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Is a form of national service good for the national enterprise?

On 26th May, Rishi Sunak announced the Conservative party plan to bring back national service if re-elected. The decision was a divisive one, with opinion varying across the country regarding the military and civic costs and benefits to the idea. There are recruitment and retention issues in the British Armed Forces. But is national service the way to solve them? And, given the civic element of the idea, is it good for the national enterprise more broadly? We asked six experts in today’s Big Ask.

Ed Arnold, Royal United Services Institute

The traditional driver for national service has been to develop a pool of people with an exposure to military training and who are administratively ‘on the books’ to be called up quickly when required. Today, national service is more than getting young adults into combat and should have broader applications, such as support to the NHS, flood and disaster relief, and backfilling striking public services. With most European militaries having significant recruitment and retention challenges, if these tasks can be done by national service members, then the military can focus on their core task – fighting. The benefits in terms of societal resilience, social impact and maximising capacity can only be achieved if it is implemented properly.

There are several models of national service, and so it is important that the system is reflective of society and meets the needs of the nation. You could not, for example, lift and shift Finland’s model of comprehensive security and adopt it in the United Kingdom (UK). It is therefore imperative to first have a genuine and very public debate on why national service is needed, the expected benefits and costs, and exactly how it will be implemented. The introduction of national service is a fundamental change to the national enterprise which must carefully be considered.

Elisabeth Braw, Atlantic Council

Yes, national service is good for the national enterprise – if it is a model based on competitive admission rather than mandatory service for all men and women.

If entire year groups of youngsters were to be forced to do military service, the armed forces would be overwhelmed. What is more, such a horde of conscripted youngsters would also not add military value. If, however, all 18-year-olds are assessed and the best ones selected for military service, serving becomes attractive. It would, in fact, be the only national assessment involving all 18-year-olds. It would also be the only selection in which only aptitude matters – not educational background or similar advantages. Emerging successful in such universal competition would be extremely prestigious.

It would also allow the armed forces to enhance links with all parts of society. It is no secret that today the armed forces primarily recruit from some segments of society, while others barely have any interaction with the military. This state of affairs is bad for armed forces recruitment. It is also bad for our democracy. The military is, or should be, an integral part of a democratic society, not an undertaking limited to certain parts of it. With selective national service, all kinds of 18-year-olds would discover that being selected is not just prestigious – it is also a meaningful professional pursuit. In Norway, which has pioneered and perfected selective military service, one quarter of those selected go on to active-duty careers.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

A form of national service can be good for the national enterprise because it can help to develop what the Danes call ‘Samfundssind’ – a Danish word roughly translating to ‘community-mindedness’ – particularly among a generation that has experienced the physical isolation of lockdowns during formative years, and the loneliness paradox of social isolation in the curated, hyperconnected online world. It was the Danish ‘word of the year’ in 2020, after returning to popular usage during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also captures the Nordic model of concern for society more broadly.

In a recent research study supervised by this author, my student surveyed conscripted forces in Finland and volunteer forces in Britain and found satisfaction levels to be much higher among the former, who viewed their service as a rite of passage and source of national pride, whilst the latter felt their initial expectations were often not met. Much of the discontent was down to concerns about working conditions and kit, demonstrating how any national service must be carefully designed to ensure that the big question marks around respectful pay (and how this will be resourced), agency in choice of role specialisation, and quality working conditions are addressed.

In the proposed British model, the vast majority would complete a community programme rather than military service – spending one weekend per month volunteering with organisations like the NHS and search and rescue. This is akin to the Duke of Edinburgh Award model, which has long enabled young people to engage with their communities and develop skills and resilience. Scaling up will therefore distribute these benefits more equitably and will empower young people to play an active role in creating positive societal impact.

