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6 September 2016 · 4 min read

Does a smaller military present an opportunity for industry?

MOD statistics show significant troop shortfall

Last month’s UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) personnel statistics show the UK Armed Forces have a personnel deficit of 4.1%, and strikingly the number of trained soldiers in the Army is at its lowest since 1750. The doomsayers note that this recruitment crisis means the UK would struggle to respond to a major crisis. However, could this not provide an interesting opportunity for the defence industry to show how the right equipment means you do not need as many troops?

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) stated that by 2020 the full-time trained strength (FTTS) of the Armed Forces should be 144,200. Today’s Armed Forces are well short of that number, at 139,910. The Army, Navy and RAF are all below their manning targets, but it is the Army number that stands out the most. There are only 79,390 trained soldiers. By comparison, at the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts there were 109,000, and at the end of the Second World War there were 364,000 (see graph below).

Number of UK full-time trained Regular Service Personnel 1750-present (‘000s)

The problem is twofold. Firstly, the 2011 redundancy programme saw many high quality individuals take voluntary redundancy. Soldier’s morale plummeted as those that were left behind had to pick up the pieces. This triggered a wave of unforeseen resignations, which meant in 2013 there was an unexpected manning deficit.  Secondly, the Armed Forces have been struggling to recruit. Low unemployment for the past few years means the military is not seen as a ‘last resort’ job . The outsourcing of recruitment to Capita has meant people are not lured into the services by charismatic serving personnel and shiny uniforms. Also, perhaps counter-intuitively to most members of the public, it is generally easier to recruit into the military when we are at war because soldiers want action.

Whilst low troop numbers are probably not a positive thing for the defence industry in the long term, in the short term there are two positives that could come out of this situation. The 4% manning deficit means personnel costs should be lower than budgeted and this money could be spent elsewhere, possible on procurement. In addition, the defence industry has an opportunity to show how the correct equipment can mean fewer personnel are needed.

In the civilian world more and more tasks are being outsourced to machines; one look inside an Amazon fulfillment centre confirms this. Whilst the military has made some technological progress, most notably with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and bomb diffusing robots, there is an antiquated reliance on humans. I acknowledge that there are ethical issues with using autonomous decision making machines on the battlefield, where ultimately someone must be responsible for adhering to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). However, there has never been a better time for the defence industry to fund research into products that allow the military to “do more with less”.

For example, yesterday the Royal Navy unveiled a drone speedboat which theoretically could lead to a fleet of unmanned high speed reconnaissance and surveillance vessels. The Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) will be tested along with forty other prototypes in a major robot war game off the coast of Scotland next month.

Modern warfare is not necessarily about having the most soldiers or tanks. It is about outwitting your enemy and using your resources cleverly. Whilst the full-time trained strength of the military will remain an indicator of the Service’s ability to execute military tasks, there could conceivably be a day when it is a far less relevant measure of effectiveness because robots and machines are shouldering the majority of the burden.

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