Different Armies; Same Problem


The American Conservative web site recently published an interesting piece by Dennis Laich and Lawerence Wilkerson called ‘The Deep Unfairness of America All-Volunteer Force. As you may have guessed from the title, the article suggests that the ‘volunteer’ force is far from egalitarian given powerful recruitment resource is focused on potential recruits from what they describe as ‘receptive,’ circumstances. ‘Poor,’ would have done fella’s. 

The piece also quotes from an Economist article from 2015 which suggested that the All Volunteer Force is becoming more expensive and challenging to sustain while growing ever more distant from the people for whom it fights and indeed, those who send it to war. To make the point of the challenging recruitment environment they say, 'the recent recruitment by the Army of 62,000 men and women, its target for fiscal year 2016. To arrive at that objective, the Army needed 9,000 recruiting staff (equivalent to three combat brigades) working full-time. If one does the math, that equates to each of these recruiters gaining one-point-something recruits every two months—an utterly astounding statistic. Additionally, the Army had to resort to taking a small percentage of recruits in Mental Category IV—the lowest category and one that, post-Vietnam, the Army made a silent promise never to resort to again."

You can guess where they are going with their argument. That in the case of the United States, a population of 300m souls ‘lay claim to rights, liberties and security that not one of them is obliged to protect and defend.” In emphasising that only 1% feels the obligation, ‘bleeding and dying for the other 99%,’ they note that most recruits come from the less well to do areas of the Mid-West and Southern states. One slightly surprising statistic is that while 40% of recruits come from just seven states of the Old South, more recruits come from Alabama alone, with a population of 4.8m, than come from the combined metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with a total population of 25m. They go on to discuss in the article the increased dependancy on the National Guard for overseas deployments in recent years. They conclude by suggesting that the inherent bias in where the ‘1%,’ are recruited from, and by implication their socio economic class, and the lack of involvement by the families of corporate America, the Ivy League universities and the elite in general may make war more possible rather than less.

Both authors speak with some authority given they are both retired senior officers and come with experience in Washington and in education. My immediate comment would be, ‘was it ever thus?’ It would be silly to suggest that the military has ever found recruitment easy, except perhaps in time of national emergency, and areas suffering economic hardship will always yield more recruits than those which do not. Moreover, I would guess the tradition of military service remains strong in some southern states where perhaps in the metropolitan areas with greater immigration, prosperity and looser family ties it clearly is not. 

Service personel.jpg

The article though has resonance for us here in the UK where the Army is in a perpetual state of under recruitment even after it has been slashed and burned in size by successive governments, (which is probably a contributory reason for under recruitment). I suspect that the geographical breadth of recruitment in the UK is better than is the case in the US simply because we are a smaller country and despite the best efforts of the aforementioned ‘successive governments,’ to homogenise the Infantry, local links although weakened still remain. Remarkably, and I suspect this is deeply political, the Ministry of Defence does not record where recruits come from which I find odd. Except that is unless they are from overseas and this was a surprise. A total of 11,120 servicemen from 77 different countries out of a regular strength of 147,280 for all three services were born outside the UK. That is 7.55% of our fighting strength. One of the bizarre aspects to this is that while we have 200 servicemen born in in Malawi, 130 from Cameroon, 50 from Thailand, 50 from the Philippines we only have 1320 who were born in Nepal and we could recruit as many Gurkha’s as we need. Not that there is anything unusual about recruiting from overseas of course, we have been doing it for centuries. Also, the underrepresentation of those born in Eastern Europe who now represent a sizeable percentage of our population is surprising. 

Not sure if this is really selling it but I'm told the campaign is a successful one.

There are no easy answers to recruitment either quantitively or qualitatively to ensure that the military represents the society which it is charged to defend. In the UK, the erosion of confidence in Westminster's actions rather than words in securing fair and reasonable pay, conditions and security of tenure for servicemen absolutely has not helped. Nor has relative economic prosperity, the Independence referendum in Scotland and constant tinkering and interference with structure and tradition which gradually has moved the military further and further away from their home communities. David Cameron’s decision just before he left office for the leafy environs of Oxfordshire to allow women to serve in the Infantry demonstrate how far removed from military reality the residents of No 10 actually are and the little regard they have for informed advice.

