Attrition: The Big Fade In Britain


June 7, 2011:  In the last three years, British military recruiters had brought in 11,460 (three years ago), then 23,000 and most recently only 12,800 new troops. Continued fighting in Afghanistan and Libya are part of the reason, but the main cause appears to be the big cuts being made in the defense budget. This includes shrinking military personnel strength by about ten percent over the next four years. Military service is not seen as a good career choice.

A year ago, recruiters thought they had solved their recruiting problems. The recession was beginning to restore the armed forces to full strength. Well, almost full strength. For most of the past decade, the armed forces have, every year, been 10-20 percent below strength. The military, especially the army, just could not attract enough recruits. But unemployment rates went up during the last three years, and so for a while, did the number of new recruits. At least until a year ago. Normally, the military needs about 15,000 new recruits a year just to maintain its strength (about 170,000). Until two years ago, only about 12,000 a year could be signed up. Then, a year ago, the military found they had recruited 23,000 in the previous year. At that rate, the troop deficit would have been gone by now. In the last year, all that changed.

A year ago, the army, the worst hit (by shortages) service, launched an ad campaign stressing all the skills you could acquire in the army, that would later be useful in civilian jobs. Seemed like a good idea. But much of the military-related news was all about cuts. Recruiters found that this kept people from even inquiring about joining.

Meanwhile, the infantry are having even greater recruiting problems. Over 80 percent of soldiers have non-combat jobs, and it's no secret that anyone joining the infantry will most likely see combat, and a lot of danger and discomfort, in Afghanistan. In the past two years, British infantry battalions have found themselves 10-20 percent under strength. About two-thirds of that was due to the usual causes (illness, attendance at military training courses, and vacation). But the rest is due to the inability of recruiters to attract enough young men (out of a population of 61 million) to serve in the infantry.

British units recruit locally, so the shortages reflect local recruiting problems. Battalions from northern England and Scotland have the biggest problems, with some of them up to 30 percent short. Overall, the army is short less than five percent of its authorized strength. There are fewer problems recruiting for non-combat jobs, especially with a recession going on. But the infantry is a hard sell.

In the U.S., with a population, and army, five times the size of Britain's, meeting recruiting goals has not been a problem, nor has adding additional troops to units headed overseas, so they depart near full strength. Most of this seeming success is due to different recruiting methods. Except in some reserve (National Guard) units, troops are recruited from all over the nation, for all units. Thus those parts of the country that produce a disproportionate number of recruits, help make up for the shortfalls in areas that don't have as many volunteers.

Being in the infantry is a tough job. While support troops worry about getting fat (obesity is a growing problem), the infantry have to be careful that they don't get injured during the strenuous training they constantly undergo. And then there are combat losses. In the past nine years, nearly 300 British troops (mostly infantry) have died in Afghanistan, and over a thousand have been hospitalized for wounds, injury or diseases (there are lot of diseases in Afghanistan). But the biggest source of losses are troops that don't reenlist, or join in the first place.


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