Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and DoctrineOpinionPeople and LeadershipShort Read

A call to arms

For the first time in decades, the media is abuzz with talk of National Service. This follows comments by the Defence Secretary, who has described the UK as “….moving from a post-war to pre-war world”, and the Chief of the General Staff, who called for “…an Army designed to expand rapidly to enable the first echelon, resource the second echelon, and train and equip the citizen army that must follow.” Headline writers have ignored that neither Shapps nor the CGS called for conscription. Instead, both highlighted that, as moustache aficionado and citizen armies enthusiast Herbert Kitchener observed, “Armies cannot be called together as with a magician’s wand”. So, could Defence dramatically expand the military workforce if required? 

I will give myself some control measures (for my non-military readers, read ‘parameters’). I will not be looking at equipment in this article. (Side note: To an extent, covered that topic before in my previous pieces, “The Army isn’t serious about War fighting” and “We aren’t ready for war; But COVID could help”). I will instead focus on the question of how a military accustomed to over 50 years of being a small all-volunteer force could rapidly expand and sustain workforce levels for a major conflict. I will also consider whether conscription is a desirable or realistic path to follow.

The United Kingdom going to war with a foreign state is a frightening prospect, even though we are likely to be part of an alliance and our own soil is unlikely to constitute the frontline. We continue to have the great advantage that democracies have over the massed ranks of the dark, dangerous and disingenuous regimes we may face; Namely, we can leverage our entire societies to pursue national aims willingly. We do not have to imprison vast numbers of our own, lose the talents of those deemed “impure”, or obsess over an ideological “fifth column”. Our strength is in the fact that we allow our people to be who they are, able to contribute talents in their own unique and varied ways. Ours is a willing citizenry that cherishes and values their freedoms and way of life. This may not always seem apparent, but as the lives of those who took part in the 1933 “King and Country” debate demonstrated, those who loudly shout down the military in peacetime are often significantly more motivated when the reality of conflict looms in real life.

This sentimental stuff is all good, but given my teary-eyed am-dram style monologue favouring democracy, it is time to get down to business. In a somewhat perverse way, we are quite lucky when it comes to understanding how to expand an army. We’ve seen it happen for real in Ukraine, and through Operation INTERFLEX, the British military has actively participated in training and growing the Ukrainian Army. In one year, the MoD, with notable contributions from our allies, successfully trained 10,000 Ukrainian recruits in the UK. The knowledge and experience gained during Op INTERFLEX will be invaluable if we need to repeat the project in a UK mobilisation context.

Citizen Army

General Sanders, by using the term ‘citizen army’ seems to be invoking the voluntary mass mobilisation of 1914, something confirmed by Minister of State for the Armed Forces James Heappey, who posted a thread on ‘X’ in which he remarks, “We’ve long had plans for remobilising service leavers & mobilising volunteers.” The vision, therefore, is that the Army and wider MoD can use the lessons of Operation INTERLINK to devise a framework allowing the absorption and training of large numbers of volunteers in the future.

Joining the armed forces today usually means submitting an initial application online, and utilising the internet is an excellent way to enable large amounts of data to be submitted very quickly. However, the MoD needs to understand the limitations of their (or, rather, Capita’s) systems. Has the system been stress-tested to understand the volume of application traffic that can be received before failure? I somehow doubt it. And, even with all the tech wizardry, new recruits must be assessed face-to-face at some point.


The outlook here is positive. Defence and allied organisations, such as the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations, still have the property footprint to allow an expansion of the recruitment process. For example, most larger towns and cities have either a large military reserve centre or a cadet training centre. These facilities tend to have offices, accommodation and large canteens on site. It is feasible that these could be pressed into service as assessment and selection centres, allowing the MoD to process more applicants than if they relied purely on the existing network of careers offices and assessment centres.

