Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Thin Red Line

Has it always been Ruperts and orphans?

Even for small staters like Tyler, defence is something only the government can do. So it better get it right.

But as regular BOM readers will know, there is a huge and disquieting mismatch between the chunky money we spend on defence (£40.3bn this year), and the alarmingly small number of people we can call on to do the actual fighting.

According to the estimates in Lewis Page's excellent Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, the total number of "men with guns" comprises a mere 20,000, plus maybe a further 6,000 "tank-and-horse soldiers", such as Prince Hal. And that's out of overall Defence manpower of nearly 300,000.

So with two sizable, if "low intensity", wars ongoing, plus a number of smaller commitments around the world, we can't be surprised that our thin red line is stretched to twanging point.

Take a look at this chart of Army manning over the past decade; it compares manpower requirement with actual strength:

(click on image to enlarge)
Now I don't know about you, but I'm concerned on two counts. First, despite all those wars, the government has cut the manning requirement. How's that supposed to work? And second, there's been a chronic and persistent recruitment shortfall throughout.

Today's Public Accounts Committee report- from which the chart is taken- fills in some of the grim details for the forces overall:
  • Overstretch- the MOD reckons our forces are "stretched" but not "overstretched"; however, the PAC discovered clear "indicators of overstretch" and talks alarmingly of tipping points being reached

  • Exodus- "voluntary leaving rates" are at a ten-year peak, with the increased frequency and duration of overseas deployments a key factor

  • Shortfall- manpower is 3.2% below requirements, a shortfall of 5,850 people (April 2007)

The Report also throws up some interesting details on the background of Army personnel.

Do you ever listen to those highly confident British officers speaking from some desert camp, and think to yourself, I'll bet he didn't go to Scunthorpe Comprehensive? Well, you'd be right. It turns out that nine out of the ten most senior army officers went to independent schools. What's more, three-quarters of Army bursaries and scholarships go to pupils from independent schools. And 53% of Sandhurst cadets are from those same schools (which educate just 7% of our kids).

Now, some people- including some PAC members- reckon that's a bad thing because it's unfair. It's Ruperts discriminating against the lower orders.

Me, I take the opposite view. Not only are independent schools going to give a better education, but those toffs have been bred for the Army. Many centuries of genetic selection, and unbroken family tradition from Waterloo to Helmand. You can't buy that kind of thing.

Of more concern is the composition of other ranks. An estimated 69% of them are the products of broken homes. Even more concerning, 40% apparently join the Army as a last resort.

Our forces always seem to do such a magnificent job, maybe it doesn't matter. And maybe our volunteer army has always been the same.

But it all underlines just how thin that thin red line really is.

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