didn't enjoy our soldiering any less and it did have it's lighter moments. On arriving at the QM Stores to exchange my well worn plimsolls on one occasion I was sent off at the high port by the QM with the classic, 'bugger off ya chancer; there's another 3,000 miles in they gutties.'
It is of course entirely normal for one generation of soldiers to look out of the window and think things have changed for the worse. It was ever thus. Back in 1980, after many hours waiting on standby in some side streets in Lurgan during the Hunger Strike riots, we got the order to move in and take over from the RUC who were taking a bit of a battering. As we moved forward a more experienced Corporal turned to me and said, 'Dinnea sweat it, this is nothing like as bad as the Ardoyne in '72.' I thought to myself, 'well a brick in the face or a sucking chest wound probably feel just as bad whichever postcode and time you happen to be in.' That Corporal, 'Annie' Oakley, was incidentally, one of the best infantry soldiers I ever came across. He moved like a cat and had a natural understanding and affinity for his environment, whether on the streets or in rural areas.
Moreover, I have been deeply impressed with those of the current senior NCO cadre in the Army who I have met. If the Army has that right then it has grounds for optimism. The years spent in Afghanistan should and are yielding significant rewards in the quality of training output. The training itself may be a shade less 'gritty,' but it appears to me, with my limited knowledge, to be more thorough. The past aggression and 'grittiness,' of training has anyway been overplayed by critics over the past week. Even at the Scottish Infantry Depot in 1978, which was no lay-up, NCO's were ordered not to swear at recruits. This was a challenge for many of them given few could complete a word never mind a sentence in normal conversation without inserting some slice of profanity.
In summary, the MOD is doing what it has been mandated to do to address BAME recruitment. With limited manpower, budgets and real estate the Army is constrained in its outreach to its traditional recruiting base which is filling with young men and women who don't actually know much about the services, don't come into contact with them and who enjoy higher career aspirations and education attainment than perhaps did previous generations. The recruitment process is a complete clusterfxck and acts as deterrent to recruitment which should be timely, transparent, informed and engaged. The two scary aspects to the entire debate is a seeming absence of political will to confront and solve what are hardly intractable challenges. The lack of interest from the Prime Minister herself is worrying. The second, as I alluded to earlier, is a complete vacuum in the mainstream press with regard to the higher level defence debate. It is 2018 but in that regard we could easily be in 1938. In respect of those currently serving, I think we can have every confidence that they meet or exceed any standard laid down by their predecessors. We just need more of them.
British Army; Faces - It takes all sorts....