COMMENT: "The Army Must Stop Ignoring Talent"
News

COMMENT: "The Army Must Stop Ignoring Talent"

Sky News' Defence Correspondent, Alistair Bunkall, says the British Army must do better to reflect the gender balance and be inclusive of...

COMMENT: "The Army Must Stop Ignoring Talent"

By Alistair Bunkall, Sky News Defence Correspondent

If Mark Zuckerberg was in the British Army, he would most likely hold the rank of captain.

The 33-year old founder of Facebook would be on a salary of around £40,000 - slightly less than he is on now - and like many captains, probably deciding between quitting for a more lucrative job in the City where a Sandhurst education is valued, or sticking around in the hope he will be promoted to Major - but knowing he won't be a senior staff officer for another 20 years.

The think-tank RUSI held its annual Land Warfare Conference in London over the past two days.

This yearly pow-wow for the British Army and foreign partners is a 48-hour session of blue-sky thinking for white men in green.

Looking around the conference hall, as I did during one session yesterday, I counted just nine women from an audience of a few hundred.

In the closing Q&A, the Army sergeant major, the impressive and straight-talking Glenn Haughton, asked all soldiers (non-officers) in the room to stand up. Only a handful rose.

It made his point: that high-level strategy events, like this one, are the preserve of the elite.

It gives the impression, albeit I'm sure unintentionally, that of the thousands of ranking soldiers, none have anything of intellectual value to add.

The Army is in a period of introspection - considering how it can fight smarter, for less, in a digital era of cyber warfare. It is vital for long-term excellence, that part of that self-assessment must include a process to promote through merit - not age or time served.

The Army officers I know are some of the most learned, best-read people I've ever come across. There is academia in leadership and warfare.

Over 15 years, as an officer progresses to the rank of colonel, they will receive 675 days of education.

A soldier, on the other hand, would typically get only 21 days of classroom tuition as they climb from private to warrant officer over 20 years.

That's less than one-day a year, an extraordinary imbalance.

The head of the British Army, another impressive character, admitted that the force's recruitment strategy is still too insular.

"Too bottom fed," General Carter said, although I wasn't quite sure exactly what he meant by that.

He continued: "We need to reach out to communities who don't normally connect with us.

"We need to make it easier for females to join and have a full career in the Army."

Women in Line For Combat Roles From 2016

This is probably coming across as a rant against the white, public schoolboy officers that characterise the British military.

It isn't supposed to. From my experience most of them deserve their lofty positions, many have bravely led troops in recent conflicts; few nowadays are there simply because they have done their time.

I cannot, however, think of another company or organisation that is so un-meritocratic.

Those of us who work in the private sector probably all know of colleagues who've been fast-tracked to promotion because they have shown exceptional talent or promise. In the Army that can't happen.

No wonder then that 'ambitious young things' often choose to seek fulfilment and recognition elsewhere. General Carter said:

"Our most important asset is our talent."

The Army is in a period of introspection - considering how it can fight smarter, for less, in a digital era of cyber warfare.

It is vital for long-term excellence that part of that self-assessment must include a process to promote through merit, not age or time served.

The trick is developing a system that achieves this but doesn't scrimp on the leadership qualities demanded of such ranks.

And grandiose conferences, such as that this week, must do better to reflect the gender balance and be inclusive of lower ranks. They have much to offer.