In the First and Second World Wars, men had come forward to join the colours willingly or, later on, had been compelled by conscription. But after the end of National Service, and the demobilisation of the last conscripts in 1963, Britain’s military needed to find new ways to fill its ranks, without an ideological enemy threatening it directly, or conscription.
With the discharge from the British Army of the last National Serviceman on 16 May 1963, the UK military became an entirely professional force. The end of National Service also meant that there was a need for the British Army to maintain its numbers of professional regulars.
As such, the UK military – since 1963 to present – has utilised a variety of methods to sell itself to potential recruits, which has also been varied across the service branches of land, sea and air. A regular fixture on British television was recruitment advertising including the slogans ‘Be the Best’ and ‘Be Part of It’ (National Archives, 2006).
This article will provide an overview of the structure of the UK military and organisational changes in terms of manpower. The article will then provide a general outline of the recruitment and selection process (i.e. how to join the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom) by looking at areas such as eligibility, tests, interviews, funding and vetting.
Finally, the article will highlight some criticisms of the military recruitment process and outline the new employment model before providing some useful links.
Structure of the UK Military
The UK military is made up of three Services (or Service branches):
- The British Army;
- The Naval Service (comprising the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Marines (RM)); and
- The Royal Air Force (RAF).
Each of the three Service branches is made up of both Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks, known as soldiers (Army), ratings (RN) or marines (RM) or airmen (RAF).
Due to a number of structural changes (see below) and economic pressures the UK military is increasingly utilising a Joint Force (or tri-Service) model of working. Typically the tri-Service concept is the removal of duplication and the standardisation of procedures, but also enables the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to make efficiency savings.
Since 1963 there have been nine important organisational change initiatives (always resulting in a reduction in total manpower) by both the MOD affecting all three Service branches – resulting in greater integration (Tri-Service model) – and cost savings between the three Service branches) and initiatives by the individual Service branches resulting in both greater integration and significant structural change for the branch. These organisational change initiatives are outlined in Table 1 below:
Table 1: Defence Reviews since 1963
Manpower Change (Total/By Service Branch)
Options for Change
1. Overall down by 18% (56,000) t0 255,000.
Front Line First: The Defenec Costs Study
1. Overall down by 5% to 242,250.
Strategic Defence Review
1. Army uo by 3,300 overall.
Strategic Defence Review New Chapter
1. In response to the 9/11 attack.
Delivering Security in a Changing World
1. Army down by 1,000.
Strategic Defence and Security Review
Conservative & Liberal Democrat Coalition
1. Army down by 7,000 to 82,000.
The MOD calculates the numbers that need to be enlisted to maintain the each of the Services manning levels. The MOD takes account of changing unit establishments, wastage caused by servicemen and women leaving the service at the end of their engagements, and those who might choose to leave before their engagements come to an end (PVR or Premature Voluntary Release). The number required in each trade in each Service is assessed and figures are published at six monthly intervals so that adjustments may be made during the year.
Traditionally, the Armed Forces have not met these recruiting targets. This shortfall in recruiting tends to be worse for the Army and for particular trades within the other two Services. For example, the Royal Navy has been experiencing problems in recruiting engineer officers.
With this in mind, the full time trained strength of the UK military was 156,120 at 01 November 2013, against the requirement for a full time trained strength of 160,390 personnel (DASA, 2013a).
By 2020 the UK military will have a full time requirement of 142,500 personnel (British Army 82,000, Royal Navy 29,000 and Royal Air Force 31,500) (DASA, 2013a).
The latest figures suggest that the UK military requires approximately 12,000 new personnel each year (DASA, 2013a).
Key points to note regarding UK military manpower include (DASA, 2013b):
At 1 April 2013:
- There were 170,710 (trained and untrained) UK Regular Forces personnel, of which 29,060 were officers and 141,650 were other ranks.
- The percentage of women in the UK Regular Forces was 9.7% in April 2013.
- Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) personnel comprised 7.1% of the UK Regular Forces, continuing a long term gradual increase in the proportion of BME personnel.
- 56% of Army personnel were aged under 30, compared with 48% of the Naval Service and 40% of the RAF.
- 1.3% of UK Regular Forces were under the age of 18, and 28% were under the age of 25.