Is a form of conscription the answer? Probably not given it would throw up more problems than it would solve although anecdotally, my ex military friends are more reflective and thoughtful on the subject than would have been the case thirty years ago when everyone was against the idea. There are more imaginative and constructive initiatives that the MOD could take, some of which I have put forward here in the past but at the end of day, the prospect of joining an organisation in structural decline is not the most attractive incentive for young people. Our forces remain understrength and underfunded to fulfill not just whatever the ego’s of their political masters dream up for them next but the actual threat which the country and our allies face. The worst part of the Defence debate however is that not only can the Government not decide what it wants from the Armed Forces, and the heads of the Services appear to be just as confused about what they want their individual Services to be, but there is precious little national debate, or for that matter interest, in the subject. We have of course been here before both in the years leading up to 1914 and quelle surprise! in the 1930’s and again in 1981/2 with John Nott's planned defence cuts before the Falklands War. Let’s hope things work out rather better this time round.


The Defence debate rumbles on and it is heartening that after a generation of cuts some members of the House and senior officers are standing up to state the case for steadiness in the Defence budget. Whether anyone is listening is another question. The Prime Minister apparently said this to LBC when he was asked about the complaints from senior figures, ‘Obviously, they have their own book to talk – sometimes quite literally a book to talk – and sometimes they just want to make their views known,’ and former Defence Secretary now Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s reported quote to Tory MP’s “there are no votes in Defence,” is nothing but disgraceful. 

Without going over much travelled ground about new and growing threats to our security may I just ponder on one thing, for today at least. 

n 1914 many people expected war with Germany but most assumed it would be at sea. That left most of them untroubled given the Fleet was twice the size of any other two navies at the time combined. The pesky Kaiser had other ideas and soon the Expeditionary Force under Sir John French, a small well trained and well led force of professional soldiers 100,000 strong was dispatched to France. 

The Kaiser wasn’t at all happy about this insolent move and regarded it as a 'treacherous' decision by Britain to go to war against Germany. In fact, he issued an order that Sir John's 'contemptible' little army be defeated forthwith.  

Army Order Issued by Emperor William II, 19 August 1914

It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army. Headquarters, Aix-la-Chapelle 

Unfortunately, that is exactly what they did. By the end of November 1914 the original BEF had ceased to exist and most of the original 100,000 were casualties, exhausted and overwhelmed.

The pre war British Army was equipped, trained and experienced in expeditionary warfare throughout the Empire. The current British Army is positioned in pretty much the same way. The default Government decision for any global stress point is send in a troop of Special Forces, send in some training guys for whoever is perceived that week to be on our side and if pushed, send some non-lethal equipment. Then, if things start to warm up do not very much for as long as possible giving the bad guys time to embed themselves, perhaps have a debate in the House of Commons and hope to lose and if pushed to the limit, ping off a few fast jets (if we have any spare), or fire off some Cruise missiles from a far away sub. As soon as is then practical pull everyone out, hand out a new medal and move on, thanking “the best Forces in the world.”

I know its kind of unbelievable but that really is the way some highly placed politicians and their non-military advisors think. They genuinely believe that anything other than light intervention is unthinkable in the modern environment.

Of course, that approach is all very well and works, right up until we walk into an enemy every bit as well equipped, trained and led as are we. That's mostly what happened to the old BEF. Then, all the metrics change. It’s at that point that we face an elevated risk of high casualties. When we don’t have enough replacement troops to rotate to give those on the ground proper rest. When we don’t have reserves to call upon. When we don’t have enough kit in our war stores to replace the damaged and lost. When other enemies attempt to exploit our focus elsewhere but when we’re not resourced to contain more than one situation.

We were very lucky not to suffer more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were many situations when sub units came close to being overwhelmed, (unfortunately a Military Police patrol in Iraq was). If this Government, and whoever is the incumbent after May, continues to play fast and loose with Defence there will be a consequence and that consequence is pretty simple to anticipate; more dead soldiers, a potential repeat of the military and political humiliation of Basra or possible worse..... much worse.

There is a school of thought incidentally that having failed twice in ten years, arguing over an Army strength of 82,000 or 50 odd thousand is rather irrelevant given 82,000 is just too small to offer a credible force for anything other than operations with a small Division. There is also a reasonable criticism of Army leadership both from outside and from within that it did little to offer politicians good guidance before recent conflicts and were in denial during them but are busy rewriting the recent past and its context. There is some truth in all of that.

