The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, announced on March 22 that the army will be reduced to 72,500 by 2025. This is set out in the Defence in a Competitive Age command paper.

This means the existing target of 82,000 personnel, set in 2015, has been scrapped.

There are different ways of measuring the army’s ‘strength’ – a term used to describe the number of personnel. This Insight explains what these numbers mean and why they matter.

Untrained, trained and trade-trained strength

Historically, military personnel were considered untrained until they had completed phase 2 of training:

  • Phase 1 includes all new entry training to provide basic military skills.
  • Phase 2 includes initial individual specialisation, sub-specialisation and technical training following Phase 1 prior to joining the (trade) trained strength.

The Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force continue to differentiate their strength into untrained and trained.

However, From October 2016 the Army began to use two definitions: trained and trade-trained. From this point personnel who had completed Phase 1 of training were considered trained, whereas those who had completed both phases were considered trade-trained. The reason for the change was to allow phase 1 trained personnel to help in any response to crises in the UK, like flood assistance. Trade-trained army personnel are equivalent to trained Royal Navy and RAF personnel for comparative purposes.

Trade-trained is the most important definition to understand, as this is what the 2015 target and the new ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ target are based on.

How big is the army now?

As of 1 January 2021, the trade-trained strength of the army is 76,300. This is seven per cent below the target set in the 2015  Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 82,000 personnel. The army has not met this target since the middle of the last decade.

As the table below illustrates, the Royal Navy/Royal Marines and the RAF are also below their 2020 targets. It also shows that the armed forces as a whole is six per cent below the trained/trade-trained target of 144,000 by 2020.

A table shows full-time trained and trade trained UK Armed Forces against the 2015 SDSR 2020 target

Some reports refer to the full-time trained strength of the army, which as of 1 January 2021 stands at 81,550. The different ways of counting the strength of the armed forces are discussed in Commons Library paper Defence Personnel statistics.

Hasn’t the Army been cut before?

Yes. Between 2010 and 2015 the Army was reduced from 102,000 trade-trained personnel to 82,000. This reduction was set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and a subsequent review in 2011. It was achieved through a combination of redundancy, people leaving and reduced intake.

A chart shows full-time trade trained UK Armed Forces (Army) personnel against requirement

How long will it take to reach the target?

The number of trade-trained personnel in the Army is set to reduce by 3,500 to 72,500 by 2025. The Defence Secretary says this will be achieved by reducing inflow on recruitment and has ruled out any redundancies.

In the 12 months to 31 December 2020 around 5,200 trade-trained Regular Army personnel left the service; around 3,250 personnel left voluntarily (left the Army before the end of their agreed engagement or commission period); just under 800 left due to time expiry (personnel who reached the end of their engagement or commission period); and 1,200 left for other reasons (e.g. medical reasons, misconduct, compassionate grounds etc).

If all recruitment to the Army were to stop, and the same number of people left the Army as last year, then the target of 72,500 could be achieved by 2022. However, given concerns about recruitment in recent years it unlikely that the Ministry of Defence will halt recruitment to rapidly achieve the target strength.

What does this mean for the Army?

The new target of 72,500 continues the downward trajectory of the army’s size at a time when the Government is also laying out an ambitious plan for the armed forces.

The plans for reduction were criticised ahead of publication by a former chief of the defence staff, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, who argues “mass still matters”.

John Healey, the shadow Defence Secretary, suggests the cuts could limit the UK’s ability to fulfil all of its tasks saying “there’s a gulf between the Government’s ambitions and its actions.”

Prominent American former officials have also expressed disquiet. The former US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, said, given the option, he’d retain the force level.

However, the current head of the army argues “size today actually matters much less. The real currency is capability, utility and relevance and deployability.”

About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in defence.

Image: British troops disembark an RAF A400 by Ministry of Defence Images. Licensed under Open Government Licence / image cropped.