Army needs to better reflect UK society, says chief of the general staff


The “folly” of British decision-makers who committed the country to the conflict in Afghanistan was trying to change the world without understanding it, the head of the British army has said.

The lesson from Afghanistan was that you have to have “insight and understanding before you arrive at a destination,” General Sir Nicholas Carter added, echoing previous remarks made by the chief of defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton.

Though Carter did not name names or any particular group or individuals, a growing number of mainly former senior military figures have criticised ministers in Tony Blair’s Labour government for ignoring the politics, economics, tribes and culture of Afghanistan, and the consequences of sending thousands of troops there from 2006, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Carter also seemed to be directing his fire at some military commanders who did not tell ministers of their concerns. The collective Whitehall decision-making process was at fault, current heads of the armed forces believe.

He also suggested the army would have to better reflect modern UK society, saying it needed to recruit more women and more people from black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Ethnic minorities currently account for about 10% of army personnel, though many of these are from Commonwealth countries such as Fiji; while only about 9% are women.

Carter, appointed Britain’s most senior soldier last year, was speaking on Tuesday at the London thinktank, Chatham House, on The Future of the British Army: how the army must change to serve Britain in a volatile world.

He said his plans for what he called a “modern general staff” included fewer top brass, “greater rigour and decision-making” among senior officers, and a cadre of what he called “soldier scholars”.

In a wide-ranging speech, Carter said:

• the only obligation facing army reservists was to train. “The obligation is for training only”, he stressed. He added that reservists would mainly be called up for “national emergencies”. His comments mark a significant change in Ministry of Defence thinking. The MoD previously stressed that reservists would be fully integrated into the regular army structure. The MoD has experienced serious problems in its attempt to recruit 30,000 trained reservists by 2020 by which time the regular army would be reduced to 82,000, an overall cut of about 20%;

• over the next five years the army could no longer rely on white caucasians. 25% of recruits needed to come from BAME communities. People from BAME communities currently account for about 9,110 army personnel, about 10% of the total but many of these are from Commonwealth countries. There are 480 Muslims in the army – 0.54%. Muslims comprise about 4.4% of the UK population according to the 2011 census;

• the army should include more women. Only about 9% of soldiers are women. Women soldiers could be allowed to serve in front line close combat roles by 2016.

The Guardian
Richard Norton-Taylor