Defending Wales IX: Recruitment & Training

(Title Image: Boot Camp & Military Fitness Institute)

Moving into the final two parts of this look at a potential independent Welsh defence policy, it’s time to address one of the more important issues – where would the troops come from?

What’s the Welsh military recruitment pool?

This determines how many people are “available for military service” and “fit for military service”. Military availability generally means everyone aged between 15-49; military fitness means those who would pass basic entrance requirements.

In a major emergency, such as a war on the scale of the Second World War, these would be the sorts of numbers who could be conscripted. In peacetime, they’re simply the numbers who military recruiters can draw from to fill vacancies.

According to the mid-year ONS population estimates, in 2014 there were 1,077,059 people (541,497 male, 535,562 female) of military age in Wales (in my definition being aged 18-45).

As for how many of them would be ready for service, the main reason someone would be barred from military service is a lack of fitness, the most common example being obesity. About 24% of the adult Welsh population is counted as obese, so that reduces the prospective pool down to 818,564 people.

Once other disqualifying criteria are added – like being in an essential service job (i.e teaching, police), serious mental illnesses, musculo-skeletal diseases, sensory impairments and certain other diseases – the pool will reduce further, but to what level is hard to determine.

In an serious emergency Wales should be able to call upon a field army strength number of troops (100,000-150,000). In practical terms, a fully professional military of up to 15,000 people (including reservists) should be straightforward to staff, depending on the skill levels of recruits, defence budgets and the desirability of a military career.

What should we expect from recruits?

At present, many infantry positions in the British armed forces don’t require qualifications, though some qualifications (GCSEs, GNVQs) are needed for specialist non-commissioned roles such as engineers. Commissioned officers are expected to hold A-Levels, but often have degrees – particularly specialist officers like doctors, dentists and legal administrators.
The entry requirements depend on what we want the military to be.

If we want numbers, then entry requirements could be set lower. If we want a more professional, highly-specialised military then entry requirements (academic rather than fitness) could be set higher.Personally, I believe quality should take the place of quantity, even if that delays a Welsh military becoming action ready immediately post-independence.

With falling numbers of people leaving school with no qualifications, it’s fair to expect all people applying for non-commissioned roles to have at least a GCSE grade C or above in English and Maths (A-Levels or GNVQs for engineering/technical disciplines).

For commissioned officers we should expect a degree in a relevant subject with a willingness to do a masters-level course. Professional officers (doctors, dentists etc.) would need the same requirements as currently (i.e. a medical degree).

People with criminal records can apply; that needn’t change, but those who’ve served prison sentences (or have had suspended sentences) for longer than 6 months should be barred from applying until their conviction is spent. For potential officers it’s reasonable to demand a clean criminal record.

As for fitness requirements, there ought to be a study into a fitness test that matches the realities of a military career, with the minimum requirements differing depending on the role i.e. naval applicants would need to pass a swimming test, administrative/desk-based roles would have “relaxed” fitness requirements.

One issue, that’s still debated in the UK military, is gender. If the physical fitness requirements are reviewed, it would need to take into account gender differences and could be reworked in such a way that it doesn’t advantage or disadvantage either gender; men would generally do better in general on strength and endurance tests, but women would generally do better on flexibility and fine motor control – which perhaps isn’t tested as often, but would be useful for roles like military divers and field engineers.

So in the interests of equality and operational demands, men and women should have to pass a new fitness tests to the same standard and, resultingly, no role should be off-limits to either gender – including front-line roles and special forces.

There’s evidence from the Israeli Defence Forces – where women are conscripted alongside men – that proper gender-integrated (rather than gender specific) basic training narrows the gender fitness gap.

Selling Military Careers


In 2014-15, the National Assembly’s Petitions Committee conducted an inquiry into British military recruitment practices (linked above). There were particular concerns about how military careers were presented to young people and disproportionate recruiter visits to schools in deprived areas – the military often being an “employer of last resort”.

With independence, Wales would have full control over military recruitment. The legal and ethical responsibilities of Welsh Defence Force recruiters could be enshrined in a Military Recruitment Act.

One of the main issues is the recruitment age. At the moment, the UK is the only country in Europe that recruits 16 and 17 year olds – though they can’t be sent into conflict until they’re 18. However, they’re contracted for military service for four years from their 18th birthday, so have to stay in the armed forces until they’re 22 (five/six years in total); adults only have to commit for four years.

The logical solution would be to raise the military recruitment age to 18, but allowing 16 and 17 year olds to join part-time/reserve units or military preparation courses (I return to that shortly) so they get a better idea of what a military career would be like before committing full-time.