Having been processed, recruits would be sent home to await allocation for an initial training date. Given how under-recruited the armed forces are, there is undoubtedly room at some existing training bases to increase the number of recruits, but more is needed to meet an actual surge in demand. The likeliest solution would be to press temporary accommodation camps with pre-existing training facilities and ranges into service. The Quarterly service personnel statistics released on 1 October 2023 detail that on that day, the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen under training was 3,500 in the RN/RM, 2,860 in the Army and 2,690 in the RAF. One year before (Oct 22), the numbers were 4,210 for the RN/RM, 2,950 for the Army and 3,300 for the RAF. Using temporary training sites could feasibly increase these figures by several thousand for each service. This would strip regular forces of instructors to provide the staff to run the training camps. Given that General Sanders was suggesting an army of 120,000+ in a national mobilisation context, it will be a struggle to increase training numbers to meet that objective without significant planning and resources put into developing the training estate. This is all before considering how the military will generate the commissioned and non-commissioned leaders to lead them on operations.

But here’s the rub…. 

While Grant Shapps, James Heappey, and General Saunders were not talking about conscription, they were crystal clear about the requirement to grow the armed forces quickly and sustain a larger military during a long-term conflict scenario. This, I would contend, means that if we are serious about expanding the military in a future conflict, there is a case to be made that the MoD should be considering the possibility of compulsory military service.

A army Reserve recruitment banner
A recruitment banner for the Army Reserves. *** Local Caption *** ‘Old TA Signage 2.jpg

The last great volunteer expansion of the military occurred at the outbreak of the First World War. The first call for recruits was issued on 11 August 1914 and by the end of the month 298,923 men had volunteered. By the end of September, more than 750,000 men had signed up, more than doubling the strength of the British Army (with a pre-war strength of 733,514 regulars and reservists) in less than two months. From a distance, this looks like a success to model a modern mobilisation on. Notably, when a new war broke out 20 years later, the Government chose a drastically different path. On 3 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany, the government passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, rendering all male British citizens from 18 to 41 liable for military service. By 1942, this had been expanded to include all males up to 51 years old and all females from 20 to 30 years old. Furthermore, through the ‘Schedule of Reserved Occupations’, significant numbers of people were barred from volunteering even if they were young, fit and keen to enlist.

The Government had learnt vital lessons from the First World War. If you allow uncontrolled voluntary mobilisation, you risk losing highly skilled critical workers from the economy and, given those young, fit and adventurous types are among the most likely to volunteer, the military finds itself with an ever-reducing quality of recruit as the conflict drags on. It is no good profiting from a rapid expansion of military personnel in years one and two of a conflict if you suddenly find that by year three the only potential recruits left are the unfit.

Grasping the nettle

It is, therefore, vital that from day one of a conflict, the Government must grasp the nettle of personnel management to guarantee that the ranks of troops marching out of training camps are continuous. This way, the Government can manage the economy as it transitions to a war footing, avoiding the economic crisis caused by highly skilled workers who would better serve the national effort in a field or a factory from finding themselves in a foxhole. It would also manage personnel inflow, ensuring that all aspects of the war effort can be supplied with the people they need when they are needed rather than suffering from workforce shortages caused by an insufficient number of suitable replacements.

This will be a significantly more challenging task today than during WW2. The UK of 2024 is a country much older (with an average age of 40.7 years) and much fatter (over 60% of the population is overweight, of which nearly 30% are classed as obese). It is not tenable for two-thirds of the population to be written off as unsuitable for service because they would be unable to meet military fitness standards. Those with weight issues will have to be considered acceptable for service, and the armed forces will have to find ways to help these individuals get in shape. This must not be a cruel or demeaning process; we should think more of Joe Wicks than ‘Bad Lads Army’, but it will require some people to be integrated into the military much more slowly. 

Two thirds fat?

This could be achieved by closely managing call-up ratios so that every new cohort of recruits entering training would be a mix of two-thirds unfit to one-third fit. The intention is that the fit recruits go directly to initial training. In contrast, the unfit would go through a specialist preparatory course focussing on getting them to a basic entry standard. They will move on to an initial training course once they meet the standard, which will take time for different individuals. Due to the smaller number of physically fit entrants, it is likely that training outflow will initially be constricted. However, this will self-regulate over time as the more unfit recruits arrive in training depots, having completed their preparation course. A happy byproduct of this initial constriction is that it would give the armed forces much-needed time to work up their initial training capacity. In a sustained conflict, this will lead to more consistent numbers passing out of training centres in the longer term.

