Attrition: Britain Copes With Crucial Shortages


November8, 2006: When an army has to send a lot of troops into action, personnel shortages that were tolerable in peacetime, suddenly become emergencies. The British Army has discovered this, after they found over a third of their troops overseas in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. A government study found 88 job categories where there were serious shortages, in some cases 70 percent (short of the number of people authorized.) The worst ones were in some medical jobs. This is a world wide problem, for even in countries with national health insurance (and highly regulated fees for medical professionals), a doctor or nurse can still make more money as a civilian, rather than a military, practitioner.

Nearly all the shortages were in specialties that were also in great demand in the civilian economy, or required long years of specialized training. Thus various types of maintenance and repair personnel (vehicle and weapons mechanics) were in short supply. There weren't enough chaplains, or nuclear engineers to keep nuclear subs going when at sea.

Overall, the British military is short about three percent of its authorized personnel strength. The current shortages are made up by either calling up suitable reservists (when available), or sending troops overseas more frequently. When the troops are in Britain, you can get around some of the specialist shortages by using civilians. But you can't do that often when the troops are in a combat zone. And sending troops out more frequently causes more of them to get out of the service.

The solution is basically more money, to pay bonuses to attract, and keep, the specialists. But even that may be difficult because an increasingly sedentary population is physically unfit for military service. Currently, only about a third of British 16 year olds are fit enough (especially when it comes to weight) to meet military standards. It's been suggested that some chubby recruits be allowed to join, with the hope that a vigorous military life will slim the lads down. The matter is under discussion. Britain has had an all-volunteer military for about half a century.


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