Future Army 2020

Evidence from ForcesWatch

1. Among other objectives, ForcesWatch scrutinises how and whom the British armed forces recruit, with particular concerns arising from the recruitment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. With Child Soldiers International we co-authored a recent report, ‘One Step Forward: the case for ending recruitment of minors by the British armed forces’.

2. We welcome the Committee’s Inquiry and hope Members will use this opportunity to evaluate the case for an independent review of the minimum age of recruitment into the Army with a view to recruiting only adults (aged 18 and above) in the future. We believe there are five reasons why the time is right for this:

2.1. Recruitment needs are changing. The reduction of the Regular Army proposed by Army 2020 would obviate its need to recruit minors.

2.2. Recruiting adults only is substantially more cost-effective than also enlisting minors. By ending the costly practice of recruiting minors into long training programmes which suffer a high drop-out rate, the Army would save a sum in the order of £90 million per annum.

2.3. Enlisting soldiers at age 16 or 17 puts minors at disproportionate risk. Younger soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds are substantially more likely than older recruits to suffer from serious mental health problems as a result of deployment, including post-traumatic stress disorder and harmful alcohol use.

2.4. The best interests of minors are served more effectively in the civilian education/training system than in the Army. Civilian provision, where the opportunities are more diverse and of higher quality than those available in the Army, provides the best continuing prospects for young people post-16, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

2.5. The practice of recruiting minors is increasingly anachronistic. As the only EU state to recruit 16-year-olds into the armed forces and one of only 20 in the world, the UK is increasingly out of step with a growing global consensus that the legal age of adult responsibility, at 18, is the appropriate point at which an individual can reasonably be expected to make an informed and responsible choice about enlistment.

3. We now set out evidence for each of these five points in turn.

4. Recruitment needs

4.1. Army 2020 proposals entail a reduction of the strength requirement of the Regular Army by around 18,000 personnel from 99,730 now to 82,000 by 2020 (British Army, 2012:9; DASA, 2013a:6). Assuming that the numbers of officers and enlisted soldiers fall in close proportion, the number of enlisted soldiers will drop from around 85,840 now to 70,579 in 2020, which is a reduction of 17.8%. The current annual recruitment rate of enlisted soldiers is 9,660 (for 2012-13); if this also falls by 17.8% by 2020 then the Army will be recruiting 7,941 soldiers per annum. If the Army relied entirely on adults to recruit this number of soldiers it would have to enlist just 531 more adults per annum than it did in 2012-13 (DASA, 2013a:14). This target is well within reach for two reasons: a) many minors no longer permitted join the Army would still enlist at 18; and b) adult recruits are much less likely than minors to drop out of training; between 2007-08 and 2011-12, 39.4% of minors dropped out of Army training, but just 24.1% of adult recruits did so (Hansard: 2013).

4.2. The Navy and RAF already recruit few minors; combined they recruited just 210 in 2012-13 (DASA, 2013a:14). Hence, both could end this practice immediately with the Army following as soon as is practicable.

4.3. There are several operational advantages of ending the recruitment of minors. Unlike a mixed minors/adults force, an all-adult Army is wholly and immediately deployable after training; complex differences in duty of care requirements for minors and adults are no longer an obstacle; and there is no longer a need for disruptive, last-minute switching of unit personnel in order to ensure minors are not sent to war zones.

4.4. Despite these factors, the current approach to Army 2020 implementation appears to consist of continuing to recruit minors in large numbers while making experienced personnel redundant.

5. Recruitment costs

5.1. It is substantially more expensive to recruit minors into the Army than adults. Using Ministry of Defence figures, we worked with Child Soldiers International to calculate that the annual excess cost of recruiting minors into the Army is approximately between £81.5 million and £94 million per year.

5.2. Minors who pass out of training tend to stay in the Army for longer (average 10 years) than do adults (average 7.6 years) (Hansard, 2011a). However, in cost-effectiveness terms this factor is more than outweighed by the much longer duration of Phase 1 training for minors (typically 50 weeks) compared with that for adults (typically 14 weeks) (Hansard, 2011c) and the much higher drop-out rates among minors (see paragraph 4.1).

5.3. Our full costings analysis, which accounts for the different average career lengths and in-training drop-out of minors and adults, is set out in a separate memorandum from Child Soldiers International.

6. Disproportionate risks faced by young people vs. adult recruits

6.1. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are substantially more likely than adult recruits to suffer from the effects of deployment.

6.2. Minors from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be targeted for recruitment than those from other backgrounds (Gee, 2008: Gee & Goodman, 2010). Minors are also more likely than adults to enlist in the Infantry where the risk of fatality and injury in Afghanistan is more than five times that for the rest of the Army (Calculated from MoD, 2013). Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, 39.2% of the Army’s enlisted minors joined the Infantry, which compares with 33.8% of adult recruits (Hansard, 2013; DASA, 2013b).

