One wonders what General Odierno would think if he picked up the papers to read the reporting of day one of RUSI’s land warfare conference. Here we are, talking about the future of the military of a G7 country, and in Britain’s unique way, the headlines boil down to the regimental system, aka historic badges and feathers and tradition and the use of “mercenaries”. That the former makes headlines while the army has the problem of not recruiting enough ethnic minorities and women and a 20% staffing cut is in the offing, might strike Odierno as absurd.
For Odierno’s sake, let’s outline the letters to the editor on the subject: “How dare they destroy the Black Watch/other feather/other cap/other regiment/etc?”
Tradition has its merits, I’m in favour of the regimental system, except there is a key problem with it: Regiments are tied to shires and rural catchment areas, most of our population now lives in cities, likes living in cities and wants to continue living in cities. If you happen to grow up in a city and wish to join the armed forces, chances are that you will be uprooted from the place you grew up and sent to a barracks in the middle of nowhere. If you happen to grow up in an inner city environment, then yeah, Aldershot does classify as “the middle of nowhere”.
This is something that I wish defence correspondents would focus on instead of the death of the Royal Green Jackets (or whatever) – Why is there no major re-focusing of the UK’s armed forces around urban centres? I think we need to question the value of ‘uprooting’ soldiers, particularly if the army is serious about trying to recruit from minority communities. In particular, if the army wants to recruit from these communities, it might make sense to have a force structure that enables them to remain near to their friends and family. If reserve units are going to become active components of the UK army, then surely locating the UK army in places where those reserve units are going to live, so as to reduce friction, makes sense? There is something absurd about a bunch of white guys lamenting the fact that ethnic minorities don’t want to sign up knowing that they will be torn away from their personal support networks and be dropped into areas that, most likely, are quite alienating and probably hostile to them, based on the colour of their skin. So, if the army wants to get serious, then it needs to consider serious structural adjustment.
I can think of a number of problems with this approach – cost, tradition and so on, but none that overcome the basic structural point: the army is facing a recruiting crisis in trying to recruit people that have serious problems with leaving major metropolitan areas. I don’t think training is necessarily a barrier, since the Grenadier Guards remain a fighting unit, and they live near the palace. More to the point, there are substantial bonuses for basing in urban areas. Rather than having a sprawling base, one could have a single large tower block to house troops. There are plenty of training centres that are a short train ride away from urban centres. If not, sell some of the thousands of MoD properties and buy a field or three in a green belt zone.
As for a prospective place to do it, maybe the Olympics site? I don’t see anyone else queueing up to use it. Plus I’m sure the parachute regiment are the only people that could find some use for Anish Kapoor’s carbuncle.