'Less robust' generation leaves the Paras short

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The Independent Online
IT IS the regiment which requires the highest standards of fitness, and Britain's young generation can't make the grade. The Parachute Regiment, which has the hardest "hard man" image of all the army divisions, has a severe shortage of recruits.

Despite the service's multi-million pound recruiting campaign which began a year ago and in spite of the reductions in its overall size, the Army is suffering from a lack of frontline soldiers. Worst affected are the 2,000-strong Paras, which are 10 per cent understrength.

All the services have found that young people joining them are, to use their exquisite phrase, "less robust" than those of previous generations. About 25 per cent of young people who apply to join the Army and appear to be eligible are rejected on straightforward medical grounds because they have clinical medical conditions. A similar number are too fat, too thin, or fail a simple fitness test - running one-and-a-half miles in 11 minutes, 30 seconds. Parachute Regiment candidates have to complete it in a minute less - and that's the gentlest of the tests.

Youngsters no longer venture far from home to climb trees or kick tin cans round the street. Their feet are no longer worn in by hard shoes - they wear trainers. The Army and the Royal Marines have adjusted their training procedures to compensate, but there is a limit to how far they can go without either reducing standards or extending the training period. And a higher proportion of youngsters have abused drugs or have previous convictions, whether drug-related or not. This reduces their fitness further, or bars them from military service because people with convictions are not allowed to join.

But for the Paras more than any other regiment, its image as well as its high physical standards, is a deterrent. According to one senior officer last week, the parents of potential recruits might allow them to join the Army, but would think hard about having them join the Paras.

Educational and social changes have meant that young men who would not have gained A-levels or university places in previous decades may now be tempted into higher education. These were the very people the Army relied on to provide good soldiers and non-commissioned officers. As a result of the draw down of the Army, the public perception is that it is not recruiting. "That is absolutely wrong. We need 15,000 young people every year," Brigadier John Milne, the Army's director of recruiting, said last week.

Nor do the Paras' problems end with recruitment. During the first 10 weeks at one of the Army's four training regiments, another 30 per cent drop out.

For recruits, this is just the beginning. They then go on to complete more physical training to prepare them for the week of tests known as the pre-parachute selection course - "P" Company.

The 10 "P" Company tests are not just physical. They are a test of grim determination, and to that end everyone is reduced to a level where they are tired out and often injured. The pressure is unrelentingly psychological. Only after that can the recruits claim their famous red berets.

The Paras' notoriety for their philosophy of "maximum violence", has been reinforced not only by occasional lapses of discipline but also their activities during the Falklands War when the 2nd Battalion attacked and beat an Argentine force four times its size at Goose Green. The normal ratio for success is 3:l, attacker to defender. At Goose Green it was 1:4. The Commanding Officer, Colonel "H" Jones, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross was not just a hero. He was an original tactical thinker, who pioneered a new concept of infantry tactics using "fire teams", and his system was crucial to that remarkable victory. A high proportion of senior officers, including Lt General Rupert Smith, commanding UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, and Major General Mike Jackson, commanding the 3rd UK division, are Paras. At the very least, they epitomise the view that "the maximum use of violence is not incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect".

There is also a feeling in some quarters that parachuting into action is now an outmoded form of warfare, associated more with the Second World War's Battle of Arnhem, perceived as one of Britain's bigger military disasters, but out of place in the new world order. Senior officers, including Brigadier John Holmes, the commander of Britain's 5th Airborne Brigade, say that is short-sighted.

Brig Holmes and his colleagues are convinced that if Britain wished to play the part of a major power, it needs to maintain the ability to land troops, even if there is no secure airfield. Helicopters can only cover short distances and are extremely vulnerable.