The publication of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee Report on Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces has attracted the usual media interest in whether the UK’s military is suffering from overstretch and under-funding. In numerical terms the case appears straightforward: in April 2007 the Armed Forces were 5,850 personnel below their stated requirement which equates to an overall shortfall of 3.2 per cent, although manning in specific trades or specializations varied considerably.
There is no disagreement over the accuracy of the data included in the Report but much over the conclusions drawn from it. Statistics themselves are an insufficient basis on which to make judgments about the condition of the services and whether they are fit for purpose. It is therefore surprising that the Committee did not spend more time considering the context within which the Armed Forces sit in order to make better sense of the presented statistics. For example, the repercussions of a shortfall in manning are related to the type and level of activity of the relevant organization. Therefore, if the British Armed Forces were not engaged in war-fighting deployments overseas but casually occupied in routine training and home-base duties in the UK or Germany, it is likely the current shortfall in medical and linguistic staff could actually be increased without a significant impact on the military’s ability to conduct those duties. Patently, the significance (or not) of the ‘missing’ 5,850 uniformed personnel is fundamentally linked to the context in which the services are operating.
The core issues are then whether gaps in personnel manning affect military capability, and whether the available capability meets current and impending requirements. The Report did not emphasize these points and its conclusions and recommendations were undermined accordingly. Similarly, the generic way in which the Report summarized a number of the issues within it distorted by generalization the picture of recruitment and retention in the Armed Services. In contrast, the National Audit Office issued its own Report Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces in November 2006 that highlights how overall assessments mask specific difficulties. It mentions that the three services have identified 88 ‘pinch points’ (defined as ‘trades or areas of expertise where there is insufficient trained strength to perform operational tasks without curtailing the time provided between deployments for recuperation, training and leave.’) and examines eleven in detail to find that specific shortfalls range from 1.6 to 70 per cent . Clearly, the Committee’s findings would have greater traction if not diluted by oversimplification. In future, a more focused investigation shaped by context might better identify areas where the MoD could and should take corrective action.
As an investigation of the state of recruitment and retention in the Armed Forces the Public Accounts Committee Report has mixed success. On the positive side it correctly identifies that the MoD adopts an amateur approach to attracting citizens to the military and keeping them there (the Department’s expert witnesses were repeatedly unable to provide the Committee with information to demonstrate that recruiting is targeted for best effect), and it highlights an anomalous practice of allocating the majority of the Army’s financial bursaries to pupils who had a private education. But in other respects the Committee raises inappropriate issues and neglects to highlight others.
Hence, when considering diversity it pursues illogical lines of enquiry, first, by comparing the MoD’s attempts to meet ethnic recruiting targets with a failure to apply similar efforts to socio-economic and educational factors - when there is a legislative imperative for the former - and second, it has an inappropriate fixation on the number of military officers who received an independent education. The Committee’s observation that the privately educated majority of very senior military officers does not reflect today’s education system is bizarre, not least as most of these officers left school in the 1970s. When there are shortfalls in recruiting, the Committee’s disquiet that talented individuals may be neglected (particularly by the Army) on the basis of their educational history is a valid concern, but it would be better assessed by considering factors such as the number of visits to state schools by military staff seeking to recruit young officers.
Two further points of interest deserve reflection. First, the Committee’s Report includes an MoD statement on ‘overstretch’ that is of concern, and second, the Report raises an insidious issue of political correctness. During a Committee evidence session the chief MoD witness stated that the ‘Armed Forces would be over-stretched if they could not fulfill the tasks that are being allocated to them’ (Oral Evidence, Question 38). But to equate overstretch with mission success (i.e., achieving set tasks) appears unhelpful. Apart from the case where forces which are operating well beneath their limit fail to achieve given tasks for a host of other reasons, it is surely critical that ‘overstretch’ gives advanced warning of when mission failure might occur as a consequence of over-commitment. A sudden onset of failure or abrupt collapse in performance is useless as a measure of overstretch. Instead, a definition should be used which in aviation terms provides a period of airframe ‘buffet’ that warns of an approaching stall - an unequivocal signal that provides the pilot with an opportunity to take corrective action. To indicate when the burden being placed on military forces is too great ‘overstretch’ should reflect a combination of capacity and resilience, and provide sufficient prediction of approaching failure to allow the execution of remedial measures.
Turning to insidious political correctness, in its proper desire to see Armed Forces reflecting the breadth of the society they protect, the Committee appeared to be placing diversity ahead of proficiency and in particular took issue with a bias within the officer corps. Patently, correlation with society helps cement the necessary bonds between the military and those it recruits and defends. But there are proper boundaries to the extent to which those who conduct deadly violence on behalf of the nation, under a psychological and moral contract of unlimited liability, reflect the composition of the society they protect. Consequently, there is little call to ensure that the UK’s Armed Forces include representative percentages of pensioners, smokers, city dwellers, vegetarians or university graduates, so the implied criticism that the military is inappropriately configured in social terms appears unwarranted. The Armed Forces must be fundamentally meritocracies. Its officers must be individuals with the necessary leadership and personal qualities to shepherd subordinates through dangerous situations and to take action which is often counter-intuitive to self interest and society’s norms. The imperative for those qualities must not be sacrificed to a desire to diversify the military population. Rather, significant effort should be made to promote those attributes amongst the population in all segments of society.
Head, Aerospace Studies
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI