A Young Man's Game

A young man's game

A young man's game

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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).

Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

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.

Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

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.

Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

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.

More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

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.

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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.

Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

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. 

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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. 

trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

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.

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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.

GW: Is He The One?

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This week has seen the Outrage Bus started up and driven off at speed so frequently that the engine is overheating and the clutch is knackered. No doubt the Sunday papers tomorrow morning will have more pain and upset to surprise us with and there will be more than a few Members of Parliament who have spent today dreading the call from a reporter asking, 'Can you confirm that in September of 2015 you.........?' 

One of the items of outrage that seemed to put Tory MP's and the press instantly into a state of spontaneous combustion was the reshuffle following Sir Michael Fallon's resignation that catapulted Tory Chief Whip Gavin Williamson into the front line as Defence Secretary. "Too young,' 'too inexperienced,' 'not ex military,' 'caused the reshuffle himself,' were some of the typical reactions. One lady Tory MP was reported as describing him to a journalist as a 'self serving cxnt.' A lady MP who, by the way, ought to be dragged into a corner and read the riot act and told that if she ever speaks to a journalist about a colleague in such unprofessional and unbecoming terms again she'll be fired. Still, it is Parliament we're talking about, not a 'normal workplace.' 

Looking at it from the cheap seats, I would point out to these Tory MP's, and the press, that Gavin Williamson, (who I hadn't heard of before this week), is three years older than was David Cameron when he became leader of their party, (only four years after becoming an MP), and is only one year younger than was David Cameron when he became our youngest Prime Minister since 1812. So, they can stick that in their pipe and smoke it.

Moreover, being given responsibility at a relatively young age is bread and butter to the Armed Forces. More important is the question of whether he is capable of running such a big and complex department. We won't know the answer to that for a wee while but one thing is for sure, Defence has not been given the attention and commitment that it needs by successive governments for years so Mr Williamson can hardly do a worse job than have his predecessors. 

If then, Williamson can quickly grasp his complex brief and throw his talents and obvious political acumen behind his department it could be a career defining time for him and, given his sponsor is the PM, a positive for Defence. If though, he simply becomes a conduit for the Treasury and shrinks his department further then it will take years to restore the damage given many areas are already finely balanced on the line of viability. There is a new saying gaining currency amongst the lads, 'We don't do a show of force anymore, we do a show of face.' That has to change, immediately, before some bad people chance their arm and have a go. 

For the time being, I'll mostly be ignoring the Westminster Bubble crowd in giving Mr Williamson time to succeed. I very much hope he does.  

Action This Day Mr Fallon Please


We learn from his website that the Defence Secretary spoke at the British Legion reception at the Conservative party conference recently, described thus,

"Michael spoke at the Royal British Legion’s reception at the Conservative Party Conference recently.

Referring to the Armed Forces Covenant he said:  “It is particularly fitting, in the 100th year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, to reflect on the importance of the Covenant.  Our armed forces today, like those of a hundred years ago, embody the best of British, and it is right we honour all that they do for our country.  We must never forget the willingness of our armed forces to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”

Importance of The Military Covenant
“The Military Covenant recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families. This isn’t just about Government – it is about society’s commitment as a whole.”

“I am proud that this Government has enshrined the following principles in law:

  • that no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families should be disadvantaged compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services;
  • and that special consideration is appropriate especially for those who have given most such as the injured and bereaved.”

“Never again can the Covenant cease to be honoured.”"


Just one question Mr Fallon, I appreciate you run a very big department with multiple responsibilities but just in passing, why is there a four month waiting list for non urgent PTSD referrals in the Tidworth Garrison?

Action this day Mr Fallon, action this day please.