FOCUS: FUTURE OF THE FORCES: It's marching orders for the squaddie

The Army announced last week that it is to recruit young offenders. That decision sits uneasily with its new multi-talented super-soldier image

Deep in the Wiltshire countryside, a middle-ranking officer of the British Army has been working to destroy one of the military's most enduring institutions. For the past five years, Colonel Rory Clayton has been on a secret mission to re-brand the squaddie.

"We've got to get rid of him as a concept," Clayton would tell visitors in fluent marketing-ese, striding around his small office in a rather unmilitary pink open-necked shirt and slacks. The resemblance to an ad- man was deliberate. Until this summer, Clayton was in charge of all the Army's recruitment advertising - perhaps the purest distillation of how the Army sees itself and wants to be seen by the outside world.

"Our advertising used to be terrible," recalls the colonel. "We had this character called Frank who used to be seen water-skiing in the West Indies or walking on the beach with two good-looking birds on his arms. Never any actual fighting, though. We used to get a lot of people coming in for the water-skiing and the birds, but not much else."

Now, however - at least in the adverts - the British soldier has been transformed from a faintly lumpen individual, enjoying his simple pleasures, into a decision-maker who has to get all his men and a wounded refugee across a 20ft canyon with only a 10ft rope. He's qualified in telecommunications, so he can blow things up behind the enemy and take him by surprise. Yet he's a diplomat too, taking off his sunglasses to make calming eye-contact with the locals.

The new, multi-talented soldier of our TV screens is an attempt to persuade sophisticated Nineties youth that army life can be interesting. For centuries, the Army has struggled with the perception that soldiering is a career of last resort, suitable only for the absolutely desperate and the extremely thick. "There are plenty of things Steady Young Men can do when they can read and write as you can," fretted the mother of 17-year-old Wullie Robertson when he joined up in 1877. "I would rather bury you than see you in a red coat." Robertson gave the lie to his mother's worries by ending up as a field marshal - and the Army has long since ceased to value stupidity in its officers and men.

It will be a long time before the shortfall, currently almost 6,000, can be made up. Despite that, the Army's concern about image made its decision, revealed last week, to take selected young offenders from Britain's jails a curious one.

In fact, that was a Prison Service initiative, not the Army's - but it fitted in with the military's new desire to tap any new constituency it can find. Women, blacks and Asians - groups all but excluded in the past - are being actively courted. Army training now aims to build recruits up more gently (but to the same final standard as now, the generals insist) so that more people make it through the course. The Army has even opened its own college for 16- and 17-year-olds, believing that it stands a better chance of keeping people if it catches them young.

New, more complicated forms of soldiering - peacekeeping, civil policing - are demanding ever higher levels of sophistication, restraint and sensitivity from the average soldier. Equipment and weaponry are more complex, needing higher intelligence to operate them. Soldiers' average academic achievement is higher than ever before.

Yet two years ago, senior officers were horrified when market research showed the vision of the squaddie - young, tough, not very bright and gets drunk - to be the defining image of the Army for the general public. "We need helicopter pilots, computer experts, people who can operate complicated communications equipment, but the public is fixated by the bloody squaddie," said one officer.

By the early Nineties, making that case to the teenagers of Britain had become a matter of extreme urgency. Army recruitment had fallen down a deep trench. Every year, even in its reduced, post-Cold War size, the Army needs 15,000 new warm bodies, as the military calls them, simply to replace those leaving. At the worst times of the Nineties, it was getting fewer than half that number. Soon, the Army was more than 10 per cent below strength - a serious matter in a force as small as Britain's now is - and manning became the first item on the generals' agenda. "It is the top non-operational priority of the Army Board," says Colonel David Bone, an army spokesman. New soldiers are more important than new weapons - no use having the latest weapons if there are not enough people to fire them.

Remarkably for a military plan, the new recruitment strategy is working. The adverts have been a hit, and in recent months - aided, of course, by a major, televised war - slightly more people have joined the Army than have left it.

Yet getting them in is less than half the battle. Keeping them - "retention", in the military jargon - is now proving to be the major problem. For a few thousand lucky soldiers this year, posted to Bosnia, to Kosovo, to Sierra Leone, the images in those TV adverts have come true. But for the majority, life can be less fulfilling. For the foreseeable future, the most important requirement for the infantry will continue to be physical strength, stamina and the ability to fire a rifle.

The continuing soldier shortage means too much time away from home, too much time on operations and not enough time to pursue training or career development. At the peak of the Kosovo campaign, 47 per cent of the Army was committed to active operations - a figure unprecedented in peacetime history. More and more experienced, married soldiers - the backbone of any fighting force - are leaving simply in order to spend time with their families.

The Army is doing what it can to help. To reduce overstretch, there have been large troop pull-outs from Bosnia and Kosovo. Three thousand more soldiers will be recruited, if the recruiters can find them. But at a sobering conference in London two months ago, the Army's director of personal services, Brigadier Andrew Ritchie, admitted that the Army was failing its troops. "The bucket is leaking faster than we can fill it," he said. "Soldiers need to feel valued more than they are."

No one should foresee a sudden transformation of the Army into a world of ultra-sophisticated super-soldiers. The poor bloody infantry will be poor, bloody and put-upon for a few years yet.

Andrew Gilligan is defence correspondent of Radio 4's `Today' programme.

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