Nonetheless, nobody likes a man who argues about the bill with a waiter who can’t talk back. Kind of the same with politicians and soldiers. 

Scottish Independence; What About The Jocks?

Mostly, I wouldn't recommend an argument with these lads, (2 SCOTS)

Nine days to go and half of the country think they're Nelson Mandela running around shouting "Cry Freedom," while the people supposed to be running the country and demonstrating clear leadership are running around in a flap with their pants on their heads. PPE from Balliol didn't prepare any of the policy wonks and advisors for this. (Good piece by Chris Deerin here btw).

Anyone who thinks this is just about Scottish Independence is somewhat missing the point. The same dissatisfaction that drives English voters to UKIP is herding wavering voters to the "Yes" camp in Scotland. That is, a screaming sense of dislocation and disenfranchisement, stretching to utter abandonment in some areas, from the political process. Some of this is just very basic. How difficult is it to empty the bins on a weekly basis? (Thank you for nothing Mr Pickles). How difficult is it to regulate travel costs so people can travel to and from work without surrendering half of their after tax income? How difficult is it to plug in the country to fast broadband to bring all our communities into the 21st century? How difficult is to provide sufficient local educational and health infrastructure for the immigrants that the national government allow through? How difficult is it to articulate a vision that offers at least the potential for a better life if not for oneself then at least for ones children? Actually, how difficult is it to listen? 

I digress. Nine days to go and the "Yes," campaign rolls on with much noise but little substance. Enjoy the ride, it won't last long. Let's just pick out one knarly, wee small issue but one which is of interest to many of us Mr Salmond.

It's obvious that many people are unlikely to change their minds and agree in the nine days that remain before voting. That's fair enough.

Royal Regiment of Scotland

But, if the "Yes" camp win the world is going to change for Scotland and change for the Armed Forces. The SNP say they will retain 3 out of the 4 Scottish regular infantry battalions, two reserve battalions, and the incremental company, (not including the Scots Guards, RSDG, 45 Cdo or 19 Fd Regt RA).

In the SNP's Independence White Paper, they contend that "the units of the Scottish Army will carry on the names, identities, and traditions of Scotland’s regiments, including those lost in the defence reorganisation of 2006." (The lads from Plockton will love to hear that). Lot to squeeze in there, especially as the "All Arms Brigade," of three units with supporting arms is described as "infantry/marines."

If you win Mr Salmond, who would you chop and what would you say to the Jocks who might be given a choice of moving to England to join an English regiment or being made redundant?

Still, one consequence of the inevitable economic darkness which will befall Scotland is that the recruiting problem for the British Army will be solved in a heartbeat yet it will have lost part of it's soul without the Royal Regiment of Scotland. 


Wasted Lives; Wasted Years

 Fall of Singapore

Reflecting on the news that we are going to give a quarter of our pilots under training in the RAF the chop, I'm reminded of the last time we attempted to defend an island without adequate air support, (pre Falklands).

Then, a Mr Edgar Granville stood up in the House in a debate about air support for Singapore and said, "I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker, that I would ask leave to move the Adjournment of House of Commons on a matter of definite and urgent public importance, namely, the sending of adequate air reinforcements for the defence of Singapore, and for the purpose of obtaining assurances from His Majesty's Government to the people of this country, Australia and the British Empire that this is being done."

The aircraft were never sent. What we had were largely destroyed on the ground and after Repulse and the Prince of Wales were sunk momentum lay with the Japanese. With a remarkable and well honed sense of bad timing, Uncle Jack arrived from England on his first posting at the age of 19 just in time for a bit of a scrap before being captured. He then spent the next three and a half years facilitating railway transportation in Burma.

Uncle Jack was one of the lucky ones; he made it home, unlike 9,000 of his comrades who were captured at Singapore and who were murdered on the Railway.

Uncle Jack never really forgave the Japs. He said to me not long before he died, "A lot of good men died.... the best. Bastards; I won't forgive them, coming back at the age of 24 and still a virgin is more than any man should have to bear.........."


Beware Swarthy, Shifty Looking Foreigners

A great deal has been said about the most recent slash and burn of the Defence budget following the risible Strategic Defence Review. Most commentary, articles, letters to the Telegraph and indignant conversation at the saloon bar usually ends with ".... and we wouldn't be able to do the Falklands again you know."