Other issues that could be addressed in an Act include:

  • A mandatory “cooling off period” – new recruits could be able to leave on their own accord within a 28 day period after signing their contract.
  • Regulation of military recruitment material/advertising – the Welsh Defence Forces will be unable to “glamorise” warfare or military careers and will be legally required to cover issues such as the risk of death, mental health/PTSD, military discipline etc. in their recruitment material. A Media Commission could be responsible for dealing with complaints.
  • Regulation of schools visits – The Defence Forces won’t be banned from visiting schools or offering careers advice to under-18s, but they could be obliged to report annually on the number and impact of school visits and their relevance to the curriculum (where applicable).

Cadets, Reservists & Pre-Military Training

We have to remember there are large numbers of people who, while forming part of the military (or seeking to eventually), don’t serve full-time. These include cadet squadrons for the three branches (RAF, Navy, Army), members of the Army Reserve (formerly called Territorial Army) and students at military preparation colleges.

Cadet Squadrons – There are currently several dozen cadet squadrons for the three branches in Wales – too many to mention – plus University Officer Cadets. Most have a minimum of 30 cadets each. They’re taught military skills as a prelude to joining the military, or undertake qualifications like the Duke of Edinburgh Award; in essence a bit like the Scouts or Girl Guides but more regimented.As for what could happen post-independence, they could either be merged as a cadet wing of the National Guard in the case of the army – or the reserve units of the air and sea branches – or they could remain stand-alone organisations funded out of the defence budget. Either way they would likely continue unchanged.

Reservists – I covered the National Guard in Part IV. Reservists normally commit to a minimum number of training days a year; in the UK Army Reserve 27 days (paid), in the Irish Army Reserve 14 days (paid). Reservists have to meet the same fitness requirements as full-time personnel and are recruited in the same way too. Unlike full-time troops, the training period for reservists is much shorter, with a first stage undertaken with a local reserve unit and a second stage with regular military trainers. Training for specific roles is usually overseen by local units. In Wales, we would expect reservists to be on call for Military Aid to the Civil Power (MACP) duties and full-time NCOs (particularly those nearing retirement) to be attached to each reserve unit as permanent staff instructors.

Military Preparation Colleges (MPCT) – A charity which provides training (usually) led by ex-military personnel for 14-19 year olds who’ve either dropped out of full-time education, are not in any formal training or education after leaving school or who lack pre-requisite qualifications for a military career. Not everyone who goes through their courses ends up in the military, but they have an 86% success rate in improving further education or job prospects. For those who do join the military, drop-out rates are lower than average. As long as they remain a registered charity in Wales there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to continue post-independence.

Military Training : How should it be provided?

Training, administration and personnel would be the responsibility of the Adjutant General and their staff (Part X). The obvious place to base them would be the Infantry Training Centres at Brecon and Sennybridge in Powys (as well as Watton Barracks, also in Brecon).

Military training for non-commissioned officers is divided into two phases:

  • Basic Training – Designed to build up basic fitness and competence expected of a new recruit including drill, firearms handling, field skills (like first aid), military tactics, culminating with a passing out parade. It’s designed to be psychologically as well as physically demanding, so new recruits know instinctively to respond to commands and act as one unit. It normally lasts between 12 and 17 weeks; 12 weeks should be enough. One change we could make in Wales is that new recruits from all branches and specialities would undertake the same basic training at the same time before joining their permanent unit.
  • Specialist/Corps Training – Once a cadet has passed out with the rank of private, they go on to training specifically designed for their chosen role. These courses are longer, usually lasting between 6 months and a year and are provided by a corps/service branch. Whether a Welsh Defence Forces would undertake their training at a single military academy or other military bases is a matter for debate, but you would expect air corps personnel to train at least part-time at Valley (Part V) and naval personnel to train at the naval HQ, which I suggested for Swansea (Part VI). Pilot training would probably take the longest at up to 2 years.

As for training commissioned officers, an independent Wales would have several options:

  • Our own officer training scheme – Could be difficult to set up but we can ensure officers have the skills we would expect of them based on our military role (Part II).
  • Sandhurst Military Academy – Many Commonwealth nations send their military (particularly army) officers there and they have a reputation for producing high-quality officers in a short time. However, the course is generally combat-focused and if Wales is to play a role in things like peace-keeping or disaster relief it’s perhaps not the best training environment.
  • Send them to a military academy further afield – This could include the Irish Military College or Canada’s Royal Military College (which is actually a university), but it would probably require a high-level reciprocal political agreement. For example, sending Welsh officer cadets to Canada might mean granting Canadians the right to train in Wales.