John Foreman, Former British Defence Attaché to Moscow and Kyiv

Rishi Sunak’s pledge to re-introduce compulsory national service for 18-year-olds was assailed from all sides as being an affront to individual liberty, ill-thought through, expensive, and a distraction from the needs of Britain’s professional armed forces. It was also conflated with square-bashing notions of compulsory military service, abandoned in the 1960s.

But the opprobrium heaped, which focused mainly on the idea’s cost rather than any potential civic value, obscured the proposal’s aim to create ‘a shared sense of purpose among our young people’. This is laudable. The Prince’s Trust reported recently that wellbeing among young people is at a 15-year, all-time low, with almost half feeling hopeless about the future. Our young are ‘unhappy, unskilled and unmoored’ said another report.

Resolving this dreadful situation matters for the future health and vigour of our society. Even if the pull of our national impulses runs counter, as George Orwell shrewdly noted, to being ‘numbered, labelled, conscripted, “coordinated”’, there are plenty of examples in Europe of national service schemes which facilitate, if not compel, development of skills, improvement of mental wellbeing, and enhance a sense of belonging among young people. Some also have a military dimension.

Solving youth disengagement is not just an internal challenge. At a time when dictators in Russia, the People’s Republic of China and elsewhere actively strive to undermine and divide us, as George Kennan, doyen of early United States Cold War policy identified, every ‘courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people’ will help defeat any external threat to our democracy. The same remains true today.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

The answer depends on the details, which have been very light so far. But we know there would be a split between roughly 30,000 18-year olds serving military roles for 12 months and the rest being compelled to ‘volunteer’ in the community.

While there are some military arguments in favour of this model, it is not suited to the UK’s needs. The fighting in Ukraine has demonstrated how numbers of trained personnel matter. National service could produce a pool of relatively trained citizens who could be useful militarily at a faster pace in an emergency, and opening up military life to more people could also lead to greater numbers applying to join permanently. But there are myriad strategic and fiscal problems with this plan. 

Firstly Britain is a part of NATO which has millions of personnel to call upon – an extra 30,000 ‘12-monthers’ hardly adds to deterring the Kremlin, and besides, NATO would not fight a war of attrition against Russia like Ukraine has had to. In addition, selecting, training, equipping, housing, and managing an extra 30,000 personnel would require a mammoth expansion in capacity (just under 15,000, including reservists, joined the armed forces last year).

It would be wiser to instead focus on resolutions to the existing recruitment and retention crisis. Plenty apply to join the armed forces, but many fall out of the system due to delays. And many leave the armed forces due, for example, to low satisfaction with pay or the poor state of accommodation

The civic case is open for debate, but has anyone considered what happens for national cohesion if there is mass refusal to participate? 18-year olds, seeing how successive governments have treated their cohort compared to others, would certainly be justified in considering this.

Mark Galeotti, Council on Geostrategy

The purpose of national service is essentially two-fold: defence and socialisation. There may be some value in allowing the military the pick of volunteers for non-combat roles, but there is a serious question as to whether it is cost-effective, especially in line with the shrinkage of the full-time armed forces.

In Russia, when conscription was cut to a year, many officers this author spoke to were frankly dismissive, saying that between basic and unit training, and the demob-happy last month, they felt their men were of real military value for only three months – which may go part of the way to help explain why they are not being used in Ukraine. However, the real value of such conscription is to generate a mass army in time of war, as we saw in 2022 when they called 300,000 reservists to arms. That requires not simply the infrastructure in terms of barracks, trainers, stored kit and the like, but presupposes Britain will need a mass army of poorly-trained reservists. Is that really how we see our future military?

The other role is socialisation: taking young people on the cusp of adulthood and exposing them to discipline and a culture of service that may have been lacking in their education, as well as imparting skills of value to them and the wider economy. At a time when there are serious challenges, from youth disaffection to a skills shortage, requiring young people to engage more fully with the wider community – and not just for the odd weekend – may make sense. Probably not as a soldier, though, even if the National Fruit and Litter Picking Service may be a step too far.

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