Cap badges and cuts – the UK army in 2020

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.



14 thoughts on “Cap badges and cuts – the UK army in 2020

  1. I can see where you are coming from to a degree but are you suggesting that the Army will be placing ethnic minority recruits into an environment that is ‘probably hostile’ to them based upon the colour of their skin?


    The Regiment becomes their support network, that being precisely the point you are missing.

    As for aligning the estate to a more urban nature, again, not sure you understand the space requirements, the need for training facilities within easy reach and those training facilities tend to be rather noisy and therefore difficult to accomodate in the city.

    Is the Army actually facing a fundamental recruiting problem and as for your suggestion of buying a tower block and a few green fields, well, that just suggests the idiocy of your premise


  2. It was a combination of factors, but yes, I do happen to think that it is slightly crazy to expect that “the regiment takes care of them” to be the be all and end all of the issue. If you have ever lived abroad you’ll know what an isolating experience it can be to be the only person speaking your first language and so on. I should point out, in case it is unclear, that I wasn’t accusing the army itself of discrimination, but I am aware of how “unforgiving” sections of society can be to minorities. Sadly Britain isn’t the tolerant society the guardian wishes it was, and most of our military isn’t located in highly mixed environments such as London.

    As for training etc. The comment was tongue in cheek, and as Rob Dover can tell you, I know nothing about the UK’s defence estate. But if the army already has functioning units in metropolitan areas, I don’t see why it can’t have more.

    • MF says:

      ‘As for training etc. The comment was tongue in cheek, and as Rob Dover can tell you, I know nothing about the UK’s defence estate. But if the army already has functioning units in metropolitan areas, I don’t see why it can’t have more.’

      Space. Most regular urban units will have barracks elsewhere and the TA ones doe move out for all their exercises.

      Apart from the obvious point of not being able to have fully functioning military bases within urban areas there is the other issue of this not making financial sense. If you look how the army has dealt with its London establishments over the past years this becomes clear. Yes, the army will have to orientate its recruitment towards the south-east more in future years, but that does not mean it needs to have a greater urban presence.

  3. Vito says:

    I had commented before but my comment appears to have been eaten by the system so here is an edited version:

    If rural areas discriminate against ethnic minority recruits then surely urban areas discriminate against ethnic majority recruits? I don’t think it’s especially true anyway; ethnic minorities from the Commonwealth appear to have no such problems.

    Nor is it necessary. Far from having a recruitment shortfall, the Armed Forces are cutting back. Making the Armed Forces reflect the ‘face of Britain’ sounds laudable but doesn’t actually help them do their job any better than before.

    Nor does the history backs you up. In my grandfather’s time in the British Indian Army it wasn’t unusual to serve for five years without returning home. His Georgian and Victorian predecessors had it even worse. The whole point is that the Regiment becomes your personal support network; to adapt your metaphor, rather than being a lonely tourist, new recruits are part of a tour group.

    Personally I think urban barracks are too difficult and that trying to increase the number of ethnic minority recruits is meaningless in comparison to the much bigger problems over budget cut backs. Surely the big debate should be about the role of the UK’s Armed Forces in the post-expeditionary era?

  4. Jack, fair enough if it was a joke about the tower blocks but whilst the Army does have facilities within urban areas such as London they are for specialist units that have to be there, ceremonial, within horse riding distance of their operating areas for example. These are the bare minimum though precisely because they are expensive, difficult to secure, unsuitable for most training and generally difficult all round.

    I think you also miss the point about support networks, spouses, kids etc. If you put people into urban areas you have to provide facilities for families.

    Yet again more cost which has to come from somewhere i.e. a capability cut somewhere else.

    Whilst wishing for more urban locations and greater support networks for those poor souls who need the comfort blanket of their old mates and families perhaps you might provide a list of things you would cut to pay for it.

    Hence why the Armed forces in general are moving to fewer but larger locations where they can provide the space for better accomodation and a quality of life for families, thus improving retention rates and lowering cost of the single most expensive part of the armed forces, it’s people.

    If you argued that the TA should match the recruiting footprint I would be with you, that makes a lot of sense but not regular units.

