Has the Time Come for an All-Adult Army?

Junior soldiers march at a graduation ceremony at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Courtesy of Sergeant Donald Todd (RLC) / defenceimages.mod.uk / MoD News Licence

It is time for the British Army to phase out its under-18 recruits.

The news that the British Army is to lose another 10,000 troops smooths the way for a transition to all-adult armed forces. The change is overdue. Three-quarters of the world’s armed forces are already there, recruiting from age 18 upwards and mostly without conscription. While a few comparable militaries recruit from age 17, the UK is unique in drawing so heavily on under-18s, who make up a quarter of the army’s intake. Indeed, more British Army recruits are 16 than any other age.

Unlike the navy and RAF, which rely overwhelmingly on adult recruits, the army says it needs to enlist from 16 just to keep going, but the policy has always been expensive and inefficient. Most ‘junior entry’ recruits take more than a year to train, at twice the cost of adults, and with an alarming rate of attrition: nearly a third of the youngest recruits who turn up to train never make it to the field army. Adult trainees are ready to deploy within a few months of joining, fewer drop out along the way, and the complexities of children’s rights law do not apply.

The step to an all-adult army is much shorter than commonly assumed. It does not mean finding a new adult recruit to replace every current child recruit. The army’s research shows that 56% of its junior entrants had ‘always wanted to join’, which suggests that the proportion who would still have enlisted if it had meant waiting to turn 18 is a large one.

RUSI Journal article in 2016 postulated scenarios in which 25%, 50% and 75% of current child recruits would still have enlisted as adults, had 18 been the minimum age for enlistment. For the 50% scenario applied to the previous recruiting year (2015–16), the army would have had to find an additional 683 adult recruits to achieve the same throughput to the trained strength. This is equivalent to an 11% uplift in the adult intake, once the lower attrition rate for adult trainees is factored in. This order of increase is well within reach. The intake figures vary from year to year, but it is illustrative that in the recruiting year 2019–20 the army recruited 13% more adults (7,070) than it did in 2015–16 (6,230).

If the door to all-adult armed forces has always been ajar, the latest round of troop reductions throws it wide open. Now that the army plans to downsize by 12% – a similar proportion to the figures quoted above – the Ministry of Defence (MoD) can begin the change tomorrow if it wants to, with reasonable confidence of maintaining the same throughput to the trained strength. These are ballpark figures, of course, but they tell an increasingly inevitable story. With a smaller army, more young people staying in school or college, and the sky-high costs of training them, if recruiting under-18s was ever a sensible way to get the recruits in, it is no longer so.

The debate on the age of enlistment divides into two halves, of which military needs are only the first. The second, and to our mind the more important, concerns the needs of young people. Much of the argument here hangs on perceptions of the armed forces – seen by some as rescuing delinquent youth, by others as preying on the vulnerable. What matters is that policy affecting young people should follow the evidence of the outcomes they actually experience.

Ministers argue that raising the enlistment age would deprive young people of an opportunity they might not otherwise have, but an opportunity that binds young people to it for four years from the day they turn 18 – enforced by a court martial – is a peculiar one. The same conditions could not be imposed on a civilian worker of any age, and certainly not a 16-year-old. Be that as it may, the narrative of opportunity stands on shifting sands. Now that four in every five disadvantaged 16-year-olds stay in full-time education, the army is no longer competing with the dole office for its recruits but, as its officers acknowledge, with schools and colleges. In any case, raising the enlistment age would not deprive anyone of anything. The opportunity to join up is still there at age 18, when young people can enlist with the legal status of adulthood and two more years of maturity, which in adolescence is a long time.

Ministers further insist that ‘no reliable evidence’ shows any disadvantage of joining up early. It ought to be sufficient evidence alone that 30% of recruits who leave school for the army drop out after a few months, finding themselves immediately out of education and work. Since the MoD does not keep track of them, we can only imagine the impact on the 700 or so young people affected every year.

Other consequences of early enlistment do not need to be guessed at. The stresses of military life are well known: anxiety and depression in the ranks are twice as common as among working civilians, according to King’s College London. Contra the view that joining up reduces ‘anti-social behaviour’, research by King’s has found that violent, sexual and drug-related offending increases after enlistment – even before a first deployment, when it rises again. These facts alone will concern any policymaker – or parent – who wants a supportive environment for children during their formative years.

Recent findings on the mental health outcomes of junior entrants as a specific group give further cause for concern. Two recent studies, by the University of Glasgow and King’s College London, were reported in the media as finding ‘little evidence that early recruitment to the armed forces is associated with an adverse impact on long-term mental health’. In fact, the Glasgow study found that post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans who enlisted as junior entrants from around 1995 was between two and three times more common than among civilians from the same social background. Comparing junior entrants with older recruits, the King’s study found similarly elevated rates of alcohol misuse and self-harm among younger joiners since 2003. The reliable evidence is in: early entry, at least since the turn of the millennium, has carried a clear and disproportionate risk to mental health.

Some argue that this cannot be, since junior recruits spend all their time ‘being educated’ at the Army Foundation College (AFC), which is graded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Despite its name, AFC is a military training centre where recruits undergo the usual, stress-driven resocialisation process that turns civilians into soldiers. Less than a day a week is spent in the classroom, where most recruits are put through basic skills courses in just three subjects. Ofsted can only grade AFC ‘outstanding’ because its arrangement with the MoD excludes the range and quality of education from its inspections. A civilian college would lose its funding if it lost as many students to attrition, offered so few subjects, and failed to offer GCSE resits. If a civilian college had AFC’s long record of complaints of violent behaviour by its staff against the young people in its care, it would be closed down.

We do not question for a moment that many people in the armed forces want the institution to benefit the young people who join it. Nor do we doubt that young recruits can fare well. But there is clear and strong evidence that early enlistment is harmful to too many. Onerous legal obligations, high trainee attrition, a disproportionate long-term impact on mental health, and a record of maltreatment at the main training centre: harmful outcomes for junior entrants are not a rarity – they are routine.

The UN, the four UK Children’s Commissioners, children’s organisations, health professionals and the Trades Union Congress believe the time has come to raise the enlistment age to 18, in common with most of the rest of the world. Polling shows that the public agrees. The Defence Committee has asked the MoD more than once to explain why the army is so dependent on 16-year-olds to fill its ranks. All-adult armed forces are the emerging global norm which, with a small, eminently possible step, the UK can help to consolidate. Would it be anything other than a step forward for the armed forces, for young people and for society as a whole?

Charlotte Cooper is Campaigns Coordinator at Child Rights International Network (CRIN). Her main focus is the impact of armed forces recruitment on children's rights in the UK.

David Gee is a researcher working with CRIN, and author of Informed choice? Armed forces recruitment practice in the United Kingdom (2008).

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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