Potential Conscription: genuine concern or political manoeuvring?

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When speaking at the International Armoured Vehicles conference in West London, Chief of the General Staff of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, warned that an increase in reserve forces alone “would not be enough” and that Britain needs a “citizen army” with the current threat Russia poses. He asserted that Russia’s War in Ukraine is far greater than just seizing territory. It is about undermining our system and our way of life. 

The question that arises is whether these bold statements are out of genuine fear or are simply that out of a loud voice arguing how there is lack of preparedness and resilience

While urging for increased efforts in modernising and equipping the armed forces for war, this is not the first time Sanders had spoken out for changes to be made to the British Army. Recently he advocated for the reversal of reductions to the army’s size, which currently stands at approximately 73,000 as a professional force — down from 100,000 in 2010. He proposed that instead of following the government plan to have just 72,000 soldiers in the field by 2025, instead within the next three years, there should be a credible plan to increase the British Army to 120,000 — stressing that even this might not be sufficient. Without recommending conscription, Gen Sir Patrick cautioned that the UK needed to look to other European nations like Sweden and Finland making steps to put their citizens on a “war footing”, and that preparing for the possibility of a land war was a “whole-of-nation undertaking”. Indicating that this won’t be obligatory, he encourages national mobilisation and emphasises the importance of being mentally prepared for potential conflict, referring to the period we are entering as a “1937 moment”, a chilling comment on the prospect of global war. 

The question that arises is whether these bold statements are out of genuine fear or are simply that of a loud voice arguing how there is a lack of preparedness and resilience, demonstrated by poor recruitment and retention figures. But Sanders remarks have drawn public misinterpretation. Contrary to advocating for conscription, his outspoken comments draw attention to the genuine concern of defence spending and the organisational structure of the UK’s armed forces — a crucial matter that has been overlooked by both political parties for almost thirty years. Currently just 2.1% of the GDP, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps warns that at least 3% must be spent on defence in light of global crises including the invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s war in Gaza. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have previously backed the principle of increasing military funding to 2.5% of GDP, but only when it is affordable. Many have argued this is not good enough considering Russia are spending 6% of their GDP on defence. 

While the UK need not be apprehensive about conscription, there should be heightened emphasis on voluntary enlistment

While headlines have liberally used the word ‘conscription’ when discussing Sir Patrick’s statements, he emphasises the adoption of conscription would only become necessary if a larger volunteer army and reserve army is not established. The tradition of having a volunteer army is deeply engrained in the UK’s DNA, whilst conscription only existed in practice for 25 years in our history. In an interview with the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service), Iain Duncan Smith, ex-leader of the Conservative Party currently serving in the Scots Guards, reaffirmed that conscription would be the only viable option when considering the scale of modern warfare. Gen Sir Patrick argues that when dealing with countries like Russia, which hold a messianic belief in their divine right to rule Eastern Europe, having a professional army is simply the bare minimum. Such warnings make politicians nervous. In response to Gen Sir Patrick’s address, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson dismissed the utility of hypothetical scenarios regarding future conflicts, explicitly ruling out any consideration of adopting a conscription model for the army. As long as this remains the government’s stance, figures like Sanders may well persist in advocating for the idea of a larger volunteer army, perhaps using fear-mongering tactics if needed. In the words of Sanders, “professional armies start the wars and citizen armies finish them”. While the UK need not be apprehensive about conscription, there should be heightened emphasis on voluntary enlistment.

Image Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Tech. Sgt Luke Litterman via Wikimedia Commons

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