Official confirmation last week that the number of ‘Regular’ soldiers has now fallen below 80,000 should be a matter of great concern. It is unusual that I write in relation to Army matters and I recognise the argument that suggests because of radical changes in how we conduct warfare that we may not need as many ‘boots on the ground’ as we have traditionally had. But that debate is far from being concluded and for the Army to now be over 2,000 below the 82,000 target the Government set for numbers of full-time Regular soldiers is not something that we should turn a blind eye too.
Perhaps the greatest concern is that we could yet see a further downward drift in Army numbers unless the current retention and poor recruitment situation is not better addressed. Meanwhile, the Army continues what can best be described as a long and seemingly uphill struggle to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of full-time soldiers for its immediate needs whilst, at the same time, it attempts to significantly increase Army Reserve (formally the Territorial Army) numbers and train them to the very high standards required.
These problems come as little surprise to those of us that have in the past expressed concern over retention ability right across the military and, in the case of the Army, why such a small proportion of its personnel are seemingly fully trained and available to deploy on operations at short-notice. Neither do such issues come as any surprise to those of us that have consistently warned that as far as the Army is concerned, SDSR 2010 policy in regard of recruiting and training such a huge increase in numbers of the Army Reserve would, at least in terms of the 2018 target date set, be undeliverable.
Following publication by the Coalition Government of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010) in November of that year it was envisaged that Army based redundancies would reduce the number of Regular (full-time) soldiers from a then total of 102,000 personnel to a figure of 82,000 by 2020.
However, although the plan envisaged a near doubling of trained Army Reserve numbers from a then figure of 19,000 to 30,000 by 2018 it had not been officially envisaged that numbers of Regular full-time soldiers would be significantly reduced before the majority of the increased requirement for Army Reservists had been recruited and fully trained. Three years ahead of the original 2018 target, it appears that the Army had already lost more than 20,000 full-time personnel through voluntary redundancies. In the face of an Army Reserves policy that failed to work as quickly as planned it is with regret that the MOD has made little effort in regard of accepting the importance and need to retain sufficient numbers of Regular soldiers until the agreed level of Army reservists have been employed and fully trained.
That the Army needs to adapt, change and make itself more efficient in what is today in the UK at least regarded as the post Afghanistan era can hardly be argued. Given that British troops were withdrawing from Germany and that we no longer have sufficient capability to support more than one international conflict it seemingly made sense in the eyes of the Government in 2010 to reduce Army numbers. Six years on and another defence and security review later (SDSR 2015) with the level of threats against the UK having risen substantially one may be entitled to take the view that Army personnel numbers have, just as they also have in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force been allowed to fall too far. For the record, leaving loss of military aircraft and ship capability aside, the Royal Navy have been forced to lose approximately 5,500 of its personnel posts since 2010 and the Royal Air Force around 8,500 personnel.
Leaving aside the debate over required future Army numbers along with the ongoing fears that despite some positive recognition from the Government within SDSR 2015 that spending on defence capability needed to be increased, there can be little doubt that the Army was in need of structural change. Not surprisingly, given that the Army had a large role to play in Afghanistan the process of change was to an extent delayed of necessity. The lack of ability to retain combined with voluntary redundancy has though left the Army short of 2,000 personnel needed to meet the 82,000 level that the Cameron Government committed too but also well short of the promised numbers of trained Army Reserves.
Cutting numbers of full-time regular soldiers and replacing them through increasing numbers of Army Reserves probably looked in 2010 to be a straightforward way out for the Government in terms of reducing the cost of Army defence but as we now know the plan was in many respects short sighted, poorly thought out and executed. It also completely ignored the probability that the cost of training Army Reserves to a level that they might be regarded as ‘specialists’ able to deploy on similar status to their full-time peers might well cost more than retaining numbers of Regulars.
Sceptics who believe that the Army has been far too slow to adapt and change and to make itself more efficient would rightly question why it is that available front-line Army troop capability represents little more than one quarter of total Army personnel numbers. And with little evidence of regimental consolidation and change over recent years, they might also be entitled to argue that costs savings might have been more achievable by forcing structural change within the Army and the closing of more of the Army’s many bases.
