Military Spending & Recruitment
TEN TRUTHS ABOUT MILITARY SPENDING AND RECRUITMENT
1. Military spending worldwide exceeds $2 trillion per year.
War is big business. On 25 April 2022, it was revealed that global military spending had passed $2 trillion a year for the first time. By the end of 2022, the figure stood at an astronomical, record high of $2240 billion, as revealed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Ministers and military leaders in the UK and other NATO members are misusing the suffering of people in Ukraine to push for even more spending on armed force. But in 2021, NATO spent 18 times as much on military expenditure as Russia - and this did not stop Putin's invasion of Ukraine. As a stragety for deterring aggression, high military spending has already failed. In contrast, for example, investing in renewable energy rather than arms could end dependence on fossil fuels from Russia (and elsewhere).
We have only to look at the level of insecurity, poverty and violence in the world to recognise that spending trillions on war doesn't make the world any safer. Militarism anywhere fuels militarism everywhere.
2. The UK has the sixth highest military spending in the world.
UK military spending passed £50bn in 2021 and grew further to £55bn in 2022.
This makes the UK the sixth highest military spender in the world. In November 2020, as Britain and the world wrestled with a deadly pandemic, Boris Johnson announced an extra £24bn of military spending over four years - the largest percentage increase in UK military spending since the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. This was confirmed in March 2021. At the same time the much smaller overseas aid budget has been cut by nearly a third. In October 2022, UK 'Defence' Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that he wants to raise UK military spending to 3% of national income by 2030 - this would represent a 60% increase on the existing, very high, levels.
In March 2023, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt promised an additional £11 billion for armed force - while insisting that the UK government could not afford the pay requests of teachers, nurses and paramedics.
This does not make us safe. The only thing protected by military budgets is the profits of arms dealers.
3. Military spending diverts money from tackling real threats.
There is no correlation between the threats people face and the amount of money spent on tackling them.
For many people, security involves freedom from poverty and the guarantee of housing, health care and education. Reviews carried out by successive UK governments have concluded that major security threats include international instability and the possibility of an environmental disaster or a pandemic. Despite this, the UK government was woefully under-prepared when the Covid 19 pandemic began in 2020, having neglected their own assessments and equated security and defence with preparations for war. The Covid 19 pandemic came as a deadly reminder that armed force cannot make us safe.
Many commentators point to climate change and global poverty as factors that are driving violent conflict. Ending global dependence on fossil fuels would do far more to weaken the power of Vladimir Putin than sending yet more weapons to Ukraine. Yet for every pound spent on reducing carbon emissions, the UK spends £7.45 on armed force.
In the last two decades, British public support for military action has declined considerably, not least because the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have clearly added to instability, injustice and destruction. The myth that war can bring peace and democracy is increasingly rejected. Despite this, the money goes on armed force rather than on real security. The Oxford Research Group have noted evidence of undue influence over government exercised by military leaders and the arms industry.
The armed forces are often praised for dealing with emergency situations such as fires and floods. This is very important work, but an armed force is not needed to carry it out and the money spent on the military could be better used on fire and rescue services, or on funding a special civilian emergency force. In the UK there are more than three times as many people in the armed forces than there are firefighters.
4. The UK armed forces include 190,170 troops. This is not a low number.
The UK armed forces include 190,170 troops (as of 1 January 2023). This includes 134,530 "full-time trained strength", with the rest being reserves or troops who are in training.
In March 2021, the UK government announced that they would cut the number of full-time personnel in the army from about 80,000 to 70,000 (this does not involve the navy or air force, or army reserves). This did not however represent a cut in the funding or power of the armed forces: it was accompanied by multi-billion pound plans for major new military schemes such as a new submarine project and a new special forces unit.
