In 1897 Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. There was pageantry and pomp in a manner and quantity befitting an Empire that was (in retrospect) at the peak of its self-confidence. Its power would in some respects keep growing for another twenty years or so until reaching its apogee in the aftermath of World War One, but in terms of self-assurance, 1897 can be said to mark the peak. During the festivities for the Jubilee, soldiers from all over the Empire paraded through the streets, reminding those living in the metropolis the extent of the Empire which was under Britain's control. Troops from Canada, India, Africa and even the Antipodes came to add to the colour and the show. Fast forward only a few years and nearly half a million troops would serve in the South African war from all over the Empire (including 6,500 from New Zealand).
Now, 120 years since the Diamond Jubilee, Britain is again looking to its former colonies to bolster its military muscle. From next year, Britain will amend its policies so that those in Commonwealth countries can join the British armed services without ever having lived in the “mother country”. Currently, Gurkhas from Nepal and Irish citizens can join the British armed services straight from their home countries (a recognition of the importance of both countries to the British Army). Soon, people from Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Fiji and elsewhere will be added to that list. The current rule is that 200 Commonwealth citizens can apply without meeting the five year residency requirement, but that cap will soon be removed. It is hoped that the British Armed forces will be able to recruit 1,350 troops each year from the Commonwealth (about a tenth of its annual recruitment levels). NB: This applies to Commonwealth citizens only; Americans can't apply, you made your bed back in 1776.
The reason for this change in policy is simply that the UK cannot recruit locally in the numbers required to maintain its required levels of personnel. Each year for the past three years the annual requirement of 10,000 recruits has fallen short by about 3,000. Currently, the British armed forces are short by about 8,200 sailors, soldiers and airmen. At the same time, in 2016-17 the air force is undertaking more missions than it has for 25 years and armed forces were involved in 25 operations around the world. The forces are being stretched thin and the numbers are shrinking. In 2012, there were 100,000 full-time trained army personnel. Now there are fewer than 80,000. While the Commonwealth can come to Britain's aid, once more, the underlying issue is demographic: according to Conservative MP Mark Francois's 2017 report on Army recruitment the population is too fat, too old, too diverse (minorities are far less likely to join up than white Britons). At the same time, the strong job market makes the armed services far less of an attractive career prospect.
As of last month, women are able to apply for any role in the British military for the first time in history. This is again an indication that recruitment numbers are not what they should be. According to Francois, the armed forces were being “hollowed out”.
Oh well, things are not all bad. The UK does have a new aircraft carrier. But no planes to fly off it…