Back in the real world, the plan to replace 20,000 full-time soldiers with 30,000 fully trained Army Reserve soldiers by 2018 (a requirement that required an increase the number of Army Reserves (formally Territorials) from 19,000 to 30,000 over eight years) was in my view fatally flawed and undeliverable from the start.
To achieve such an aim not only required the full support from industry as the main employers of would-be and existing members of the Army Reserves but it would also require that the Army take on and train approximately 2,750 new reservists in each of the following eight years if it was to have any chance of hitting the required target of achieving a level of 30,000 fully trained members of the Army Reserve able to deploy by 2018.
Such has been the extent of the problem for the MOD of recruiting and training sufficient numbers of Army Reserves that the upper age limit for recruits joining that hold specialist skills was raised from 45 to 50 and for ex regular soldiers choosing to join from 43 to 52 years old. This has undoubtedly helped but recruitment remains way below the level that it needs to be if the policy is to remain unchanged.
The numbers speak for themselves. By the end of 2013, more than two years after the SDSR 2010 policy had been first announced, the number of Army Reservists had risen by just 60 personnel. It seemed that as fast as the Army managed to find new personnel to join the Army Reserves just as many, including some of the newer recruits who quickly found the system to be wanting, were departing. A year later, the net increase in numbers of Army Reserve soldiers was reported to have increased by a paltry 170 people. By January 2016 the official line from the MOD was that there were 22,530 ‘trained’ Army Reservists although some have questioned whether this might have been a touch economical with the truth.
Retention of personnel in the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force has and remains one of the most important issues facing the MOD today. Retention in a highly competitive world of employment where the holding of special skills can provide a valuable price tag means that the armed forces are having to compete for staff like never before. Changes in the ‘Offer’ and particular those related to pensions since 2010 have not gone down well with many in our armed forces and this has, not surprisingly, led to a reduction in morale amongst various sections of the military. Discontent, many have chosen to vote with their feet and leave.
For the best part of five years after the original Army Reserves policy was first announced the MOD appeared to be in denial that its policy would be very difficult to achieve and worse, that it might leave the Army significantly weakened. Time and time again the message from Main Building ran something along the lines of ‘we are confident of delivering the required numbers [of personnel] and of delivering a reinvigorated Army Reserve force by 2018’. More recently I have noted change in the date and that achieving the requirement by April 2019 appears to be the norm now being quoted by the MOD and others.
Sometimes, figures that have appeared from the MOD suggested that the number of new Army Reserve signings was actually increasing but the reality is that these often failed to show the number of those who found that joining the Army Reserves wasn’t for them and that they had left shortly afterwards. In July 2014 the National Audi Office joined the chorus of discontent publishing a highly critical assessment of progress so far and in June 2015 we learned that the net increase in Army Reserve numbers between April 2012 and April 2015 had been just 750 additional personnel.
I will not get involved here with the now long standing debate over accusations that by seeking to replace full-time soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force with Reserves the Government was attempting to do defence on the cheap. It is of course only right that the Government must on behalf of the taxpayer always seek to get the best value for money from defence and increasing the involvement of Reserves across all three of our armed forces made great sense. But, in my view, with specific regard to this being a sound and progressive defence strategy, it does not make sense to base a policy of increasing reserve numbers that is purely based on the ability to reduce numbers of full-time trained soldiers, sailors and airmen. But then, SDSR 2010 was hardly a strategy was it!
While it is true that the strategy to increase numbers of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Reserves has worked quite well we should not to judge this in comparison to the problem the Army has as the numbers are very much lower. Long deployments away as sea and large scale technical training and skills requirements in the Royal Air Force necessarily reduce the number of roles that Reserves can play.
For the Army, it must also be admitted that part of the problem is that on joining reservists have suggested that they do not feel valued by full-time soldiers and that, as the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon readily admitted earlier this year, that there are cultural issues at the heart of the armed forces and that there needs to be more effort put in to bring reservists and full-time soldiers closer together. Suggestions from some members of the Army Reserves of being treated as second rate or inferior to the full-time soldiers used to train them has unfortunately been common place and there can be little doubt that a cultural problem exists. On the other hand it must also be said that many Reservists have because as volunteers they have chosen to give of their time freely to learn and train to have the necessary skills in order to operate alongside full-time soldiers that they have been treated by their peers with great respect and admiration in equal manner.
