This article originally appeared on Chatham House 

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.

The army can live with these problems, but the growth of further education is presenting it with a problem that it may not be able to face down. The gradual effect of the Education and Skills Act (2008) is to extend the de facto end of basic education to age 18. In 2003, one in four 16-year-olds left education to join the jobs market; by 2011, only one in ten was doing so, and the downward trend continues. If you ask the army what makes it difficult to recruit, the ‘raised participation in education agenda’ is high on its list, even though the armed forces are exempt from having to meet it themselves.

Recruitment figures back this up; the number of minors joining the army has long been on the slide, as has their share of total recruitment. When this problem is added to the high costs and poor retention outcomes of recruiting below the age of 18, as well as increasing pressure for change on ethical grounds, it becomes clear that the rationale for recruiting 16-year-olds is running out of rope.

One way around this would be to put the army’s education on a par with standards in the civilian system. That would mean supporting all recruits to attain strong passes in core GCSE subjects by the age of 19. As matters stand, GCSEs are not offered to army trainees. Instead, the main training centre for minors – the misnamed Army Foundation College – offers only a few, short, functional skills courses in English and maths and a basic ICT dip-loma. The rudimentary nature of these courses earned them strong criticism in the Wolf Review of Vocational Education (2011), commissioned by the Department for Education. The army has tried to improve its educational offer in recent years, but it is limited in what it can do. It would be expensive to pay recruits to get an education to rival that in the civilian sector, and it would divert them from the fundamental purpose of their training, which is to turn civilians into soldiers. 

Even providing the current limited education package for minors is expensive; the army could train four adult recruits for the cost of training one 16-year-old. Tipping this balance still further by bringing army education up to civilian standards would be extremely hard to justify financially. 

Another option would be to cut costs by mixing the dwindling number of minors with adults in training, but that would not be viable either. It would carry serious safeguarding risks – separating minors in training was one of the most fundamental outcomes of the inquiry into the deaths of trainees at Deepcut Barracks. It would also be all but impossible to ensure that the younger recruits were getting the additional education to which they are entitled.

A third option is to carry on regardless, trusting to marketing drives which habitually inflate the army’s offer so as to convince young people and their parents that they can continue their fundamental education while undergoing intense military training. Since that strategy has not been working, it leaves only one other option: to raise the minimum age for entry to 18. This would ensure that all recruits complete their basic education before they enlist, and allow all recruitment resources to be focused on attracting adults. The military complains that the army is harder to sell to adults than to 16-year-olds, which is true, but at least the pool of adult recruits is not dramatically diminishing. 

Would it work? In the words of retired Major General Tim Cross: ‘The army surely does not need to make youngsters sign up formally at such a young age – there have to be other, better ways to meet our requirements.’ There are. If just half of the British Army’s 16-year-old recruits still wanted to join at 18, the army would only have to increase its annual adult intake by 600-700 recruits to make up the remaining shortfall caused by raising the enlistment age. That is a sound step forward, not a leap in the dark. It would be fundable, too. Ending the expensive recruitment of minors would release the equivalent of £70,000 to attract each of the additional adult recruits with enhanced marketing or ‘golden hellos’; even half this sum would be the envy of most employers. 

The large majority of countries worldwide have already made the change; so can the UK. Internationally, Britain would win praise for a substantial contribution to ending the recruitment of children for military purposes worldwide. At home, few will look back with nostalgia on the days when Britain trained children to be soldiers.

As matters stand, the army seems to be battling the inevitable. An inherent aversion to innovation may be partly responsible – more than one senior army officer has said that they continue to target minors ‘because it’s what we’ve always done’. But if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. And what the army has always had is a manning shortfall.