In the 12 months to 31 March 2013:
- 45% of all other ranks intake occurred under the age of 20; compared with only 3.3% of all officer intake.
- 69% of all officer intake comprised personnel aged between 20 and 24; compared with only 39% of other ranks intake.
- The profile of outflow by age is to some extent determined by the nature of contracts under which personnel serve. In the 12 months to 31 March 2013, common exit ages for officers were 40 and over. Nearly 60% of all Other Ranks outflow occurred between the ages of 20 and 34; however there is also a peak at age 40 which broadly corresponds with personnel completing a full 22-year career.
A General Outline of the Recruitment and Selection Process
Within the UK individuals tend to be attracted to individual Service branches rather than the military per se. Each Service has their own identity, ethos, core values and standards and people tend to join the Army, Navy or Air Force. This is reflected in the way that each Service branch conducts separate recruitment and marketing campaigns. Each has its own strap-line (e.g., the Army’s is “Be the best” and the RAF is “Rise above the rest”).
Selection is conducted separately for each of the Services, but the selection processes are similar in nature. All three Services have different selection procedures for Officers and Other Ranks. However, all include interviews, aptitude and ability testing and some personality measures. There is a filtering system that will select people at the initial application stage, while others will be invited to attend an assessment centre which can last up to three days. As well as technical ability, individuals will be assessed on their general qualities to be a member of the UK military. In addition, preliminary medical examinations will also be carried out including checks on weight, eyesight and hearing, and individuals will need to pass a physical fitness assessment.
Table 2 provides an outline of the current UK military recruitment and selection processes by Service branch.
Table 2: Outline of the UK Military Recruitment and Selection Process by Service Branch
First Formal Interview
Initial Careers Presentation (IPC)
Officers & Aircrew Selection Centre (3-days)
British Army Recruit Battery (BARB) Test
Recruitment Test (RT)
Medical & Eye Tests
Medical & eye Tests
Occupational Health Assessment
Pre Royal Navy Course (4-days)
Potential Royal Marines Course (2-days)
Pre-Recruit Training Course (3-days)
Army Officer Selection Board (2-days)
Admiralty Inteview Board (AIB) (2-days)
Potential Officers Course (2-days)
Selection Procedure (2-days)
Provisonal Offer of Service Interview
Start Initial Miltiary Training
Start Initial Miltiary Training
Start Initial Miltiary Training
Start Initial Miltiary Training
Source: Taylor, 2010.
Recruit Attraction Methods
The UK military utilises a number of marketing channels in order to engage with domestic and international populations and these include:
- High street stalls;
- Trade shows and other events;
- School and university visits;
- Commercial recruitment fairs;
- Own websites;
- Social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WordPress);
- Billboards and posters;
- Cadet and other youth organisations; and
- Friends and family of current and ex-military personnel.
There are a number of eligibility criteria that must be considered before making an application to join the UK military and these vary across the Service branches due to the nature of the job/role an individual may wish to undertake. The general principles are outlined below:
- Age: Every job/role in the UK military has a minimum and maximum age limit. The minimum age can differ between jobs/roles and is specified within each job description. However, the earliest application is at least 15 years old and 9 months when an individual applies, being at least 16 years old on entry and under 37 years old when beginning basic training (although the maximum age is typically around 30 years of age).
- Fitness Standards: a 2.4 km run (or 2!) within a time limit appropriate to your age and gender.
- Medical: there are various criteria including height, weight, eyesight, and checks medical conditions and any ongoing illnesses.
- Nationality & Residency: individuals are required to be a national of Britain, Ireland or the Commonwealth. Documents required include passport, birth certificate and educational qualifications.
- Criminal Convictions: some kinds of offences and sentences can bar recruits from joining or rejoining.
- Tattoos & Piercings: these are dependent on location and nature and will usually need to be declared and shown during a medical examination.
When Can an Individual Join?
If an individual is under 18 years of age, they will need consent from their parent or guardian before they can progress their application at the Careers Office.
If an individual is currently under a care order then the UK military will have to seek permission of the local authority in order for an individual to join.
