Media reports of rumoured plans to cut the army to 70,000 personnel has prompted much concern in Parliament about the current future size of the armed forces.

Current numbers of personnel

There are three main ways to measure the number (strength) of military personnel, depending on whether one includes trained and untrained, Gurkhas and full time reserve personnel. The numbers differ depending on which method is used. The first in the list – total full time UK Armed Forces – is the most comprehensive: it includes the UK Regular Forces, Gurkhas, and Full Time Reserve personnel: 

  • Total full time UK Armed Forces: 155,474
  • Total full time UK Regular Forces: 147,525
  • Total trained full time UK Armed Forces: 137,280

All three services are currently below the requirement for trained strength. Overall there is a deficit of 5.6%, or 8,157 personnel, of the stated required strength (which is 145,437). So the Army’s required strength is 82,646 but the actual strength, as of 1 October 2017, is 77,440.

When Reserves, all UK regular personnel, Gurkhas and other personnel are included, the total UK Service Personnel is 195,730. Volunteer Reserve personnel make up 19% of that number, numbering just over 37,000, on 1 October 2017.[1]

Further detailed analysis is available in library paper UK defence personnel statistics which provides information as of 1 October 2017. This is the most information available – the MOD used to produce monthly personnel statistics but has changed to quarterly reports. The next update is due in mid-February.


National Security Capabilities Review

The National Security Advisor is leading a Government-wide National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) and will include defence capabilities. The Government has not yet given a date for publication. The review has prompted considerable speculation in the media and in Parliament about what the potential impact on armed forces – concerns about possible cuts to the Navy’s amphibious capability prompted a debate in November 2017 on this subject. The defence aspects of the capability review was the subject of a debate in Westminster Hall in October 2017 and was mentioned repeatedly in a debate on defence on 11 January 2018. And on 15 January Julian Lewis asked an Urgent Question asking about the Review and its potential implications for the armed forces. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said that he could not provide information on the detail of the review until it concludes but did highlight the priorities for the Ministry of Defence:

  1. I can assure the House that as long as I am Defence Secretary we will develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, a carrier force that can strike anywhere around the globe and the armed forces necessary to protect the north Atlantic and Europe; and we will continue to work with our NATO allies.[2]

Size of the armed forces

Reducing the size of the armed forces is reportedly one of the proposals being examined under the Review. Media reported last autumn the MOD was considering possible plans to reduce the army below the required strength of 82,000 to 70,000.

The 2015 Conservative party election manifesto committed to maintaining the armed forces at their current size and not to reduce the army below 82,000. However the 2017 election manifesto made no such commitment on Army numbers. It said: “we will maintain the overall size of the armed forces, including an army that is capable of fielding a war-fighting division.”

Recruitment and retention

All three services, plus the Royal Marines, are actively recruiting. The Army’s new adverts has prompted some recent media coverage but the Royal Navy, RAF and Royal Marines are all running recruitment campaigns.

According to the most recent figures, in the 12 months to 30 September 2017, there was a net outflow of 2,740 personnel from the UK Regular Forces. The MOD said this difference has increased compared with the 12 months to 30 September 2016, where there was a net outflow of 1,930. In terms of numbers, intake into the trained and untrained UK Regular Forces was 12,270 in the 12 months to 30 September 2017. This has decreased from 13,650 in the 12 months to 30 September 2016.[3]

The Ministry of Defence is in the midst of a wide-ranging review of terms and conditions for personnel under the New Employment Model. Housing in particular has been a particular issue among service personnel, with unhappiness about the current state of service accommodation, the introduction of a new accommodation payment system and concerns about the Future Housing Model. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nicholas Carter, acknowledged the uncertainty among personnel brought about by changes to the provisions of housing and other terms and conditions of service in his new year’s message to personnel in Soldier magazine.[4] These changes apply to all three services.

Evidence of concerns about morale can be found in the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey 2017. The survey reported morale of self, Unit and Service has decreased since 2016. In particular the survey found 61% of personnel perceived service morale to be low and only 9% described service morale to be high. The Royal Marines in particular had seen large decreases in morale (the survey was published in May 2017). Concerns about low morale in the armed forces have been by MPs and Peers raised in both Houses of Parliament.

[1]     UK armed forces monthly service personnel statistics: October 2017, Ministry of Defence, 16 November 2017. Other personnel include the Serving Regular Reserve, Sponsored Reserve, Military Provost Guard Service, Locally

      Engaged Personnel and elements of the Full Time Reserve Service (FTRS).

[2]     HC Deb 15 January 2018 c611

[3]     UK armed forces monthly service personnel statistics: October 2017, Ministry of Defence, 16 November 2017

[4]     “Army chief’s new year message to serving soldiers”, Soldier magazine, January 2018

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