    If ethnic minorities want to join up then they will do so, regardless of whether they are close to home or not, as evidenced by people from all over who join the non or less geographically focussed corps, RLC, RE, RA etc etc

    In fact, if you want to see an ethnically diverse armed forces pop up to Scotland or to the Royal Logistic Corps. People in those are often very far from home, doesn’t seem to stop them doing well.

    Whilst your basic argument has some kernel of common sense, hoping that all would be well by putting barracks into urban areas is simply nonsense.

    Again, sorry :)

  5. SM says:

    You might want to look at the Canadian case. A while back, the CF sold off most of their urban bases, and concentrated each type of training in one or two locations, in both cases to save money. The problem with the former was that it reinforced the tendency for most recruits to be white and rural, since people who don’t know any servicemembers are unlikely to join … but the proportion of the population which is young, white, and rural is shrinking. The later can be hard on couples, since a spouse in the military is likely to travel a lot for training. I don’t know enough about either system to make more detailed comparisons.

    • Infanteer says:

      Re: Canadian case – our Army is for the most part consolidated onto 6 bases, with four of them being near urban centres of over 100,000 people (Edmonton, Kingston, Quebec City and Fredericton).

      So, the theory that the Canadian Army consists of a high percentage of white males because of the location of its garrisons doesn’t hold water.

    • SM says:

      Thanks for the inside perspective. What I know is mostly from official reports and articles in the CF Journal, which are worried about their ability to find enough recruits over the next few decades but have their reasons for defending the status quo.

      I do get the impression that even when a base is nominally urban, the combat arms elements tend to spend most of their time in rural areas or small towns for various reasons such as cheaper land for training. But that’s only an outsider’s impression and I’d take your word over it …

  6. Jon Holland says:

    What is with this latest obsession of calling it the U.K. Army? When I was in it (a very long time ago) it was called the British Army, and as far as I know, the title hasn’t been changed. And it was part of the British Armed Forces (also known as Her Majesty’s Armed Forces) not the U.K. Armed Forces. Please someone tell me what is wrong with the word BRITISH these days? Or are we so scared about upsetting someone, somewhere, that we can’t even utter the dreaded “B” word anymore? And it’s not just within military circles, either…. everywhere I look, I see the “B” word (god forgive me for even referring to it) being replaced by U.K. this and / or U.K. that. Why are we so terrified of being British anymore? I just don’t get this….

  7. Tom Wein says:

    I think one of the problems with the ‘cap badges’ debate is that it usually pits accountants against traditionalists, with neither giving much ground. The figures all add up for amalgamation of units, but there is never a fig leaf of tradition provided to assuage the traditionalists. For instance, in the long term there could be a serious attempt in military education to establish a tradition of the armed forces, with cadets learning equally about Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain.

  8. Interesting point and one I’d not considered. Once upon a time I considered joining up and was personally horrified that I would be sent huge distances from family/friends but I hadn’t appreciated the link between regiments and catchment areas. Thanks for this.

  9. Giles says:

    Jack the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers my former regiment is an amalgamation of the Lancashire, Northumberland Warwickshire and Royal (London) Fusiliers, rather than being tied to shires and rural catchments it draws and pretty much always has drawn its men from urban areas such as Newcastle, Birmingham and London. It is at the moment only 10 men short of being completely manned.

    The Scottish regiments have a problem drawing manpower from within Scotland but absolutely none at all from attracting commonwealth applicants.

    I’m really not sure your argument holds much water.

    • A fair point, but at the same time, the full-time battalions are located in Tidworth and Germany respectively. My point was primarily about re-locating the armed forces closer to major urban areas (perhaps reflecting my metropolitan Londoner bias). The problem as I see it, particularly with the recent Army 2020 brochure is that the Army is expecting to rely heavily upon reserve forces, while retaining a distribution of regiments and brigades based on historic locations and full-time status. From population statistics alone it seems crazy to plan to have 1 brigade out of 11 based in London, which accounts for almost a sixth of the UK’s population.

  10. “Cap badges and cuts – the UK army in 2020 | Kings of War” was
    a superb posting, cannot help but wait to go through more of ur blog posts.
    Time to spend some time on-line lol. Many thanks -Pedro

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