There is much talk of how UK armed forces numbers are lower than they used to be. This is partly due to the changing nature of warfare. We are no longer in a World War One-style situation, in which warfare depends on an endless supply of individual soldiers. Another reason for the lower numbers is the growing reluctance of people to join the armed forces. Pro-military commentators call repeatedly for an increase in the size of the UK army, but they fail to say where these people will come from - in most years, the army do not even meet their own recruitment targets.
5. The UK is the only country in Europe to recruit people as young as 16 into the armed forces.
Contrary to international norms, the UK continues to recruit 16- and 17-year-olds into the armed forces. While they cannot be deployed to the front line until they are 18, they are trained in preparation for it. So two years before they can legally buy a violent video game, they can legally be trained to kill. Around a quarter of the British army joined before turning 18.
Once they turn 18, they are committed to remaining in the armed forces until their 22nd birthday. Thus they are bound for years to a contract they signed before reaching the legal age of adulthood.
A poll published in 2018 showed 72% of British adults to be opposed to the recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds.
The army's leaders claim that they look after young recruits, insisting that they provide a supportive environment at the Army Foundation College (AFC) in Harrogate, where most 16- and 17-year-old recruits are sent to train. In practice, there have been a string of reports of abuse and ill-treatment at the AFC for years, particularly in 2021-2. Between July 2011 and August 2023, 13 sexual offenses including 9 rapes were reported at the Army Foundation College, where 16- and 17-year-old recruits are trained.
6. The armed forces target the poorest and most vulnerable young people for recruitment.
An army document leaked in 2017 makes clear that the army is deliberately targeting the poorest young people for recruitment. The document stated that their target recruit was "16-24, primarily C2DE. Mean household income 10K." It also listed the cities to target for recruitment - with a focus on some of the poorest populations in the UK. This was confirmed by another leak a year later, which suggests a deliberate focus on young people who are easily influenced. Research in London a few years earlier found that armed forces' visits to schools are noticeably more frequent in poorer areas.
In contrast to the recruitment of poorer people to the ranks, nearly 50% of army officers have been privately educated. In effect, the army requires people from poorer backgrounds to salute people from wealthy backgrounds and address them as "sir". Those from poorer backgrounds are therefore much more likely to be recruited to the most dangerous positions.
Other revelations include the army's deliberate targeting of people who have failed GCSEs - on GCSE results day. Recruitment campaigns such as "This is belonging" appeal to people who feel left out, by promising a sense of community.
In practice, it has long been understood that the army targets the poorest people for recruitment, despite the army leadership's repeated denials. Militarism and poverty follow each other round in circles: the armed forces recruit people from poverty, fuel poverty around the world through warfare and often dump recruits back into poverty when they leave.
7. Military training is an abusive process aimed at brutalising recruits.
Military training is designed to condition recruits to obey orders without question. For combat troops in particular, training is intended to remove the natural aversion that most people feel towards killing other human beings. As former soldier and current PPU member Wayne Sharrocks puts it, "The fear of disobeying or questioning orders is instilled in recruits very early... Any deviation from these orders in the early stages of training is met by punishment of the whole group. Brutal physical punishments are a regular occurence."
Former soldiers regularly report that they were punched, kicked or otherwise assaulted during training, despite such practices being illegal. There are also reports of more extreme abuses, such as recruits being forced to drink water until they vomit and having their throats squeezed until they nearly pass out.
Between 2014 and 2017, recruits made 50 official allegations of abuse and ill-treatment by instructors at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, where most 16- and 17-year-old army recruits are sent for training. A similar situation in a civilian college or school might well lead to it being closed down.
A landmark inquiry in 2021 also found that nearly two-thirds of women in the UK military have experienced bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. Research published in 2022 revealed staggering levels of sexual abuse in the armed forces - with more than one in ten young women aged 16 and 17 reporting sexual abuse in the previous year alone. In 2022, the military police investigated 333 sexual offences, involving 319 female and 63 male victims.