Funding and Scholarships
The UK military offers a number of funding and scholarship options which vary across the service branches, as highlighted below:
- Sixth form scholarship schemes
- Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College
- Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme (DTUS)
- Military Aviation Academy
- In-service Degree for Non-engineer Officers
- Bursaries (Standard and Technical)
- Medical and Dental Cadetships
Get Fit To Join
Due to the nature of military training and operations it is critical that individuals get in the best possible shape in order to help them excel during pre-joining fitness tests, initial (basic) training and throughout their military career.
All three Service branches have put together training programmes designed to help individuals get their fitness levels to what they should be and increase their chance of success.
Tests and Interviews
The UK military has a number of techniques designed to check the suitability of individuals for life in the military. These techniques are outlined below:
- Academic Ability: although called different names by each service branch this timed test measures (dependent on service branch) general reasoning, verbal ability, numeracy, work rate, spatial reasoning, electrical and mechanical comprehension, and memory and is considered a fair way of assessing all candidates on a level playing field.
- Medical & Eye Test: view General Eligibility above.
- Pre-joining Fitness Test: view General Eligibility above.
- Interview Boards: a multi-day (2-day) assessment designed to assess whether an individual has the qualities needed to successfully become an Officer once they have completed training (syllabus varies according to the needs of the service branch).
- ‘Other Ranks’ Induction Course: a 2-4 day induction or familiarisation course for Other Ranks which enables individuals to sample ‘life’ in the particular Service branch (syllabus varies according to the needs of the service branch).
National Security Vetting
All military recruits will be ‘security vetted’ and there are three main types of National Security Vetting (NSV) checks and clearances.
- Counter Terrorist Check (CTC): for individuals employed in posts with proximity to public figures, access to information or material assessed to be of value to terrorists or unescorted access to establishments assessed to be at risk from terrorist attack. A CTC does not allow an individual access to or knowledge of protectively marked assets.
- Security Check (SC): for individuals employed in posts which have substantial access to secret assets or occasional controlled access to top secret assets.
- Developed Vetting (DV): is needed for individuals with substantial unsupervised access to top secret assets.
The Armed Forces Careers Office
One area which is common across all three Services is the provision of Armed Forces Careers Offices (AFCOs). These are joint information centres where individuals can go for information regarding careers in any of the three Services. There are over 120 centre located throughout the UK. In addition recruiting activities will also be conducted by Schools Advisers/Careers Officers, Service Youth Teams and (for the Army) Regimental Recruiting Teams.
Traditionally the UK military has utilised regular Officers and Other Ranks as recruiters to process and support potential recruits through its recruitment and selection processes.
In 2012 the MoD struck a 10 year (£440m) deal with Capita, a UK-based provider of business process outsourcing and integrated professional support service solutions, as part of its Recruiting Partnering Project (RPP) and is estimated to save the UK military £300m and aims to release 1,000 military recruiters back to their respective service branches (Computer World UK, 2012).
As part of this deal, covering initial marketing to the first day of training, the British Army outsourced its recruitment process to Capita. Although the British Army will continue to retain the ownership of recruitment policy, entry criteria and assessment standards, the RPP will deliver the entire process for the attraction and recruitment of soldiers and officers. Capita is also providing the underpinning IT to support recruiting for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Capita is working with a range of partners, including advertising agency JWT, to support recruitment marketing, and Kenexa, to support the assessment process and the recruitment technology component of the ICT platform.
The then RPP Project Manager, Colonel Neil Polley, is quoted as saying “This initiative will increase the number and improve the quality of recruits joining the Army.” (Computer World UK, 2012). However, Since Capita took over the contract in April 2013 attendance at selection events and interviews have fallen, although there is some wrangling over the exact reason(s) for this (Recruiter, 2013).
Barriers to Joining
A number of barriers to joining the military have been identified and include:
- Misconceptions about the qualifications needed;
- A lack of awareness of career options available;
- Uncertainty about the type of training provided;
- Concerns about military discipline and having to follow orders;
- Being killed or injured; and/or
- Disruption to family life and the belief that individuals are cut off from civilian life.
Criticisms of Military Recruitment
An article in the Huffington Post by George Iordanou (2013) suggests that military recruiters are taking advantage of students who are or may be struggling to pay their £9,000 per year university fees with the promise “that their fees are going to be [paid] and a prosperous career in the armed forces is to be expected.”