All things considered, if we’re going to make such a break from what we currently have we might as well have our own officer training scheme; as suggested earlier, a Master’s degree level course.

A National Military Academy

It’s one thing having a training centre, but it could be used to draw together all elements of military training under a single umbrella of a military academy, providing training not only to the army, but officers in all branches as well as courses for reservists and civil defence professionals (such as local authority emergency planning officers, civil servants and the intelligence services).

It doesn’t need to be a university in its own right, but if we expect officers, for example, to have a high standard of military education it should have degree-awarding powers – which means being a department of, or affiliate to, an existing university.

If Sennybridge and Brecon are going to be the main site of the Academy itself (with naval training at Swansea and air force training in Anglesey) then the current University of South Wales would be the obvious choice as an affiliate. Its advantage is its experience of providing vocational-based courses (in policing for example) so it shouldn’t be difficult for it to provide vocational military courses to Master’s level.

The role of the Academy would be to draft courses for each speciality and provide the training itself – whether through experienced military officers or, in some cases, civilian academics. For non-commissioned officers these courses would resemble civilian vocational courses where personnel move up levels as they increase in rank and experience, with a mix of practical and classroom elements, more biased towards practical.

Some courses would be provided at the main academy while others – particularly naval and air force courses – would be provided at their respective headquarters, including time spent on board training vessels or learning to fly/pilot or maintain aircraft and ships.

For officers, the course – as said – would be a Master’s degree with a set of core modules based on their chosen speciality (adjutant officers would study modules in military law and administration for example; all officers would study personnel management) as well as optional modules. Officer cadets would still have to undertake physical and practical military training too.

The idea is to make it easier for non-commissioned officers, where they show potential, to become commissioned. Plus, when commissioned officers reach the highest ranks, an academic career would open to them, providing a production line for military trainers and leading to higher level study (including, perhaps, a peace institute – A oes heddwch?) making the academy a genuine world-class institution in the longer-term.

With all this done, I’m now able to give a full indicative structure for a Welsh Defence Forces:

Starting from Scratch & Foreign Military Recruitment

There would be a period of 18-24 months of negotiations – following a successful independence referendum – before Wales would become independent. In that time, the proposed structure of an Welsh Defence Forces would need to be outlined, including the transfer of estates and materiel.

It’s not a simple case of all regiments and other units associated with Wales transferring to the control of the Welsh Government upon independence. Many serving troops simply might not want to – a Welsh military career would be less expeditionary and, for the first few years at least, most duties would be at home; compared to the British military it would be boring.

What you can say is that existing reserve and cadet units would transfer, so there would be some sort of rudimentary military in place, but not a fully professional one.

Welsh (or Welsh-associated) troops serving in the British/English military would be invited to fill roles in the Welsh Defence Forces, starting with senior officers and those specialising in training and candidate selection, working their way down the ranks until military planners have a good idea of how many professional soldiers we would have and how many roles would be left to fill. They would also be entitled to turn down the invitation and continue serving in the successor to the British military, if they wish, without penalty.

As for recruiting new personnel from the Welsh population to fill vacancies, if someone satisfies the recruitment criteria they would be invited to a competition – which would be held perhaps once or twice a year. All participants would compete for a place in their desired branch or speciality.

The competition would include physical (the new gender and role-balanced fitness test mentioned earlier), psychological and aptitude testing (reading, numeracy, comprehension etc.). Anyone who fails to meet the minimum standards would be sent home. Those remaining would be ranked – probably by a points system – and if there are 50 slots open, the top 50 would move to basic training, with the remaining candidates sent home.

If the number of successful candidates is less than the number of vacancies, then discretion could be used by selectors as to whether those who just missed out should be allowed to start basic training. For those who miss out completely there would be a six month period before they can reapply.

As I’ve said previously, we shouldn’t expect the Welsh Defence Forces to be full-strength or ready for overseas operations for at least a decade post-independence.

Of course, many people might not want to join the Welsh Defence Forces and would prefer a traditional military career with another military. This isn’t unusual, as several dozen Irish and Commonwealth citizens join the British armed forces every year.

There should be no ban on Welsh citizens joining a foreign military or private military company/PMC on their own accord at age 18, but there would be a ban on foreign militaries or private military companies recruiting in Wales directly. Similarly, Welsh citizens serving in foreign militaries/PMCs shouldn’t be eligible for military benefits at home.

Part X – the final part – will look at pay and working conditions for military personnel, aftercare for those leaving military service and, perhaps most importantly, how an independent Wales could remember the fallen.