Tory national service plan would harm UK’s defence, warns ex-military chief

Conscription scheme shows Sunak does not understand level of danger facing Britain – or the help the military needs to prepare for it, says Admiral Lord West

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 29 May 2024 07:04 BST
Parents 'won't face sanctions' for teenagers who fail to do national service, says minister

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Louise Thomas

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Rishi Sunak’s proposal to enforce national service for teenagers is “hare-brained” and would only serve to deplete Britain’s defence capabilities, a former head of the Royal Navy has warned.

Writing in The Independent, the former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, said the Tories’ general election plan showed Mr Sunak did not understand the level of danger the UK currently faces.

In their first major policy pledge since Mr Sunak hastily announced the election on Wednesday, the Conservatives unveiled plans to reintroduce national service, with school leavers being given the option of either joining the military for a year or doing part-time voluntary service in the community.

In what has widely been seen as a bid to attract Reform voters, the policy – rejected by a government minister only days earlier as a drain on military resources – would see 30,000 teenagers given full-time roles in the armed forces each year.

The Tories pledged to set up a royal commission to work out the details if elected on 4 July, but insist their plan would cost £2.5bn – and propose raiding key levelling up and post-EU funding to pay for it.

But Lord West, who was First Sea Lord from 2002 to 2006, warned that “anyone with the most basic experience of how much it costs, and what it entails, to turn a new recruit into someone that can usefully serve in our armed forces would not need a royal commission to tell them that the proposal as currently presented is utter nonsense”.

“This ill-thought out conscription scheme will increase pressure on defence and waste money,” the former Navy chief wrote, adding: “Rather than enhancing our defence capability, it would further reduce it.”

Britain’s military has shrunk by a third and satisfaction with service life, pay and morale have plunged across the board since the Tories entered power in 2010, Lord West said – accusing Mr Sunak of having ignored these while chancellor and only acting in the headlights of a general election.

Rishi Sunak ‘does not understand the level of danger that our country is facing’, warned Admiral Lord West
Rishi Sunak ‘does not understand the level of danger that our country is facing’, warned Admiral Lord West (POOL/AFP/Getty)

“And now, instead of a serious and comprehensive plan to strengthen our defence capabilities, the prime minister says he will plug the gap with 30,000 untrained teenagers doing their year of compulsory work experience,” he wrote.

“That tells me he does not understand the level of danger that our country is facing – or the level of support that our Armed Forces need to respond to it.”

Rubbishing the Tories’ costings, Lord West said that providing training, facilities, accommodation, uniforms, equipment and other necessary supplies would significantly surpass the proposed £2.5bn – while leaving no money to spare for the wider part-time element of the scheme.

Labelling it “a hare-brained idea dreamed up by spin doctors desperate for a headline”, Lord West added: “As an idea, it may belong in the frenzy of an impending election, but it is not a serious plan for the future of our Armed Forces, at a time when the state of the world demands one.”

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