Allies Soldiering

How the British Army lost its way by Lucy Denyer

Army design
Army design

Just before Christmas, the US Marine Corps held their 248th Birthday Ball in a hotel in London. It was a lavish evening, with medals galore on display, dinner and dancing. But the highlight of the night’s revelry was a nine-minute video. Set to a soundtrack of Future Warrior by Audiomachine, it began with a thrilling montage: of ships steaming through choppy waters, planes doing death-defying loops, helicopters buzzing low over hostile territory and lots and lots of guns, fire and explosions. “Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum” flashed up on the screen. “If you desire peace, prepare for war.”

“Even I was on the edge of my seat,” says one British Army officer who was there. “I thought, ‘I want to join the US Marine Corps right now’.” That, he adds, “is the s— we need.”

In 2022, the US Marine Corps stood at 174,577 troops, with another 32,599 on reserve. In 2020, the Corps received 358,240 applications and accepted just 38,800 of them. Its annual budget is roughly $53.2 billion (£42.1 billion); US defence spending as a whole stands at $877 billion. It’s an unholy sum, and one that throws the state of the British Forces into stark comparison.

That British Army officer is one of just 75,983 regular full-time personnel in the country, with 28,284 reservists backing them up; the lowest numbers since the Napoleonic wars – although the Army nevertheless has the largest number of personnel of all three Armed Forces. Recruiters signed up just 5,560 regular soldiers last year – well below the target of 8,200 – and the outsourcing recruitment contractor, Capita, has admitted it will probably miss this year’s target of 9,813 by a third. Reports suggest that, at the current rate of striking, the British Army will field fewer than 70,000 soldiers within two years.

Britain might be the sixth largest spender on defence in the world (the figure currently stands at £45.9 billion), but a National Audit Office report into the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Equipment Plan found that the Army was £12 billion short of the funding required to meet the full demands of last year’s Integrated Review Refresh. The gaps are obvious, and sometimes embarrassing. The 155th Artillery Regiment currently has no guns – we gave them all to Ukraine, along with most of the ammunition needed to fire them. Our 240 or so Challenger tanks date largely to the 1980s and 1990s; the Army has an upgraded version on order, but will only have 18 of them by November 2027 and the full complement of 148 won’t arrive until the end of 2030. There’s not enough money for basic weaponry, let alone to produce a fancy video showing hordes of soldiers blowing stuff up with it.

Little wonder, perhaps, that earlier this week, senior US generals declared Britain to be no longer a top-level fighting force. And even more alarming that the current state of the world may demand us to up our game within fairly short order. So where’s it all gone wrong? And how can we fix it?

‘Start thinking soldier’

Ask your average soldier why he signed up, and a significant majority – if they’re honest – will say they’re in it for the drama, danger and excitement. Or, as one Army officer puts it bluntly, “they want a scrap, and to be able to bayonet someone in the face.”

In this century, the high point of British Army recruitment was 2003, when 16,690 people signed up to fight for Queen and country – just under the previous peak of 16,963 in 1999. At the time, there were plenty of opportunities to fight. In March that year, British troops joined the Americans in invading Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein and occupying the country after a month of fighting that would grow into a conflict of six more years. At the same time, Britain’s Army was also deployed in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Young men and women signed up in their thousands: average Army recruitment throughout the 2000s was 14,459 per year.

The MoD spent heavily to recruit during those war-filled years: £20.5 million in 2002-03, £20.3 million in 2003-04 and a whopping £33.2 million in 2004-05. Reflecting the difficulties of attracting recruits to the infantry, in 2006 a special infantry recruitment campaign was run at a cost of £5.25 million. Soldiers were harvested from estates in the likes of Glasgow and Liverpool, where the Army offered them a way out of what could otherwise be a pretty tough life: 24 per cent of all Army applicants in 2003-04 were unemployed for a significant period before applying. There was adventure on offer, yes, but also the promise of engagement with an enemy force, and a clear moral divide between them and us. Like the recruitment posters of a century before, the harsh reality of war – the fight, but also the potential sacrifice – was not shied away from. As a recruitment poster from 1934 put it: “Members of the Armed Forces need to be capable of dealing with death and disaster on a daily basis.” The same was true once again. Plus, of course, the chance to bayonet someone in the face.

