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Recent reports have highlighted a growing problem in the regular British Army – namely that of a chronic shortage in manpower. However, the focus this time has been not just on overall numbers but the fact that a very large percentage of regular personnel cannot be deployed overseas for a range of reasons – but mostly medical.

As we come to accept that the days of being able to deploy multiple UK divisions on an overseas operation are largely over,  we should also reflect on the need to make sure that whatever forces we do have are kept as honed as possible to make the most of the resources available to this country. So to hear that some 20% of our Army is not actually fit enough to even go overseas is, on the face of things, a disappointment to say the least, and even a bit of a scandal. So much so, that even seasoned commentators such as Lord Dannatt and Richard Kemp have expressed puzzlement and astonishment at the high rate of “unfit” soldiers.

Let’s provide a bit of historic context. The British army today is about one quarter of the size of the German forces trapped in the Cauldron at Stalingrad in 1942/43. If we take the deployable force strength equating to the total strength of 82,000, less the shortfall of some 5,000, and then subtract the “un-deployables” totalling some 17,000, we are left with a total of about 60,000 who could go overseas; that number is similar to the casualties the British Army suffered on the fourth day of the Somme battle in WW1.  In fact, the Army has been declining in size since the early 1950s and is now smaller than at any time since the end of the 18th Century at the period of the French Revolution.

To be fair (and somewhat sensible given TMT’s military background), the examples provided above are only by way of illustration and general interest. Reports that one sees of there being “a division’s worth of men” unfit are rather over the top, for we all know that 17,000 soldiers “a division does not make”; you need a balance of trades and skills as well as command and control structures and, above all, equipment. A modern army uses technology and equipment to do tasks that were once the remit of thousands of troops. Indeed, the annual cost-per head of a soldier in today’s army is about £220,000, up from £150,000 at the start of the modern Afghanistan campaign in 2003.

However, to have one fifth of your people hors-de-foreign-combat “looks like carelessness”, to parody that well known phrase. It is also the beginnings of arguments that the MOD is simply not cost-effective given the costs per capita being supported by the British Public. But is that fair?

The 20% is a running total, with individuals with minor problems such as twisted ankles etc. coming and going on a fairly regular basis.  There are also going to be a fair percentage who fill posts that will never need to go overseas; some logistics staff, recruiters, or admin people in home HQs, for example. However, the problem is of course that you cannot post an infantry soldier with a twisted ankle to a medical unit for a week or two to replace a fit doctor able to deploy (bearing in mind all soldiers are firstly trained infantrymen, but the opposite is certainly not the case). So one has to start to break the figures down into the numbers who are unfit by type of regiment or battalion, and then to analyse the “churn” or the rate at which people are taken off, and then returned to strength, in front-line units likely to have to deploy.

Some indication of how this might reduce the severity of the figure is given by comparable statistics for the Navy and RAF, which are 15 and 16% respectively – which is lower than the Army, but still rather worrying. It is possible that the growing gap between the rigours of service life and the life-style of our recruits is one factor. Or it might be that, as the Army shrinks, more pressure is placed on those remaining to meet our national commitments. Or we are simply getting less robust and able to deal with the demands of service life. Or perhaps our military doctors are more worried about law-cases and tend to put people on light duties to avoid any sort of legal comeback.

No matter what the reason, it all adds to the problems facing those responsible for force deployment. In the world of operations and logistics, “reliability” is a major concern when looking at equipment – but “availability” figures are what really count. The same now has to be said of personnel and it might be that an availability figure of 80% for Army personnel is just about as good as it is going to get.

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