The Armed Forces have a significant shortage of personnel with skills in critical areas and are not expected to meet this shortfall within the next five years, says a report, published today, by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The report highlights that the number of full time military personnel, known as regulars, in the Armed Forces is 5.7% (8,200 regulars) below the existing requirement – the largest gap in a decade. There are, though, much larger gaps in critical skills. 102 ‘pinch-point’ trades do not have enough trained regulars to carry out operational tasks without measures such as cancelling leave or training. The challenge is also likely to grow as the Ministry of Defence (the Department) will increasingly require new specialist technical and digital skills to respond to the emerging threats of modern warfare.

Many shortfalls will remain in the near future. The Department estimates that it will resolve the shortfalls in only six of these 102 ‘pinch-point’ trades within the next five years. The Department has prioritised essential defence tasks, but the report highlights that the approach of placing increasing demands on regulars is not a sustainable long-term solution.

The shortfalls result mainly from recruitment and retention problems. In 2016-17 there was a 24% shortfall against targets for the number of regulars recruited into the Armed Forces. The Department’s reliance on a ‘base-fed’ model – where it recruits regulars into the lowest ranks and develops their skills and experience over time – has not enabled it to close capability gaps quickly enough. The Commands have implemented initiatives to improve the recruitment of skilled personnel but many of these were at an early stage and small-scale.

The percentage of regulars leaving the Armed Forces voluntarily has increased from 3.8% annually in March 2010 to 5.6% in December 2017, with 7,500 regulars leaving voluntarily in the 12 months to December 2017. In some trades and ranks, this percentage is several times higher than the average. Since 2010, the Department is implementing a substantial programme of changes to support service personnel; for example, it is rewarding people for their skills through a new pay model and is introducing new arrangements to allow more flexible working.

But the situation is yet to improve. There are gaps in many ranks and trades, and in 2017, the Armed Forces were 23% below their target for training new regulars. The Armed Forces Continuous attitude survey also shows that satisfaction with pay, accommodation and service life has decreased since 2010, and in 2017 were at lowest recorded levels. The NAO recommends the Department carries out deeper analysis of the causes of higher levels of departure in certain pinch-point trades.

The NAO has found that the Department has not established effective authority to undertake a strategic assessment of Armed Forces’ future workforce capability. Under the Department’s operating model, the Chief of Defence People has authority for personnel across the Armed Forces, but is not able to direct Commands or tackle workforce capability problems that necessitate a cross-Command, longer-term or structural response. The responsibilities of this role are under review and the NAO recommends that the Department fundamentally re-considers how it develops the number of skilled personnel it requires.

“Ensuring the Armed Forces have the right number of skilled personnel in place is not a new challenge, but given the complexity and development of new, modern-world threats, it is a challenge that will only continue to grow. The Department needs to fundamentally change its approach to develop skilled personnel and address the long-established shortfalls that persist.”


Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Read the full report

Ensuring sufficient skilled military personnel

Notes for editors

Key facts

8,200  shortfall in the number of military personnel (full-time trained regulars) as at January 2018 – 5.7 % below the requirement

102  number of trades where the Ministry of Defence has insufficient numbers of skilled personnel to maintain defence tasks without placing additional demands on regulars

94%  proportion of trades where the Ministry of Defence does not expect to resolve shortfalls in personnel in the next five years

Shortfalls in critical trades:

18%  proportion of regulars below the required number of regulars in the 102 trades with shortfalls

22  number of trades in which shortfalls in skilled personnel would have a detrimental impact on operations if additional demands were not regularly placed on regulars


Recruitment and retention difficulties:

5.6%  aggregate level of regulars leaving voluntarily in the 12 months to 31 December 2017, with much higher rates in some specific trades

24%  shortfall in the number of regulars recruited in 2016-17, compared with the Commands’ (the Navy, Army and RAF) annual targets


The Ministry of Defence’s workforce initiatives:

£664 million  amount spent on recruitment and retention incentives in the last five years

19  number of new workforce projects introduced since 2010 which aim to improve the Armed Forces’ terms and conditions

42%  proportion of regulars who stated they were “satisfied with service life” in the 2017 Armed Forces attitude survey, down from 60% in 2010


The future:

Summer 2018  date when the Ministry of Defence will publish the capability review – the Modernising Defence Programme – setting out the new capabilities required to address the threats facing the UK


1. Most of the pinch-points were in six trade areas: engineering, intelligence, logistics, pilots, communications and medical (Figure 6, page 20 in the report).
2. The Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey is an annual survey run by the Department which records workforce-related data. In the 2017 survey, satisfaction with basic rate of basic pay was 33%, down 19% from 2010; the value for money of service accommodation was 66%, down 2% from 2010; and service life was 42%, down 18% from 2010 (Figure 16, page 40).
3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
4. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund, nationally and locally, have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy.  The C&AG does this through a range of outputs including value for money reports on matters of public interest; investigations to establish the underlying facts in circumstances where concerns have been raised by others or observed through our wider work; landscape reviews to aid transparency and good practice guides.  Our work ensures that those responsible for the use of public money are held to account and helps government to improve public services, leading to audited savings of £734 million in 2016.

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