Fast forward to 2010, however, and things looked rather different. The war in Iraq was winding down. Troop numbers had reached their peak in Afghanistan, at around 10,000, but the nation was growing weary of this long, unwinnable war, especially as the number of fatalities had also peaked; over 100 personnel were killed between 2009 and 2010. Grappling with the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the coalition government was embarking on austerity measures, and in the 2010 defence review, under Liam Fox, the then defence secretary, it was announced that there would be a major cutting back. The Army would shrink from just over 100,000 soldiers to 82,000 by 2020, and would get smaller still by 2025.

“Start thinking soldier” proclaimed a 2010 recruitment video – still set in the desert of Afghanistan but notable for an absence of tanks, helicopters or additional manpower. “Would you mortar them, bug out or engage?” was the question asked of the potential recruit. It’s difficult not to wonder whether the MoD might have been asking itself the same questions. “That was in theory when they [the government] wanted to prioritise equipment, but doing that within the defence budget meant having to make savings somewhere else,” recalls Gen Lord Richard Dannatt, who handed over as head of the Army in 2009. Those savings, he points out, therefore had to be in manpower, “and most of the manpower is in the Army”. By 2012, Army numbers had fallen to under 100,000 and retention was also dropping, with the numbers leaving jumping from 11,500 in 2011 to 13,200 in 2012.

That was also the year that the Army signed a 10-year recruitment contract with the outsourcing giant Capita. Prior to this, recruitment had been carried out by specific teams within military units. Walk into a recruiting office anywhere across the country and you could have had a face-to-face conversation with a soldier, sailor or airman, and be starting basic training within weeks. But with the axe of redundancy swinging, the MoD needed soldiers back in their day jobs.

The Army said the deal with Capita would release over 1,000 soldiers back to the front line, and deliver hundreds of millions of pounds in benefits to the Forces. But the new arrangement was beset with problems from the outset, from technical difficulties with the new online recruitment system to interminable waits after signing up. Auditors found that, in the first six months of 2018-19, it took up to 321 days for new recruits to get from starting an application to beginning basic training; in 2017-18, nearly half – 47 per cent – of applicants dropped out voluntarily, with the delays believed to be a significant factor. The Army estimates there were 13,000 fewer applications between November 2017 and March 2018 than in the same period the preceding year.

The hope at the time was that the Army Reserve would grow to make up the shortfall. But there were manifest problems with this approach: first, a lack of a clearly defined purpose for reservist troops, second, a pay rate that for many didn’t seem worth it for the disruption to their everyday lives and, finally, the same lack of investment in recruitment that beset the regular Army. A 2013 White Paper under Philip Hammond, who by then had taken over from Liam Fox as the defence secretary, proposed military pensions and healthcare benefits for reservists, as well as increased pay, in a £1.8 billion bid to drive up numbers from 20,000 to 30,000 by 2018, at which point the reserves also saw a name change from the Territorial Army to the Army Reserves. But at the same time, some 26 reservist bases of a total of 334 closed down. As former regular and reservist soldier John O’Brien wrote to The Telegraph recently, “these centres served as a vital gateway, introducing young people to military life. The effort of travel within a rural county puts possible recruits off.”

Things haven’t improved much since. The number of reserve bases is now down to less than 50, and, while reservist numbers have increased marginally since 2012, at around 1.2 per cent – despite the MoD signing a further two-year recruiting contract with Capita last June, there was a 35 per cent decrease in people joining the Reserves between 2021 and 2022. The following year, 5,580 reservists left and only 3,780 joined. Part of the problem is mindset, says one frustrated Army officer who works regularly with reservists. Fundamentally, he says, “they’re civilians. They have no idea how to behave like ordinary soldiers, and have none of the credibility.” What’s more, with no requirement to actually deploy, their efficacy is perhaps questionable, especially when it takes time to train reservists up to standard. “You can’t train a reservist to use a tank overnight”, points out one officer who has done several stints on the recruitment front.

'You Belong Here' Army ad campaign from last year
‘You Belong Here’ Army ad campaign from last year

Aside from the antiquated process, part of the problem in its recruiting of both regular and reservist forces, says the officer, is that Capita “measures success as people who come through the door, instead of the people who complete the training”. To succeed in getting the right men and women into a position to fight, he says, the system needs “to move from assessments to tests. A test is something you pass or fail. An assessment means someone only needs to attempt it. But to close and kill the enemy, you need to deliver to the standard required, and the standard is a test, not an assessment.”

There’s also the issue of who’s being targeted in the first place. In recent years, recruitment campaigns have, in the view of many, “gone soft”. In 2016, military chiefs sought to appeal to a supposedly altruistic Gen Z with reverse psychology. “Don’t join the Army,” its campaign declared; “don’t become a better you.” This was followed by 2017’s “This is Belonging” campaign, telling the stories of soldiers who believed they wouldn’t fit in to demonstrate that all are welcome. In 2019, the “Snowflakes” campaign called on “snowflakes, selfie addicts, class clowns, phone zombies and me, me, me millennials” to join its ranks in a campaign that infuriated not only an older generation but many serving personnel too. In September of last year, it was “You Belong Here”, “to challenge the misconceptions among the 59 per cent of young people who do not believe they would fit in.”

Posters that say 'Class Clowns and Binge Gamers - Your Army Needs You'
Recent ads appealing to Gen Z have not been entirely well-received by serving forces – British Army

“There’s so much wokery and mixed messaging,” says one former Marines officer. And, while these campaigns may have been successful in attracting those who might not otherwise have thought of a career in the military, the problem is that they have ignored what has always been the Army’s traditional recruiting base: white, working-class boys (and girls) between 16 and 24 who want, as one Army officer puts it, “drama, danger, excitement, reasonable pay and a fight”.

These campaigns, he says, “don’t show tanks or anything blowing up. But my bit of the Army is there to fight and kill the enemy – and we’re not very good at telling people that’s our job.”

‘Armies are not easy to create’

So what now? Europe is teetering on the brink of all-out war. If it breaks out, Britain would have to step up to fulfil its Nato commitment. So do we really need the citizen armies that Gen Sir Patrick Sanders alluded to last week? And what about the kit they would have to fight with?

“If the Government wants to make the Army as effective as it could be, it requires total governmental and political support, sustained investment, and a sense of urgency to do things quickly,” says former brigadier Ben Barry, a land warfare expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He outlines three main priorities: accelerating recruiting, a return to fully collective, large-scale training and a renewed focus on the logistics of weapons procurement. People, says Barry, are key – and, he says, “to be brutally frank, if you want sustained readiness, the high priority has to be the regular Army” – not the Reserves. (It’s sobering to remember that in the first six months of fighting in Ukraine, the Russians took the same number of casualties as the headcount of the entire British Army.) That means improving the offer to attract and keep the good people, from implementing pay review recommendations, to retention bonuses for those serving, to a massive improvement in the standard of living accommodation. “We have to make a better offer to those who might be wanting to join,” agrees Lord Dannatt – and get front-line soldiers back into recruiting offices to attract the brightest and best.

That’s not to say there isn’t a role for reservists, who might also be bolstered by a larger, better and more engaged regular force. Should we introduce some form of national service – that citizen army that Gen Sanders referred to – in the manner of our European counterparts in Sweden, Finland and Norway? Difficult, when military life has become so segregated from its civilian counterpart. As Richard Munday wrote to The Telegraph recently, even “organisations like the National Rifle Association, and events like the King’s Prize at Bisley, are ghosts of their former selves because their objectives have been countered by political decisions that have sought to segregate the military from civilian life, and sporting skill and interest. If we are serious about the need to maintain a credible Armed Forces in the future, we must bridge that divide.”

