One in three of the armed soldiers trusted to guard Britain’s military bases and be a "quick reaction force" are not fit to take an exercise test to ensure a basic level of fitness, The Independent can reveal.
The Military Provost Guard Service (MPGS) is comprised of regular army personnel who serve as the professional armed guarding service for the Armed Forces.
Yet 870 soldiers – one in three of the entire 2,735-strong force – are not allowed to take a fitness test, due to having been “medically downgraded”, according to new statistics released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) this month. They have been judged by doctors to be “medically limited deployable” or “medically non-deployable” and are therefore “exempt” from having to do a standard fitness test consisting of press ups, sit ups and a run.
The MPGS is responsible for protecting more than 100 military bases across the UK, from the RAF Tornado base at Lossiemouth, Scotland, to the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, Dorset, and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. It was established in 1997, as a cost-cutting measure aimed at reducing the workload of MoD police.
The force is “more akin to a civilian security company than a military combat force” according to Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. “They are less expensive in their static guarding role than would be regular troops. But that comes with penalties - one of which is that many are not up to the physical fitness standards of the fighting army.” He warned: “This shortcoming obviously needs to be taken into account by commanders when deciding whether to deploy MPGS or regular troops for specific security roles in the UK.”
In a statement, an MOD spokesperson said: “It would be misleading to take these figures out of context. The Military Provost Guard Service performs a different role to the wider Army and its personnel do not deploy so this has no effect on operations. Although they have lower fitness requirements they still have to be take part in rigorous fitness tests that ensure our military bases are safe and secure.”
They added that those considered "medically non-deployable" have a wide range of health problems ranging from diseases to sports injuries and even temporary heart murmurs.
Defence minister Anna Soubry will be quizzed on the claims of low levels of fitness within the army when she appears before the Commons Defence Select Committee next week.
Madeleine Moon MP, a member of the committee, told The Independent: “It would appear that the MPGS is being used to find employment for those who are medically unfit.” She added: “There are tasks allocated to the Guard Service which require low levels of fitness and some which require a very high level of fitness to tackle counter terrorist threats. I will raise the security implications of the low fitness level of one in three of the MPGS with the Minister who is appearing in front of the Defence Select Committee once the Commons returns next week. This seems a very high number of personnel who are non-deployable yet are on the front line defending UK military bases.”
The high percentage of armed guards who are exempt from taking an annual fitness test is part of a wider problem across the armed forces, with one in four soldiers not fit enough for combat. Around 18,000 out of the Army's current strength of 84,600 are unable to fulfil frontline duties because of injury or other long-term health problems.