The British Army appears to be in the midst of a manning crisis; it cannot meet or sustain its personnel requirements and is increasingly turning to women and Commonwealth citizens to fill its gaps, rather than traditional sources. There are many causes, but could conscription be a more sustainable answer?
Recently, the trend away from conscription and towards professional armies across Europe has seen a degree of retreat; militarily, a perceived threat from Russia has driven countries like Ukraine to re-introduce conscription, while countries like France, Sweden, and Lithuania are turning to limited conscription to either reach out to disengaged communities and demographics, or to fill gaps. The United Kingdom’s most recent experience of conscription ended in 1960, but given the Regular Army’s increasing manning deficit and State disengagement in under-represented communities, a form of limited conscription, involving around 10,000 people per annum, may appear to be an attractive solution.
The main problem with conscription in a British context is that it was, and remains, unpopular with the electorate; historically and culturally, it is something the UK has turned to only in extremis, it would be an almost impossible sell (outside of a general war) for any political party, especially as many of those to whom it would apply would be eligible to vote! There is another major objection to conscription: militarily it is expensive, inefficient, and conceptually at odds with Britain’s concept of precision warfare; it is difficult, although not inconceivable, to imagine conscripts grasping the intricacies of modern equipment and the nuances of post-modern warfare after only a few short weeks of training. If conscription, for all its attraction as an instant fix to a temporary manning problem and as a delivery system for improved social cohesion, is politically impossible, is the solution immigrant soldiers?
In the hullabaloo following the release of the Public Accounts Committee’s report into skill shortages in the Ministry of Defence, the ongoing furore over the shortcomings in the Capita recruiting contract, and the Chief of the Defence Staff’s recent assertion that young British people no longer understand the nature of service, two simple truths have been overlooked: first, to a very large extent the current manning problem is inextricably linked to the United Kingdom’s economic success and will improve as the economy slows. Secondly, retention, not just recruiting, is key to sustainable manning.
There is a direct inverse correlation between Army recruitment and national economic success. Currently, unemployment is running at only 4%, and has been falling consistently since September 2011, wages are rising above the rate of inflation, and at the same time GDP, although sluggish, has been positive for almost nine years, the longest period of sustained growth since the end of the Second World War. In these circumstances, it is perhaps remarkable that Army manning has held up so robustly. The inevitable economic downturn will more than adequately fill the gaps in the Army’s establishment, so why look overseas to solve a temporary problem which will disappear in a shorter time than we have lived with it?
The current trade-trained strength of the Regular Army is 76,800 against a requirement of 82,480 personnel, an almost 7% under-manning. In the year to July 2018, around 4,500 personnel left early of their own volition (almost 60% of the total outflow from the Army); had those individuals stayed, the Regular Army would have seen a manning deficit of only around 1,180 personnel, less than 1.5%. This is, of course, rather simplistic, however, the general point remains: it is self-evidently cheaper and more effective to retain than recruit. Retention is a complex problem because there are as many reasons for leaving as there are leavers; the 2018 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) points to some common themes: dissatisfaction with pay and pensions, perceived poor management, particularly career management, and decreasing levels of morale all conspire to undermine Army manning, however, given that job security is the strongest retaining factor, it is difficult to understand how some of the initiatives which purport to support recruiting and retention, for example the changes contained in the New Employment Model, could be seen as in any way retention positive.
The decision to revert to the recruitment of foreign and commonwealth citizens from their home countries is difficult to understand given that the recruitment ‘crisis’ is demonstrably temporary. It is also clear that any system of conscription would be unnecessary, unpopular, and inefficient. The answer to the problem of under-manning is to be patient and improve retention, unfortunately it is easier to blame contracted recruitment than to tackle either the Army’s own part in the failure of the contract, or the causes of the failure to retain. If we want to fill the gaps, it is the question of retention which must be answered.