Age, while not unimportant, is less of an issue. As referenced above, during WW2, the upper age limit for conscription was 51. The average age of a Ukrainian soldier in early 2024 is 41, with men up to 60 eligible for call-up. There is no reason to suspect that a similar age range would not be appropriate in a UK mobilisation context. In addition to conscripting those of different ages, genders (yes, women serve across the military now. Get used to it) and fitness levels, it would be imperative for the Government to maintain the principle of universal service. Everyone must be considered for service in either a military or civilian capacity. This is not for pure resource management reasons but because, at all times, it must be remembered we are dealing with individual people. A wheelchair user has just as much right to defend their nation as anyone else, and they will surely have skills that are applicable to the national effort, even if not in a direct military context.

Trigger points for conscription

A key aspect of defence deterrence is convincing potential foes of our resolve. To do this, the Government could take inspiration from the Military Training Act of 1939, a pre-WW2 piece of legislation enacted as the storm clouds darkened over Europe. The act aimed to conscript men aged 20-21 for six months of service as ‘militiamen’, after which they’d be discharged into the military reserve. The act was short-lived as the first group to be called up were going through training when WW2 broke out, and the National Service Act was brought in. Rather than bringing in similar policies immediately, the Government could debate legislation based on the principle of a limited form of conscription and have it on the statute book with a commitment to bring it into force if certain conditions are met. For example, if the Ukrainian Government falls and Russia occupies the country. Another potential “trigger point” could be escalating tensions in the Far East, such as a Chinese attempt to subdue Taiwan.

An Armed Forces Career Office. CCBY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=383055

More practically, the Government could set up a voluntary mobilisation list. Individuals could choose to supply their personal information and potentially give additional details, such as a preferred branch of service, but would be under no obligation to do anything further. In the event of a severe deterioration of the international situation, and following a vote in Parliament, the registered individuals could be called forward for assessment and enlistment. Establishing such a scheme would focus minds and public interest both on the military and the security challenges worldwide. Forcing a parliamentary vote would ensure legitimacy and safeguard against unscrupulous governments.

This is not to say that conscription should be implemented immediately or necessarily at all. The priority should be to look at more realistic – which, being honest, means less expensive – ways to build resilience in the military and broader economy. During the Cold War the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service, Civil Defence Corps, Home Service Force and other such volunteer organisations would, if conflict had broken out, have allowed the MoD and broader Government to dramatically increase the number of uniformed personnel to support mobilisation and civil resilience. Re-establishing these organisations and funding the remaining few may be a quick win for the Government. This work must be coupled with the hard yards of analysis being done by the MoD so that if mobilisation is required, be it voluntarily or compulsorily, there is a go-to plan and accompanying schedule to remove as much friction as possible from the process.

It’s about national will?

Mobilisation is about the willpower of the Government as much as anything. There are significant issues, but many of them are manageable. The easy steps the MoD can do now, such as rigorously testing their own recruiting and management systems, must be seen as vital defence outputs. Building new training camps will only be worthwhile if on day one of the mobilisation effort the IT can cope. Much harder will be fixing problems with the recruiting and training process. In June 2022-June 2023, a total of ~77,000 people (i.e., more people than are in the regular army) had applied to join the British Army. Of these, only about 6,500 appear to have ever commenced basic training. The statistics do not explain why over 90% of applicants never managed to get into the Army. Still, it seems unlikely that they all failed the medical or security clearance. With a rejection rate of over 90%, even if every 18-year-old in the country (749,360 in 2021) volunteered to enlist, we’d struggle even to double the size of the Army, let alone increase numbers into the hundreds of thousands as has been suggested. Were a certain playwright alive today, he may have justifiably written, “Something is rotten in the state of Army Recruiting and Initial Training Command”.


RLC Alex

Alex has experience of logistic operations on land and at sea as a civilian, and is currently serving as an RLC Officer. He has previously written for the RLC Foundation Review.

Related posts

The British Army has a Blackbelt in ‘Bullshito’

Ryan Noordally

The US And China Are Not Destined for War.

George Askaroff

The Case for a Non-Warfare Officer First Sea Lord.