2 February 2024
Readiness for war

Last week, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, gave a frank speech in which he outlined the need to be prepared for future wars.

Rather unjustly, his remarks were seized upon by media and commentators as a call for conscription – which is not what he was calling for. Instead, his speech was intended to serve as a warning that war requires the collective will of a nation to work towards the same goal, and that the public will be required to do their part.

Having served as a Defence Minister for four years, I share concerns about reducing the size of our Armed Forces, particularly when the world is becoming more dangerous. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I called on the government to abandon plans to reduce the size of the Army.

Governments across the Western world are waking up to the threats we face from malign actors. Putin has shown he will exploit any perceived weakness in the NATO alliance or European Union.

But I do not believe conscription or national service is necessary to face anything other than an existential threat, as we have seen in Ukraine. Soldiers with minimal training and no desire to be in the Armed Forces are not the backbone on which an effective professional force is built. But there are other models we can look to for guidance.

Sweden – hopefully soon to become NATO’s newest member – has introduced a civic duty alongside national service which allows young people to train as part of the emergency services, or the provision of critical national infrastructure. Both are crucial in times of war.

Finland also has compulsory national service, but it can be completed as non-military civic service. The reality of this means the Finnish Defence Forces can train 22,000 people a year in military skills, leading to a reserve force of hundreds of thousands. For context, the Army Reserve in the UK has around 34,000 people.  

Here in the UK, where we have benefitted from several decades of the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War, we prioritise the rights of the individual. But rights are earned, and from time to time, they need defending.

There will be some for whom the idea of any sort of mandatory military and civic training sounds dangerously illiberal. But looking to others who have successfully maintained some form of national service over many years – Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, etc – I do not see illiberal societies, just well defended freedoms. It is time for a frank discussion about how we can best defend ours.