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Three in 10 soldiers unfit to fight in a conflict amid growing military recruitment crisis

Grenadier Guards on a physical training exercise at Wellington Barracks. The number of soldiers unfit to fight is growing.
Grenadier Guards on a physical training exercise at Wellington Barracks. The number of soldiers unfit to fight is growing. - SGT DONALD C TODD RLC/ARMY

Almost 30,000 troops from across the Armed Forces are medically unfit for combat operations due to physical injuries and mental health issues, according to government figures.

The problem is greatest in the Army where only 53,000 troops out of a total of around 75,000 personnel are currently fully fit for front-line operations.

That means that 30 percent of all troops in the Army, or three in 10 soldiers, would not be fully fit to fight in a conflict now.

The injury crisis will heap further pressure on Grant Shapps, the new defence secretary, following the disclosure that all three services are significantly under strength.

Overall, 28,664 personnel across all three of the Armed Forces are currently not fully fit for combat, according to numbers released by the Ministry of Defence.

While some of those could deploy overseas in an emergency as part of a large force, many would not be able to take part in combat missions or even leave a secure base because they have been medically downgraded.

The manpower shortage has already prevented Britain from deploying aircraft carriers for the operation against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who are carrying out attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

The warship Westminster takes part in National Armed Forces Day off Scarborough
The warship Westminster is one of two to be decommissioned so the new Type 26 frigates can be staffed - CHARLOTTE GRAHAM FOR THE TELEGRAPH

As The Telegraph revealed on Saturday the £3 billion carrier Queen Elizabeth cannot yet be sent to the region because its support ship RFA Fort Victoria is operating on a skeleton staff, keeping it in a shipyard in Liverpool.

Last week, The Telegraph revealed the recruitment crisis is forcing the Royal Navy to decommission two warships, Westminster and Argyll, so that the new class of Type 26 frigates can be staffed.

The Army is currently composed of around 74,110 thousand personnel according to the MOD, but only 53,192 are fit for operations or what the military calls Medically Fully Deployable.

A Freedom of Information document obtained by this newspaper reveals that 9,217 soldiers are classed as Medically Limited Deployable – meaning that they can deploy on operations but will only be able to conduct certain duties.

A further 7,449, almost one in 10 of all soldiers, can not be deployed at all and are classified as Medical Non Deployable.

Lack of combat fitness is getting worse

Comparisons with the number of injured troops from July 2021 appear to show that the problem is getting worse.

In July 2021, there were 13,248 troops across the Armed Forces classified as non-deployable but by July 2023, the latest figures available show that that number had grown to 14,743.

A further 7921 personnel were classed as being of limited deployability. The classification means they have either a persistent but relatively minor injury such as a back problem, or an injury that is close to recovery such as ligament damage.

According to government figures there are 29,220 personnel serving in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines while a further 29,010 personnel serving in the RAF.

But MoD figures show that there are currently just 21,649 fully fit sailors in the Navy while the RAF has just 19,466 fit personnel.

The FOI reveals that across the Armed Forces, 13,727 troops have been downgraded from frontline duties because of musculoskeletal injuries suffered in training or from combat. But the document also shows 4,214 troops cannot deploy on combat operations because of mental health problems.

Meanwhile, the number of troops being treated for orthopaedic and spinal injuries under the NHS Fast Track Surgery contract has more than doubled in the last four years. In 2020-21, 203 were treated under the scheme but in the year 2023-24, the MoD predicts up to 540 will receive fast track treatment.

Assault ships are mothballed

The recruitment crisis facing the Armed Forces led Mr Shapps to decide to mothball the amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark.

It has since emerged that the Royal Marines are currently 600 troops short of their target figure, and the Army and the Royal Navy are also short of personnel amid claims that the so-called Generation Z is unwilling to join up.

Army recruitment has been below target every year for more than a decade, according to new figures. Data uncovered by Labour showed that recruiters signed up 5,560 regular soldiers last year, when their target was 8,220, leaving a gap of 2,660 personnel.

In the worst performing year of 2018 to 2019, there was a deficit of 4,130 troops, with 5,860 soldiers recruited when the army needed 9,990.

Col Phil Ingram, a former Army intelligence officer, said: “The Ministry of Defence has serious recruitment problems – they can’t recruit enough to replace those leaving and it seems a large percentage of those they keep in are not fit to fight.

“This is a clear indication of a broken system, and the MoD needs to realise this and come up with a plan to fix it quickly .

“Otherwise, in a world growing more unstable by the day, our very national security could be compromised because we might find ourselves in a situation where we need a large number of troops very quickly and we haven’t got them.”

An MoD spokesman: “Our personnel are highly trained and at any point around 90% of the UK Armed Forces are deployable, with over 98 per cent able to fulfil wider military roles.
“The Armed Forces provide world-class medical treatment and recovery programmes to enable wounded, injured or sick personnel to return to duty where possible, or to support transition to civilian life.”