However, the main thrust of Iordanou’s vitriol is aimed at the university’s themselves. Iordanou states “The presence of the military vans in Britain’s universities is a form of exploitation… [and] …Universities [should] conduct their affairs by higher standards and should not be doing such concessions.”
In an online article by Ekklesia (2010) based on an academic report it appears the British Army is targeting its recruitment activities at young people from the poorest backgrounds.
The report, produced by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, part of the University of London, looked at army visits to schools in London and found that those with the most disadvantaged students are far more likely to have hosted military recruiters.
40% of Greater London secondary schools received army visits between September 2008 and April 2009. However, 51% of the most disadvantaged fifth were visited, compared to only 29% cent of the middle fifth. The article suggests that this news has sparked fresh concerns about young people from poor backgrounds joining the UK military due to severely limited employment opportunities.
The UK is the only European Union country to employ soldiers aged under 18, a practice opposed by the United Nations, and in 2009 the UK government was criticised by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights for continuing to allow the recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds into the armed forces (Ekklesia, 2010; Forces Watch, 2011).
However, figures in 2012 demonstrated a significant drop in the number of 16 year olds joining the UK military between 2001 and 2011 (Huffington Post, 2012).
New Employment Model
The MOD describes its New Employment Model (NEM) as the most thorough review of Service personnel terms and conditions of service (career structures, pay, accommodation, training etc) in a generation (MoD, 2013).
The MOD states it signifies the government’s commitment to provide a modernised terms and conditions of service ‘offer’ and will be designed to meet the expectations of a generation that has yet to join, but will be designed in a way that continues to support and motivate existing Service personnel. The MOD continues that NEM will be a long-term, incremental change programme and although not part of the NEM, the Future Armed Forces Pension Scheme is linked to its development.
The main components of NEM (MOD, 2013) include:
- Pay and allowances (including specialist pay and commitment incentives);
- Accommodation (policy, grading and charges) and the home purchase incentive;
- Partner employment project;
- Engagement structures and part-time working;
- Revised career management principles and continual professional development; and
- Personal development and training pathways.
Listed are some links which the reader may find useful:
- A very thorough document ‘Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom’ written by David Gee in 2007 and available from: http://www.informedchoice.org.uk/informedchoice/informedchoiceweb.pdf.
Computer World UK (2012) Capita Signs £440m Recruitment Deal with Armed Forces. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.computerworlduk.com/news/public-sector/3344048/capita-signs-440m-recruitment-deal-with-armed-forces/. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
DASA (Defence Analytical and Statistics Agency) (2013a) UK Armed Forces Monthly Personnel Report: 1 November 2013. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.dasa.mod.uk/publications/personnel/military/monthly-personnel-report/2013-11-01/1-november-2013.pdf. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
DASA (Defence Analytical and Statistics Agency) (2013b) Annual Personnel Report 2013. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.dasa.mod.uk/index.php/publications/personnel/military/annual-personnel-report/2013. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Ekklesia (2010) Concern over New Statistics on Army Recruitment in Schools. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11072. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Forces Watch (2011) Forces Watch Briefing: The Recruitment of under 18s Into The UK Armed Forces. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/joint-committees/human-rights/Briefing_from_Forces_Watch_age_of_recruitment.pdf. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Gee, D. (2007) Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.informedchoice.org.uk/informedchoice/informedchoiceweb.pdf. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Huffington Post (2012) Armed Forces Recruitment Of 16-Year Olds Has Dropped By Two-Thirds. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/10/armed-forces-recruitment-16-year-olds-dropped-by-two-thirds_n_1871797.html. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Iordanou, G. (2013) Get the Armed Forces Away From Universities. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/george-iordanou/armed-forces-universities_b_4161976.html. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2013) Guidance: New Employment Model. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/new-employment-model-components. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
National Archives (2006) Army Recruitment. Available from World Wide Web: http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/army-recruitment/. [Accessed: 02 January, 2014].
Recruiter (2013) Capita Has ‘Clean Bill of Health’ over Army Recruitment. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.recruiter.co.uk/news/2013/11/capita-has-clean-bill-of-health-over-army-recruitment/. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Taylor, C. (2010) A Brief Guide to Previous British Defence Reviews. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05714.pdf. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].