That may indeed be true, even though it gives the Argentinians a capability that in reality is no more there to attack than we have to defend. Perhaps they've acquired a Klingon Death Ray just as we've lost early warning capability with the trashing of Nimrod, just before it's due to enter service, and after we've written most of the cheques. Think Smart?........ think again stupid...

Anyway, I'm here to help and I have a tried but not trusted early warning alternative. After the Falklands War, I attended a debrief session from one of the teams touring the Army to tell us all about the lessons learned. The intelligence officer who spoke told us, without a hint of embarrassment, that the Argentinians had been buying maps of the Falklands in some quantity from Stanfords, the map shop, in the run up to the invasion. This didn't strike anyone as odd at the time, least of all British Intelligence, but then relying on some shop assistants who were probably more focused on their elevenses and their Rich Tea biscuits than the national defence is right up there in adopting the General Percival approach to vigilance, "they won't come that way."

So, time to hide the Rich Tea biscuits and sharpen up the shop assistants at Stanfords and put them on watch for swarthy, shifty looking foreigners with an unusual interest in, "the wildlife of the Malvin..... I mean Falklands senor......."

ehmmmmmm...... "What do mean.. you can see it all on Google Earth anyway?   Rats, bugger and damm..... better phone the Septics again. Your turn Johnny...."


A Good 200 Years While It Lasted .......

Fleet Air Arm Training, 2012

"To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day."  Winston Churchill

It’s a funny old world….. that’ll make the Army about 50% of the size it was when I joined. Now that our national defence has been recalibrated to take on the worst that some angry toddlers with wet paper bags can offer we're left to survey whats left. Whatever the airframe, munitions and orbat changes the one absolute certainty is that this review will result in more deaths. At best they’ll just be servicemen, at worst civilians too.

There is no mitigation here, if he’d waved a piece of paper in the air declaring, “Peace in our time,” it couldn’t be any less sincere.

Given that the spending review aims to pull back government spending to 2006 levels, I'm left trying to work out why defence is going back to levels last seen in the Thirties. For the Navy, thats probably the 1830's.

I’ve spent my adult life listening to declarations from Westminster of, “our brave boys; the best we have; the best in the world.” Well, thats simply not true any more. Despite the courage and fortitude of the individual, there simply aren't enough of them anymore.  Carriers are an absolute farce. Yes, with an Army of 160,000 and a Navy with 40 ships we might be able to leverage the carriers but 2 carriers…… sorry, make that 1 carrier sailing around, (with no aircraft), … well, where exactly and once they hit trouble, then what?

The plan is to rely on our allies? When exactly have they turned out to support us……. when? The only countries that turn out time after time are Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If anyone in Westminster is suggesting that anyone in Europe would risk lives and political capital to support the UK it would be a historical first.

The Americans? Here’s a newsflash… there’s no Cap Weinberger in Washington now.

The whole thing is a weapons grade clusterfvck, eerily reminiscent of of the last time the Tories knifed defence.. remember, we had medical services before then.

The truth is, from a macro perspective we have just massively downgraded ourselves and the outlook is decidedly bleak.

I wish I could live in the sanitised world that Cameron and his new fluffy friends inhabit. A modest kick off in NI, an escalation in Afghanistan and, oh lets see, the Straits of Hormuz mined and we’ll all be getting an invitation to join the party.

The NHS, education and The Mercs for African Dictators Fund are untouched though which is good I suppose if you're an African Dictator. The other two are, oddly enough, the two most in need of reform given that endless cash has been poured into them for no discernable improvement in results.

Average salary of a GP in Lincolnshire, (they're the guys who act as triage nurses when you go to see them before you get to the guys who actually know what they're doing); £160,000.

Let's Hope They're Not Using Real Guns...

The National Security Strategy document, with the catchy title, "A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty," has just been published.

The document highlights the growing threat from hostile cyber attacks and cyber crime. I do understand and appreciate it would be jolly inconvenient to be standing at the Sainsbury's checkout and suffer a catastrophic "blue screen of death," on the till, a power cut or a surprise bank transfer that catapulted me into the Sunday Times Rich List, but call me old fashioned, the shooty, hurty attacks scare me just a bit more.

Monty over at Think Defence has his own take on things however;

“Cyber attack! What does this mean? Challenger 2 will be replaced by the universal deployment Norton Anti-Virus 9 and random password generators? Will civil servants no longer leave their laptops in pubs? I doubt it. God help us!”