January 14, 2014 12:00 am

British MPs to warn on army shortages of vital intelligence staff

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British armed forces face serious shortages of “vital” intelligence personnel, such as interrogators and army spies, MPs will warn on Tuesday in another blow to government plans to radically overhaul recruitment for the military.

For some jobs, the army has as few as half the trained intelligence officers it needs, parliament’s defence select committee has found in its annual assessment of the Ministry of Defence’s accounts. The situation has worsened over the past year.

More than 700 new recruits are now needed across ranks to fill key positions in the Intelligence Corps alone.

In all, the number of “pinch points” – shortages in highly specialised and crucial jobs – has risen from 19 to 26 since 2012 in the army and from 11 to 15 in the navy. Only the RAF has seen an improvement.

The military also faces shortages in priority areas such as cyber warfare. The army has between 35 and 40 per cent too few corporals and sergeants to man its cyber capabilities, the defence select committee’s report finds.

“These shortages of such vital, pinch-point trades are considered to be the second most key strategic risk in defence management and yet we worry about how seriously these shortages really are taken by the Defence Board [an MoD committee],” said James Arbuthnot, chairman of the defence select committee.

The findings come just weeks after the UK’s most senior officer, chief of the defence staff Sir Nicholas Houghton, warned of the military becoming a “hollow force” – well equipped, but understaffed.

An MoD spokesperson said the shortages were “temporary”. “The armed forces are going through a significant restructuring,” they said.

There is a worrying shortfall in the required levels of trained personnel to fulfil critical operational requirements

- Vernon Coaker, shadow defence secretary

“There are safeguards in place to ensure frontline operational capability is not affected. All three services continue to recruit and the army recently launched a major recruiting drive for both regulars and reservists. We are confident that we have, and will continue to have, the right personnel with the right skill sets to satisfy all strategic defence priorities.”

Nevertheless, many MoD officials expect the problem to worsen before it improves. The effects of the recruitment drive will take time to kick in, they believe, and in the meantime attrition will continue to erode troop numbers.

Vernon Coaker, the shadow defence secretary, said: “There is a worrying shortfall in the required levels of trained personnel to fulfil critical operational requirements. These pinch points include some of the most specialist jobs in areas of engineering, technical and medical expertise. They are vital roles needed to support our armed forces and keep Britain safe.

“It’s clear from what has gone on in the last number of weeks that there is a crisis of competence at the heart of the MoD. Millions of pounds are being wasted, major projects are being abandoned and the government is failing to get its reforms to procurement and the armed forces off the ground,” he added.

The MoD has pushed hard to get recruitment back on track and clear up operational problems that have hampered the sign-up of reservists.

Under the government’s current plans, the size of the army reserve is to be increased from 19,000 to 35,000 by 2015, while regular troops numbers will be cut from 102,000 to 82,000.

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