Concerns over conscription have been on the news agenda this week after a British Army chief warned that the current armed forces were too small.
The UK is not currently at war – but could conscription become a real possibility in the near future?
Why are we talking about conscription?
General Sir Patrick Sanders, chief of the general staff, said on Wednesday that Britain needed to “train and equip” citizen soldiers.
The Army is currently on track to have about 72,500 trained troops by 2025 – down from more than 800,000 troops in 1952.
Speaking at the International Armored Vehicles conference in Twickenham on Wednesday, Sanders suggested the UK should expand its force to 120,000 within three years.
But even that would not be “enough,” according to Sanders.
“Ukraine brutally depicts that the regular army started the war; the citizen army won it,” Sanders said.
The chief also noted that he personally did not support conscription, but suggested British volunteers could sign up for any land war.
He called on the government to think about how to mobilize Britain in the event of war – especially if Britain ended up at war with Russia.
What happened between England and Russia?
Britain, along with other NATO members, has supported Ukraine since Russia invaded its European neighbor in 2022.
They have funded Kyiv, and sent equipment, but not actually fought against Russia.
However, Moscow has publicly criticized Britain – as well as other Western countries – for supporting Ukraine during the war, and falsely claimed that the West started by expanding NATO membership in the east.
Defense Secretary Grant Shapps also issued an ominous warning recently, saying: “If our armed forces are not strong enough to deter future aggression by Moscow or Beijing, then this will not be a small war to be fought, but a major war.”
He said international conflict was expected within the next five years, and he wanted Britain to spend more of its GDP on defence.
UN General Assembly President Dennis Francis said the idea of a third world war was not “beyond the realm of possibility” this week.
NATO’s top military official, Admiral Rob Bauer, also said that civilians must be prepared for all-out war with Russia in the next two decades.
He said: “We have to realize that we cannot live in peace. And that’s why we (NATO) are preparing for conflict with Russia.”British Chief of the General Staff, General Patrick Sanders (left) speaks with British Defense Minister Grant Shapps during a visit to the STANTA training camp in eastern England
ALASTAIR GRANT via Getty Images
So, can military service be declared?
No, Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman promised that military service would remain voluntary.
His spokesman also dismissed speculation about whether Britain would be strong enough to stand up to Russia.
He said: “I think hypothetical scenarios like this, talking about conflict, are not helpful and I don’t think it’s appropriate to engage with them.”
The Telegraph reported that No.10 allegedly did not want Sanders’ comments to be published.
Has the UK ever had military service before?
Military conscription was announced during World War 1, in 1916, for men between the ages of 18 and 41.
Within months, the age limit was expanded to include married men, and in 1918, the upper age limit was increased to 51 years.
The only exceptions are for single parents, those in exempt professions (such as priests and teachers) or those deemed “medically unfit”.
Although the war ended in 1920, it expanded to help the government administer parts of the British Empire.
It was brought back in 1939 when World War 2 broke out. Initially, this was only limited conscription and applied to single men between the ages of 20 and 22, but in September of that year, conscription was extended to all men between the ages of 18 and 41 who had registered for military service.
This time it includes more exceptions such as the baking, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, coal mining and engineering sectors.
In 1941, Parliament expanded the scope of conscription. All unmarried women and childless widows aged between 20 and 30 years can be called.
Then there was the National Service Act of 1947, which introduced conscription in peacetime. Men between the ages of 17 and 21 must serve 18 months in the military, and be placed on the reserve list for four years.
The term of service was increased to two years in 1950 because of the Korean War, but the period of service on the reserve list was reduced to 18 months.
During both wars, there were “conscientious objectors,” who refused to serve. They must explain their arguments to the court – if approved, they will be placed in a non-combat role. many were imprisoned.
Between 1949 and 1963, the last time the National Guard was demobilized, more than two million men were conscripted into the Armed Forces.
Hypothetically, what would conscription be like in the UK today?
Anyone suffering from a sensory impairment – such as hearing or vision impairment – is not permitted to join the Army at this time, so they may be exempt.
Neurological conditions, skin conditions, psychiatric and cardiovascular problems are other obstacles, as are bone or joint problems.
Women can also be recruited for frontline service, as they have been allowed to serve in all combat positions since 2018.