Britain's armed forces are still formidable in battle, but undermanning and public indifference point to an institution under strain. It is too soon to declare the military covenant broken, but repair work is certainly neededby James Fergusson / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Until two years ago, when the army’s senior soldier, chief of the general staff Richard Dannatt, popularised the phrase in a now famous interview in the Daily Mail, most people had never heard of the “military covenant.” Considering that the military covenant does not, technically speaking, exist, this is forgivable. The legal definition of a covenant is a sealed, written contract. Yet apart from an oblique reference or two in army doctrine, the military covenant does not exist in writing, and has no basis in law. Despite this, since 2006 an important national debate about the military’s role in society has coalesced around the phrase.
The covenant means different things to different people but its primary meaning is clear enough: the compact of trust, honour and respect between the government, the armed forces and the public whose interests they serve. Dannatt worries that the military covenant is “out of kilter,” and argues that unless balance is restored, the armed forces could eventually “break,” with potentially huge consequences for Britain, Europe and the world. This summer he renewed his attack, with a stinging comparison between the basic salary of a traffic warden (about £20,000) and a private soldier (£16,277). “I think, given the insecurity in the world today and what the armed forces of this country are being asked to do, then probably a slightly increased share of the national wealth going to defence would be appropriate,” he said. He may have a point. Our military haven’t had to fight on two fronts at once—southern Iraq and Helmand—for more than half a century, and they have been continuously engaged in Afghanistan for longer than the whole of the second world war.
The theme of military “overstretch” has become a media staple since the start of the Helmand campaign two and a half years ago. Meanwhile, all three services are struggling to retain their talent or to recruit replacements. Latest figures show that, with a trained strength of 173,000, the armed forces are collectively undermanned by 6,000 personnel. More than 20,000 quit last year, a modern record. Exit rates for officers have increased in each of the last five years. The air force (40,000 people) and the navy (35,000) both have major shortages, although not as significant as the army, which at 98,000 is short of 3,500 personnel: a whole brigade’s worth. The only regiment that is truly up to strength is the Gurkhas.