Army suffering from shortage of front-line troops

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

The Army is facing a serious shortage of front-line soldiers in spite of the multi-million pound recruiting campaign which began a year ago, and despite reductions in its overall size and the "Front Line First" review intended to shift more soldiers to combat units.

The infantry, which should have 24,000 soldiers, is 1,200 - 5 per cent - under strength and the 2,000-strong Parachute Regiment more than 10 per cent.

The Royal Armoured Corps, who drive tanks, and the Royal Artillery, who fire big guns, the other principal "teeth arms", are also short of soldiers in the ranks. But the Engineers, Signals, Logistics Corps and other technical arms are over-recruited. And the next three courses for officer cadets, destined for command appointments in all parts of the Army, at Sandhurst are all full.

Senior officers believe the shortage of recruits in the key fighting arms is due to the higher entry qualifications now required, and the fact that people with the necessary abilities favour branches of the Army that will give them technical qualifications they can use when they leave the service. In addition to social changes, they also blame parents who pressurise their sons and daughters not to join units that are perceived to be more dangerous.

Next year, the Army is due to reduce to 117,000 troops, and its actual strength is expected to be 1,000 short overall. It could force soldiers who signed up for the support arms to serve in the infantry, tanks or artillery, but is most reluctant to do so.

The shortage is particularly serious because 32 per cent of the Army is currently on active service - in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, or Cyprus - training for them, or resting afterwards.

The Army is having to meet this unprecedented operational commitment on a "peacetime" basis - without any of the reservists who would reinforce it in "war". So it has had to bolster units in Bosnia with soldiers from other regiments.

A senior Army officer said changes in education and social organisation were partly responsible for the imbalance.

He added: "We don't need the 'grunt' infantryman any more. We're looking at the person who is happy in the field, with all the night vision equipment, laser rangefinders, and the rest."