The Current Recruitment Crisis in the British Armed Forces

The British armed forces are experiencing an acute crisis in their ability to recruit personnel. There is a current personnel deficit of 6.6% in full-time trained personnel across the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force, with this deficit being higher in the Army at 7.5%. This recruitment crisis is not new; the British armed forces have continuously experienced difficulties in recruiting enough personnel, with Hew Strachan in 2000 noting such difficulties have arguably existed since the time of the Boer war. The British military is finding itself challenged on multiple fronts when it comes to recruitment, explaining why these difficulties are so persistent. Factors such as high employment levels, demographic change (with a declining population of young people who represent the main target audience for recruitment and rising numbers of women and non-white populations typically less inclined towards a military career) and a shrinking presence and visibility within wider society have all contributed to creating a challenging recruitment environment. The former Chief of the General Staff Sir Nicholas Carter reiterated this point in a 2016 appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. When asked about the state of recruitment to the regular Army, he responded:

“The answer is that it is not as good as we need it to be, nor indeed as I would like it to be. It is a very challenging recruiting marketplace at the moment. The economy is reasonably vibrant. We have had four rounds of redundancy over the past four years, which has sent a message. Our traditional recruiting grounds—here I am talking about white Caucasian 16 to 25-year-olds—have shrunk by about 25% over the past 10 years. We are therefore having to adjust our recruiting to get after a different recruiting base from the one that traditionally we went to.”

These factors have been further exacerbated by the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which decreased the recruitment appeal of the armed forces, particularly amongst gatekeepers such as parents who the military must navigate to persuade young people to enlist. There is little doubt, then, that the armed forces are facing a crisis in their ability to recruit personnel, a point reiterated by the National Audit Office’s 2018 report into recruitment and skills shortages within the armed forces and the 2017 Francois Report into the state of recruiting for the Prime Minister.

The question is therefore how are the armed forces responding to these difficulties? My interest in this question arises from a broader (feminist) concern with the gendered culture of the armed forces. If the armed forces are having to broaden their conception of what constitutes the ideal soldier, sailor, or aviator as a consequence of their inability to recruit according to its traditional template, as Sir Nicholas Carter’s remarks imply, it is important to ask how changes in recruitment strategies might (re)shape the armed forces understanding of who can serve and how they can do so. We see one example of this potential ‘reshaping’ in the Army’s 2018 This is Belonging campaign. As has been noted elsewhere by Paul Higate and Nivi Manchanda and Jennifer Mathers the campaign is significant for framing a military career through questions such as ‘can you be gay in the Army?’, ‘can you be Muslim in the Army?’ and ‘can you be emotional in the Army?’, representing a significant departure from the images of action and adventure which recruitment campaigns are typically organised around.

Although the implications of the campaign and whether it represents a genuine attempt to diversify who the Army seeks to recruit is debatable, it nevertheless captures how armed forces recruiting is in a state of change. This is reinforced by the fact the campaign proved highly controversial, provoking a backlash from former Army officers and others who argued the campaign represented a ‘softening’ of the Army’s approach and identity and was unlikely to recruit the numbers needed. This so-called ‘softening’ of the Army’s identity has been a perennial theme in debates concerning recruitment since the early 1980’s. The campaign is therefore a marked illustration of the tension between the Army’s masculine identity and its need to appeal to population segments which typically conflict with that identity. As the armed forces continues to struggle to recruit the personnel it needs, both in terms of quantity but also in terms of skills, it is therefore worth thinking about what this ‘crisis’ in recruitment might make possible both in terms of who the armed forces seek to recruit and the types of images through which they market themselves. The example of This is Belonging signals the importance of thinking about this question, especially as we look towards the Army’s new campaign which launches in January. It will be interesting to see if the new campaign builds upon the ‘inclusive’ messaging of its predecessor or reverts back to more traditional messaging.

However, it is equally important to note that the British armed forces are also taking additional steps to respond to their recruitment difficulties beyond adjusting their recruitment messaging, most notably in 2018 lifting the residency requirement for Commonwealth applications (and see Vron Ware’s Military Migrants for a fuller discussion of Commonwealth recruitment. This demonstrates that the armed forces are not confident of their ability to source a sufficient amount of recruits from the UK alone, reiterating how recruitment is in a state of significant change and that the armed forces need to draw on a wider labour market. This matters because as scholars such as Amanda Chisholm have illustrated, the fact that individuals from the global South are motivated to join the British military is not politically neutral but shaped by classed, gendered and raced inequities. Thus, even as British military recruitment campaigns such as This is Belonging seek to produce a more inclusive military identity, it is worth remembering that recruitment continues to be complicit in (re)producing the inequalities which shape an individuals’ predisposition to serve.

Matthew Kearns

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