New ‘softer’ army recruitment drive won’t solve the military’s problems

BY Robert Fox | robfox45   /  11 January 2018

This weekend the Army opens its major campaign to recruit members of the Snowflake generation to its ranks. Ads in cartoon form will assure that it is OK to cry and hug in today’s Army, and will answer question such as “Can I be gay in the Army?” and “What if I get emotional in the Army?” The initiative was originally conceived by the Capita recruiting agency.

The current head of the Army, General Nick Carter told the BBC, “This campaign is a recognition that we don’t have a fully manned army at the moment, and the demography of the country has changed, and that we need to reach out to a broader community in order to man that army with the right talent.”

His ‘touchy feely’ message has dismayed many of the wider military community, and the core constituency from which the nation recruits for the armed and security services. The services are, after all, are there to fight – in extremis, and at times when they are not best prepared and supplied.

When challenged that the new inclusive, politically correct message seemed to undermine the fighting ethos of the services, Carter somewhat bizarrely told his interviewer that the Army has proved its fighting mettle recently in Afghanistan. He seemed to have little awareness that the toxic legacy of Britain’s recent military experience in Afghanistan and Iraq might be key ingredients in his recruiting and retention problem.

The bad days in Basra and Helmand left many of our service men and women with a sense of purposelessness. Many ask, after all, what it did it achieve ?

This is a symptom of a picture of mismanagement and poor leadership across the defence, foreign policy and security spectrum in the UK. These issues will be teased out by the Cabinet Office’s Security Capability Review due to be published in weeks. This, we now understand, is to be followed by a fully blown, and fully costed, defence review next year.

With the incoherence of defence spending, procurement, leadership and policy across the board, it is looking a bit like a perfect storm. In that political weather pattern, the Army Snowflake recruiting row seems yet another tropical cyclone. More are sure to follow.

The Army has been reduced from a standing strength of 101,000 in the defence review of 2010 to a target figure of 82,000 in the review of 2015. Now they are down to 77,500 and still hemorrhaging; recruiting is particularly weak among ethnic minorities, and the Cabinet Office has insisted they make up a statutory quota. The numbers of minorities in the services still don’t reflect their presence in the general population.

General Carter said that a large part of the problem is the diminishing available number of young white males between 16 and 19, known in the jargon as the ‘recruiting cohort.’ This problem isn’t new, as Carter should know, and was recognized in the early 1980s in a study called Manning and Recruiting in the Lean Years of the Nineties – with the appropriate acronym MARILYN. That study identified the thinning of suitable young males, and, among other things, pointed to the dearth of trained engineers – a feature which is currently hitting the Navy hard.

Then there is the backwash from Afghanistan and Iraq, grueling assignments with difficult outcomes – to put it mildly. As much as anything, these deployments were political and policy failures. The leaders couldn’t explain realistically why our boys and girls were there and had to fight so desperately. The mantra ‘we are there to make British streets safe from terrorism’ seemed to invite prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Weak language in explaining Britain’s position in both wars was symptomatic of weak leadership. British commanders had a habit of talking at their audiences, journalistic or otherwise, rather than engaging in dialogue.

A major problem today is so much of the officer class in Britain seem intellectually and culturally undernourished. In my experience none of the UK commanders had the mental heft of men like David Petraeus, James Mattis, Stan McChrystal and  Martin Dempsey. A sharp upgrade in the education, training and sheer life preparation of future officers and commanders at all levels should be addressed in the upcoming review.

Britain is at a strategic turning point – in a sense way beyond a narrow military perspective. The security and defence reviews must address the fundamentals of what is required to maintain British security and British interests in the shifting dynamics of regional upheaval and the dynamics of globalization. Threats and advantages will have to be reckoned in terms of hard, soft and – new kid on the block – sharp power, which is not as new as some make out.

The easiest part of the problem to address in the reviews is the projected overspend on current plans of £20 billion in defence programmes over the next ten years. The fact is that all three services were given major re-equipping programmes following Afghanistan, including new frigates and aircraft carriers, major land warfare equipment, new aircraft and missile defences – at a price tag that couldn’t be met even before the recent slide of the pound against the dollar.

Too much money is devoted to buying new equipment, and not for sustaining and maintaining through a long life cycle. Too little emphasis has been placed on personnel, regular and reserve, which civil servants have tended to look on as an expensive inconvenience.

One of the biggest weaknesses has been an inability to set policy in a strategic context – a realistic, penetrating analysis of where Britain sits in the world. The two Cameron Strategic Defence and Security Reviews of 2010 and 2015 were prefaced by a National Security Strategy paper. These were quite extraordinarily thin – a laundry list of British assets, soft and hard, including the armed forces and universities, and risks and threats which stated the obvious about terrorism, organized crime, and cyber warfare. The 2010 NSS managed to give only fleeting reference to China, however.

The National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, has been tasked to produce a new National Security Strategy, which much of Whitehall and Westminster seem to regard as a bolt-on nuisance to all the current shenanigans over Brexit. They shouldn’t: it is a vital task and must be done urgently. The rather modest NSS paper put out by Gordon Brown isn’t a bad place to start for clarity of expression. More to the point are the strategic reviews ordered by Harold MacMillan between 1957 and 1959, post Suez and looking to the era of Blue Streak and Skybolt.

Macmillan shows the job can be done, elegantly, realistically and swiftly. It also might help for Mark Sedwill and his team look at the review of the Army and defence by Lord Esher after the near defeat of the Boer War in 1903. It is still a model of clarity. Helpful, too, is Sir Michael Howard’s ‘The Continental Commitment’ which describes how the first cabinet secretary Maurice Hankey (the first modern national security adviser in effect) addressed global and regional strategy in the First World War.

This may seem a far cry from today’s crisis of the parlous state of UK defence, strategy and the armed forces. It isn’t. The requirement is for effective force to fight the Queen’s enemies and defend her friends – still a hugely effective and flexible formula.

 The other day I overlooked the battle site at Goose Green in the Falklands, where 400 men of 2 Para won through by sheer grit, bluff and good fortune against more than twice their number. By day two, 29 May 1982, most were running out of ammunition. Not so much a damn near run thing, perhaps, as a damn near run fluke.

Even so, thinking back to May 1982, I wonder how the Snowflake soldiers would fare in similar circs ?

Robert Fox is Defence Correspondent at the Evening Standard