6.3. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely than adults to suffer serious mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and harmful alcohol use, as a result of their Army service (O’Brien & Hughes, 1991; Ismail et al., 2000; Jones et al., 2006); they are also more likely to behave violently on return from a war zone (Macmanus et al., 2012 and 2013). For example, a large study found that the youngest age group assessed (18-24) showed the highest rate of alcohol misuse, with 26.1% drinking at harmful levels compared with 8.8% of men and 4.8% of women in a similar age group (16-24) in the general population (Fear et al., 2010; McManus et al., 2007). Another large study found that 27.2% of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were also found to be drinking at harmful levels (Iversen et al., 2007). A large study also found that that 18.4% of British armed forces recruits who had joined without GCSE qualifications had probable PTSD (Iversen et al., 2009:Table 2).

6.4. By ending the recruitment of minors into the armed forces the risk burden of fatality, injury and mental health problems would not disappear but this would be shared entirely by adults who had reached the legal age of responsibility; minors would not be bearing the brunt by enlisting disproportionately into the most dangerous Army roles.

7. The social mobility of young people

7.1. The long-term social mobility of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is better served by asking them remain within the civilian education and training system until aged 18, where the opportunities are more diverse and of higher quality than those available in the Army.

7.2. The cornerstone of the long-term social mobility of young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, remains good pass grades in GCSE English and Maths (Wolf, 2011:8). 94% of young people now stay on in education after the age of 16 (Wolf, 2011:51). Those who choose to join the Army are not able to resit GCSEs if they need to, and instead are offered a limited range of low-grade opportunities. Phase 1 Army trainees, for example, are expected only to gain Functional Skills qualifications in English and Maths at Level 1, which is approximately equivalent to GCSE Grade D-G (Hansard, 2011b). These qualifications were characterised in the Department for Education’s independent ‘Review of Vocational Education’ as ‘conceptually incoherent’ and ‘certainly not in themselves an adequate "maths and English" diet for the 16-19 cohort’ (Wolf, 2011:80;174).

7.3. Minors who join the Army leave, on average, in their mid- to late-twenties (Hansard, 2011a). If they have not had the opportunity to resit GCSEs or otherwise further their educational attainment after the age of 16, they will be rejoining the civilian jobs market with a poorer portfolio of qualifications than would have been available to them had they remained in the civilian system until the age of 18.

8. Evolving international standards

8.1. The UK is the only state in the European Union to recruit from age 16 into the armed forces. Only five other EU states now recruit from age 17 and the remaining 21 recruit from 18 (Child Soldiers International, 2012:142-160). Only six EU states still practise conscription, with the remaining 21 now relying on voluntary enlistment (European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, 2011). The UK is also the only Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to recruit from age 16. In general, the EU and global trend in the minimum age for military recruitment is upwards and towards a ‘straight 18’ policy worldwide. The MoD’s continuing defence of recruiting minors sends an unhelpful signal to other states and risks holding back a globally positive process.

8.2. In 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that the UK’s ‘active recruitment policy [of minors] may lead to the possibility of targeting those children who come from vulnerable groups’ and called on the MoD to review the policy (UN CRC, 2008:3). In 2009, the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights endorsed this recommendation (HC/HL HR Cttee: 2009:47-48), which followed a similar recommendation made by the House of Commons Defence Committee Duty of Care report in 2005 (HC Def Cttee, 2005:7). As of November 2011, no such review had taken place (MoD, 2011) and to our knowledge this remains the case.

8.3. An ICM opinion poll of British adults commissioned by Child Soldiers International carried out in March 2013 found that 70% of respondents who expressed a view believed the minimum age for Army recruitment should be at least 18 (Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatch, 2013:7).

9. Conclusion

9.1. An all-adult Army would be much more cost-effective and operationally more manageable than the current arrangements. Asking minors to wait until they are 18 before enlisting would help to ensure that they benefit from the now-superior education and training opportunities available in the civilian system. It would also ensure that minors are not put at disproportionate risk of injury and mental health problems, as is the case now due to the Army’s tendency to recruit the youngest personnel into the most dangerous Army roles. The occasion of Army 2020, in reducing the Army’s strength requirement, also eases the pressure on recruiters and makes a transition to all-adult armed forces entirely achievable in a short time-frame. Army 2020 provides a unique opportunity for the MoD to commission an independent review of the minimum recruitment age for the British armed forces and we hope that Committee members will pursue this possibility as part of their Inquiry.

Abridged references

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MacManus D, Dean K, Jones M, Rona R, Greenberg N, Hull L, et al. (2013) ‘Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study’, The Lancet, 381: pp. 907-917.

McManus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R. (2007). ‘Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a household survey’, University of Leicester: The NHS Information Centre.

Ministry of Defence [MoD]. (2013). ‘British Fatalities: Operations in Afghanistan’, online at https://www.gov.uk/government/fields-of-operation/afghanistan.

Ministry of Defence [MoD]. (2011). Letter dated 7 November 2011 (ref. FOI 07-11-2011-083412-001) following a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

O'Brien LS, Hughes SJ. (1991). ‘Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in Falklands veterans five years after the conflict’. British Journal of Psychiatry, 159: pp. 135-141.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child [UN CRC]. (2008). ‘Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict – Concluding Observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (CRC/C/OPAC/GBR/CO/1)’. Geneva: UN, 17 October 2008

Wolf, A. (2011). ‘Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf Report’ (London: Department for Education).

Prepared 28th June 2013