The British Army should stop recruiting 16-year-olds
The army’s venerable tradition no longer makes financial sense, argue Rachel Taylor and David Gee
The ethical case for raising the armed forces’ recruitment age to 18 is well established, but less well known is an equally compelling practical reason for change: ever more 16 and 17-year-olds are opting to stay in school. At the same time, the dwindling number of minors that the army does manage to attract are becoming increasingly expensive to train and difficult to retain.
Most countries have realized that targeting 16-year-olds for recruitment is not an effective strategy for modern armed forces. Fewer than 20 other states in the world recruit at this age, none of them a major military power. The RAF and navy have effectively moved on. Of the 2,000 or so new recruits aged under 18 last year, more than four-fifths joined the army, particularly the infantry. The British Army is now the only institution doggedly committed to the youngest recruitment age in Europe.
When challenged on the ethics of enlisting recruits too young to play Call of Duty, the MoD has insisted that the army needs them to avoid manning shortfalls, but in fact the evidence points the other way. More than a third of the youngest recruits drop out of training; of the 1,820 minors who joined the army last year, only 1,167 would be expected to join the trained strength, given the elevated drop-out rate for the age group. Training for minors is also a lot longer than the equivalent courses for adult recruits, which makes it very expensive; the army would save around £50 million a year if it enlisted only adults, according to research by ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International. (Although younger recruits tend to stay in the army for longer, the difference falls far short of what would be needed to balance the books.) Unlike the younger intake, adult recruits are relatively cheap to train, easier to retain through training and can be deployed as soon as they complete it.
This editorial in BMJ Paediatrics Open (2019, vol 3, issue 1) discusses the issues raised in the Medact report, The recruitment of children by the UK Armed Forces: a critique from health professionals, which brought together evidence highlighting the increased risk of death and injury for those recruited under the age of 18. The authors, Reem Abu-Hayyeh and Guddi Singh, contributed to the content and launch of the report Selling the military: A critical analysis of contemporary recruitment marketing in the UK by ForcesWatch and Medact.