At last, less than a month after the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter gave an approved speech to RUSI in which he claimed that the UK’s ability to respond to military threats from Russia will be eroded without further investment, today we hear that the Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Gavin Williamson, has labelled the Army’s recruitment process as being “unacceptable” after it was revealed that applications to join-up are currently taking an average of 300 days to be processed and completed.
In addition, we are told that of the more than 100,000 who applied to join the Army last year only 7,441 applicants were successful in joining-up. Worse perhaps is that of the number of those who were successful in joining up there are always a small number that have subsequently already departed the Army for whatever reason this might be such as deciding that the Army was not for them after all or that perhaps they were found to be short on fitness and unable to complete initial training by their peers.
The problem of Army recruiting has been known about for at least five years if not longer just as has the ridiculous target set in SDSR 2010 for Army regulars and volunteer Reserve numbers be deemed by many defence specialists and commentators as being impossible to achieve on the present basis of the ‘offer’.
Back then the Coalition Government envisaged a Regular Army of 95,000 full-time personnel and numbers of Reserves put at 30,000 – although the former number was to be further reduced in 2012 following publication of the ‘Army 2020 plan’ to 82,000. The broad estimate today is that the Army is currently short of around 4,000 personnel if current official targets are to be met although the reality is that as there are almost bound to be instances of double counting in respect of those that have joined and then chosen to leave, the shortfall may well be much higher than this.
Following publication of SDSR 2015 I note that General Sir Nick Carter said that “credibility of the Army would be based on its capacity to field a warfighting division”. He said at the time that SDSR 2015 had identified a figure of 50,000 to deliver an expeditionary force and that the 80,000-odd [Regular] soldiers that we have at the moment, give or take 3,000 or 4,000 here or there, and the Reserve that we have, provide us with the essential capacity to be able to deliver a division like that.
The trouble is that the Army has never been able to sustain full time personnel numbers at 80,000 and worse is that it has come nowhere near to achieving the proposed number of Reserves targeted. Indeed, suffice to say that the Army has not even come anywhere near to employing sufficient numbers of new joiners that are required to fill the gap of those that have left in their droves under the Hammond and Fallon regimes.
At that time General Carter argued that the MoD had “carefully calculated” the capacity of the Army to deliver a warfighting division although he conceded that the margins were “quite tough” and that “any consideration of critical mass should focus on the target end strength of 120,000 personnel” rather than attempt to distinguish this between Regular and Reserve personnel numbers adding that “if you take the whole number that I have described and you bring readiness criteria into it—how quickly you would expect us to field this thing—the plain fact is that that provides you with the ability to do a one-off divisional intervention, probably in a multinational context, and then it probably provides you with the opportunity to reorganise and to keep something behind thereafter while also watching your back in the UK, but there is not much margin for error thereafter”.
The MOD has in the past blamed the contractor responsible for Army recruitment for part of the problem and while I am in no way about to defend the contractor in question it is important to remember that the bottom line is that the MOD is responsible for how it has chosen to transact recruitment of all UK armed forces and also, together with the Army, responsible for the failure to retain sufficient numbers of trained Army personnel.
Since SDSR 2010 around the time that it was first contracted out, Army recruitment has been overseen by Capita. Secretary of State Gavin Williamson is reported to have said that both the firm [Capita] and the government were “working hard to speed up the process” of employment. Although he said nothing on the equally important issue of failure to retain sufficient numbers of personnel, the poor quality of housing, offer on pay and pensions that are all reasons why personnel have chosen to vote with their feet and leave, Mr. Williamson says that wanted “recruits who meet our world class standards [to] start their training as soon as possible.
The length of time and the ridiculous amount of process involved for armed forces employment beggars belief. One tiny medical blemish on a person wanting to join even if it has no significant bearing on what the person concerned my ever be asked to do leads to disappointment. As far as I am aware until very recently medial based requirements were still based on what was being used in the 1950’s and maybe further ago than that. We are however told that computer based systems used in Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel employment have recently been upgraded for the first time in 20 years.
Clearly not all are fit to join the military but while I accept that a number of would-be joiners will sometimes, in this day and age, be deemed as being inappropriate to join-up – for instance if they are medically and physically unfit or failed at schooling – it is equally clear that some blame must also be attached to what is without doubt a sub-standard recruitment process. The MOD has apparently admitted that the national recruiting call centre process has not worked and that it intends to go back to old fashioned but proven principles together with using professional recruiters.
That is all well and good of course but the bottom line is that even if the Army was able to recruit the number that it currently requires [this takes no account of the possibility that currently targeted numbers may be further reduced in the upcoming defence review, very little is being done to ensure that the Army, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, can retain those that it cannot afford to do without.
Whilst it is very pleasing to see that the Secretary of State for Defence has accepted that the present recruitment system is not fit for purpose and has, unlike his immediate two predecessors, listened to what those around him have been saying for years, the wider problem is that for far too long the Government and the MOD has failed to invest in its people and in motivating and incentivising them to stay.
I live in hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will follow his recognition today that the Army recruitment process is unfit for purpose by similarly recognising that if we do not provide a solution very quickly to the wider problem of retention, to understanding why it is that far too many of our trained military personnel – be these soldiers, sailors or airmen – have chosen in the recent past to leave and worse, that are still doing in their droves.
The solution for the Government and MOD to the vexing problem of retention may be a costly one but it is relatively simple – invest in your people, invest in married and unmarried quarters, ensure that the homes they live in are more than just fit for purpose, invest in their families and provide more support to those left behind following deployment, invest in the educational, medical and other forms of support facilities, in nurseries and educational facilities be these for professional purposes or for those of sport and leisure. Do all or a big part of this and you will find that even in this very competitive world in which skills do not come cheap, provided the offer and pension commitments match, the issue of retention will disappear.
(Commentary will reappear on Thursday 22nd February)
CHW (London – 20th February 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785