Racism is also highly prevalent in the UK military. As the BBC reports, 25% of all the complaints made across the military are for discrimination and are disproportionately made by ethnic minorities. Black and ethnic minority (BAME) armed forces personnel constitute 7% of all personnel, however 13% of complaints in 2018 came from this group. 39% of these complaints were for bullying, harassment and discrimination.
8. The UK armed forces are consistently failing to meet their own recruitment targets.
Both the regular armed forces and the reserves have been failing for years to meet their own recruitment targets.
This is despite misleading recruitment campaigns that give a glamorised image of life in the armed forces, the introduction of events such as Armed Forces Day and increasing numbers of cadet forces in schools. The armed forces have become increasingly desperate, for example blaming young people's use of social media for their unwillingness to join the Reserves. In January 2018, the army was mocked for a new campaign claiming that gay people and Muslims are welcome in the army.
The armed forces are now making a point of targeting LGBT+ events such as Pride marches, not only to recruit LGBT people but to pinkwash their image by giving the impression they are inclusive and in favour of human rights. This is despite the armed forces' own denial of human rights to their own members, as well as to civilians in countries in which they operate, to say nothing of their providing training to some of the world's worst human rights abusers, such as the regime of Saudi Arabia.
9. Recruits to the armed forces are denied basic rights.
Members of the UK armed forces face considerable restrictions on human rights that are guaranteed in law to almost everyone else. The armed forces are exempt from many laws about employment rights.
Armed forces personnel are not permitted to join a trade union, to speak to the media or in public without permission or to stand for elected office. They can be criminalised, and even imprisoned, for relatively minor acts of personal expression. This is despite the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers' recommendation that members of the armed forces should have freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In August 2020, British soldier Ahmed Al-Batati was arrested by Military Police for peacefully standing outside Downing Street and protesting against British military support for the Saudi bombing of Yemen.
In almost every other job, someone who wishes to leave can hand in their notice at any time. But members of the armed forces, after their first six months, are obliged to remain in the forces for at least four years. On paper, there are situations in which individuals may be allowed to leave. In reality, these are obscure and rarely put into practice. The SSAFA and At Ease helplines report that the most common questions they receive from forces personnel relate to their length of service, with frequent confusion about the conditions. Researcher David Gee found that "recruitment literature normally omits the terms, refers to them ambiguously or inaccurately, or misleads recruits in the view that it is easy to leave the forces once enlisted".
In theory, members of the armed forces who develop a conscientious objection to war may apply to be discharged. In practice, this almost never happens and it is not clear if most personnel are even aware of this right. In 2011, Michael Lyons, a member of the Navy, was sentenced to seven months in military detention after he developed a conscientious objection but was turned down for discharge and refused to take part in war.
The armed forces are the only organisations in the UK that are allowed in law to run their own criminal courts and judicial system, along with their own police forces. The warped priorities of military police and courts-martial have been shown on several occasions. For example, a trial of army instructors accused of abusing teenage recruits collapsed after it was revealed that the Royal Military Police had made no arrests for two years after receiving dozens of reports of abuse. They blamed this in part on "more urgent enquiries", suggesting they do not regard the abuse of teenagers as a priority for investigation.
10. Members of the armed forces are often abandoned to poverty and ill health when they leave.
Up to 13,000 ex-forces personnel are estimated to be homeless in the UK. A range of research suggests that veterans are more likely to be unemployed than the population generally. They are also less likely to have access to social support networks, despite being more likely to experience mental health problems.
Like many other people facing ill health and poverty, veterans are affected by austerity policies. Despite this, it is rare to hear pro-military commentators speak out against cuts to the welfare state, which is intended to offer protection to us all, both veterans and others.
This is another reminder of the way that militarism and poverty follow each other around in neverending circles. Armed forces recruit people from poverty, fuel poverty elsewhere through warfare, and dump people back into poverty when they leave.
These realities expose the hollowness of the rhetoric of armed forces personnel as "heroes". In reality, "support our boys" means "support our generals and arms dealers".