There are other issues that need to be considered here:
The first is that the whole policy of cutting numbers of full-time Regular Army personnel numbers was badly thought out. The Army was forced to move forward with a plan to reduce Regulars by initially seeking voluntary redundancies. Not surprisingly, with morale already extremely low and an opportunity to claim redundancy arising, larger than anticipated numbers of Regulars sought to leave. Often those choosing to leave were exactly the specialist trained people that the Army really could not do without. Although I am unable to confirm whether the figure is accurate my current understanding is that over 80% of Regular soldiers that have left the Army over the last five years have done so through the voluntary redundancy route. This is clearly far too high a proportion.
Of course, there is always a natural outflow from all three armed forces every year due to those that have reached the natural end of their careers or choose to leave for other genuine reasons. In the case of the Army and despite the number of Regular soldiers being invited to opt for redundancy, the need to recruit new people to join has been required to remain as active as it ever was before. The problem here is that what had once looked to be an exciting and rewarding long-term career in the Army seemingly no longer held the attractions that it once did. The Army found that recruitment all but dried up. Worse was that even less were interested in joining the Reserves.
Having previously announced that it would outsource Army recruitment into what was to be called ‘The Recruitment Partnering Project’ and that would be used to employ the 9,000 soldiers that the Army needed to take on each year Capita was appointed by the MOD in February 2012 to head this up. What followed was a catalogue of disasters built around failed IT issues, money being wasted and what a former CEO of Capita, Paul Pindar told a House of Commons Select Committee was a recruitment crisis caused because “there are no wars on”.
While I can be in little doubt that failure to deliver the Army recruitment requirement was due to a combination of factors and that led to what one former commander of British forces in Afghanistan was reported as calling a ‘dysfunctional system’ the bottom line is that if there is blame to be laid it must be shared by both the MOD and Capita. Looking at the outsourcing decision with an open mind, I would suggest that the decision taken by the MOD to upgrade the existing recruitment system as opposed to creating a new system is partly to blame. I have no desire to get the private sector off the hook and no contact with Capita but while they can certainly be blamed for failure in some aspects of Army recruitment they are not responsible for the Army’s personnel retention inabilities or indeed, to make what is on offer attractive enough.
In respect of recruiting Army reserves, in a separate report written by a Reserve Forces team for the MOD and that was headed by Lieutenant-General Robin Brims called on the British Army to launch an urgent review into the £440 million Capital contract due to the failure to deliver on recruitment.
While Capita has lost out on performance payments the MOD has it seems escaped all blame. In investigating how the recruitment system works externally outside of Capita involvement I have to say that I am extremely disappointed in what I have seen. For instance, would-be Army Reserve recruits being interviewed in run-down accommodation that would be enough to scare off most. Worse is the lack of equipment capability available at locations to tempt individuals to join. What little that is available to show might just about tempt a schoolboy to join the CCF but certainly not a young adult to join the Army Reserves.
The latest manning figures show that show that Army numbers have now fallen well below the downsized target level of 82,000 that was imposed following drastic defence cuts announced in the 2010 defence review. This is despite millions of pounds having been spent on recruiting campaigns and, as the Daily Telegraph pointed out, leaves numbers employed in the British army at their smallest level since the Napoleonic wars. This combined with low morale following years of defence capability cuts, an Army Reserves recruitment policy that cuts little ice with those it is supposed to be attempting to encourage to join let alone to provide reassurance to their full time employer shows beyond any doubt that defence recruitment is in a mess.
While in part the failed recruitment policy can possibly be blamed on high levels of employment nationally within a society that today offers so many competing attractions for those young people that the Army needs and that may be looking at a future service based career and also that the ‘offer’ including pensions may be deemed as being increasingly less attractive than it once was I fear that the underlying reason may also be due to a cost based desire to actually encourage service personnel numbers to decline.
CHW (London – 7th September 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS