Trouble in the ranks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 1999, 12:00am

Going into the country's jails to recruit troops is the latest desperate measure from a British army that is dwindling in size while facing increasing commitments overseas.

Critics say the proposal shows how the army is having to scrape the barrel to find enough soldiers to fulfil increasing commitments in Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor.

Britain has already been attacked by international pressure groups for allowing children to sign up when they are only 16 and before they even have the right to vote.

The Ministry of Defence maintains that by the time recruits have completed basic training and are ready to be deployed they are at least 17, and denies it is exploiting them.

The British Army is widely respected as perhaps one of the best trained and motivated professional armed services in the world, but it is also one of the smallest, and is active in more theatres than at any other time since the end of World War II.

This summer nearly half its soldiers were in operations from Northern Ireland to East Timor, so that many were forced to undertake back-to-back six-month tours without their families.

The official strength is 109,000 men and women but because of a continued number of troops opting to leave the actual number is just over 90,000.

Attempts to fill the ranks by recruiting more women have run into problems despite the best efforts of the top brass to provide more opportunities.

Recent research has found women were more likely to suffer injuries under a new policy where both sexes go through the same training regime.

Since an equal opportunities policy was introduced six years ago women have been put through the same physically demanding training schedules as their male counterparts, but doctors found themselves dealing with a range of stress-related casualties among the female recruits.

Dr Murdo Macleod, who produced a report on the effects of putting women through rigorous military training, said sending women through assault courses was bound to result in injuries.

'Women are less efficient at counteracting periods of severe stress and strain such as those experienced during an endurance course,' Dr Macleod said.

'It is common sense that women are not as strong as men and if you put them up against men they will suffer.

'There is no reason why women cannot join regiments on the front line, but if they are recruited to join the infantry and you put them into a combat situation they are obviously going to let the side down because they are not strong enough.' His report has proved controversial and many women in the armed forces have pointed out how, given the chance, they have proved in most situations they are able to match their male colleagues.

But the Ministry of Defence said it will monitor the situation closely to ensure women recruits are not put under too much pressure as the army tries to make good the shortfall in personnel.