“Armies are not easy to create”, points out Maj Gen Chip Chapman, a former paratrooper and senior British military adviser. “You need motivated people who will join because they see it as vital for the UK’s interest. The worst thing you could have is people being coerced to join.” Instead, says the Army officer with recruitment experience, “more effort needs to be made to get people who have previously served back in [as reservists] – because it’s experience we’re lacking now.” Another suggestion is for all fit and willing former regular soldiers, numbering some 200,000, to be invited to take part in annual military exercises.

Next is kit, which Britain is woefully lacking: we’re low on guns, we’re low on the ammunition to shoot them, we’re low on tanks and the two aircraft carriers on which the majority of the defence equipment budget was blown in recent years are undeployable as Britain doesn’t have enough sailors to man them. We’re also majorly lacking in layered air defence – the ability to fight off attacks at both short, mid and long range. Recent suggestions that the carrier HMS Elizabeth could be deployed to fight off Houthi attacks in the Red Sea ignores the fact that we are lacking the jets to put on them that would provide the long-range cover.

“The situation could be better,” admits Nick Reynolds, research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute. Part of the problem, he says, is that modernisation across the board was delayed by the Helmand campaign, which means everything needed to be brought up to date at once. But, he says, the Ukraine war has highlighted some stark requirements: first, the need to produce and stockpile munitions quickly and on a mass scale; second, to simplify the bureaucratic procurement system, cutting out the cronyism, and third; invest in air defence capability across all ranges. “Unfortunately, we’re now in a position where having sovereign capability and a large workforce with a significant amount of expertise is a very valuable thing – but we allowed that to atrophy,” he says. “We need a more sustainable arms industry, to produce things in-house.”

It would, he says, involve a massive expansion of the UK domestic arms industry – a prospect many might feel uncomfortable at. But doing so could also bring job creation and boost the economy. The question, says Reynolds, is whether – as a country – we are willing to have that conversation with ourselves.

Of course, all of this doesn’t come cheap. The Army has a £44 billion procurement plan over the next 10 years, but, as Gen Sanders has pointed out, just 18 per cent of that money is committed – a dangerous position to be in during an election year. And, says Lord Dannatt, we should mind the lessons of history. In 1935, for example, Britain was spending less than 5 per cent of GDP on defence. When war broke out that figure shot up to 18 per cent, and when the country was fighting for survival in 1940, it went up to 46 per cent. “18 to 46 per cent is the price you pay for disaster,” Lord Dannatt warns. “We have to be prepared to pay the price for deterrents. Even going up to 3 or 4 per cent of GDP would buy us sufficient Armed Forces to be credible within Nato.” Russia is right now spending nearly 40 per cent of its GDP on defence.

The MoD is aware of the problems. Last June saw the publication of the Haythornthwaite Review into Armed Forces incentivisation. Its brutal conclusion was that the current system doesn’t really work for anyone; it proposed a radical overhaul to resolve the tensions between career progression, operational effectiveness and family life. “Future recruitment is a top priority,” said an MoD spokesman, adding that the measurements the Haythornthwaite Review set out, from zig-zag careers where people can leave and re-join the Armed Forces, through to reviews of pay and progression, are being trialled and piloted. In December, meanwhile, more than 400 soldiers were ordered back into recruiting offices in a bid to get more people to enlist. And, said Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, in an interview with The Telegraph on Thursday, Army recruitment almost doubled last month alone amid growing fears of a confrontation with Moscow.

But as Britain looks to the future, the official British Army motto might be a salutary reminder. “Be the best”, it proclaims. To do that, it needs commitment, cash and political will. So, what will the recruiting video of 2024 show?

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