Soldiers of­fered three day week and pay deal to dodge fight­ing on the front line, in a bid to make Army more ‘fam­ily friendly’ – and even SAS can sign up...

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By Mark Ni­col DE­FENCE COR­RE­SPON­DENT

BRI­TISH troops have been of­fered the chance to duck out of fight­ing on the front line and work a three-day week, The Mail on Sun­day can re­veal. Thou­sands of soldiers, sailors and air­men have been told they can avoid bat­tle­field ac­tion un­der an as­ton­ish­ing scheme the Min­istry of De­fence ad­mit­ted last night is in­tended to make the Armed Forces ‘more fam­ily friendly’.

Even elite Spe­cial Air Ser­vice troops and RAF pi­lots cur­rently in­volved in the cam­paign to de­feat Is­lamic State will in fu­ture be en­ti­tled to opt out of go­ing to war.

Soldiers who choose to do so will lose out on tax-free bonuses of up to £50 per day on top of their reg­u­lar wages – po­ten­tially sav­ing the MoD mil­lions.

Last night, de­fence ex­perts warned that let­ting troops avoid go­ing to war threat­ened to un­der­mine the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples upon which Bri­tain’s Armed Forces have been built.

Colonel Richard Kemp, who led Bri­tish troops into war in Afghanistan, said: ‘This is ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble. How can it do any­thing but un­der­mine our na­tional de­fence?

‘Our Armed Forces are al­ready tiny yet we’re go­ing to give peo­ple ex­emp­tions from front­line op­er­a­tions. The MoD has got its pri­or­i­ties com­pletely wrong. We should be fo­cus­ing on those troops who are fully com­mit­ted to ser­vice, not those look­ing for a part-time job.’

De­tails of the Flex­i­ble Du­ties Trial are con­tained in a high-level MoD doc­u­ment ob­tained by The Mail on Sun­day. The dossier re­veals that troops will be able to ‘re­duce their li­a­bil­ity to de­ploy’ to war zones for up to two years.

It says: ‘All types of flex­i­ble duty will be sub­ject to a 24-month trial in­volv­ing ap­pli­cants in or­der to test the ar­range­ments and the pro­cesses nec­es­sary to de­liver them. It is open to all per­son­nel serv­ing in the Army, RAF, Royal Navy and Royal Marine per­son­nel. Ser­vice per­son­nel will be al­lowed to re­duce their li­a­bil­ity to be de­ployed.’

Last night, the MoD said that troops who signed up to the deal could still be forced to fight in ex­treme cir­cum­stances.

The bomb­shell doc­u­ment also re­veals troops will be able to take up to 93 days un­paid leave over the course of a year – ef­fec­tively al­low­ing them to work just a three-day week and seek em­ploy­ment out­side the mil­i­tary on their days off.

It says: ‘This re­sults in an in­di­vid­ual be­ing able to work less than five days a week, al­though still li­able for evening and week­end du­ties on paid days. This also lim­its an in­di­vid­ual’s li­a­bil­ity to de­ploy, on the ba­sis that a re­quire­ment to de­ploy would re­quire full­time work­ing.’

No cap has been put on the num­bers of Ser­vice per­son­nel across the Armed Forces who can take up these op­tions. In­stead, se­nior of­fi­cers may ap­prove as many re­quests from troops for flex­i­ble du­ties as they wish, so long as their units re­tain ‘op­er­a­tional ef­fec­tive­ness’. Even Spe­cial Forces of­fi­cers and com­man­ders of key units across the Bri­tish Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force could be granted ap­proval to avoid war-zone ser­vice and adopt flexi-time work­ing ar­range­ments.

Last night, the MoD in­sisted mea­sures will be put in place to main­tain the fight­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of these key units. Suitable re­place­ments for those seek­ing flex­i­ble du­ties would be found. Only then would the troops on the con­tro­ver­sial scheme be moved to less im­por­tant jobs, such the ad­min­is­tra­tion depart­ment of reg­i­men­tal headquarters.

The trial has started at a time when Bri­tain’s Armed Forces are shrink­ing by the day, rais­ing fears that op­er­a­tional ef­fec­tive­ness and readi­ness to de­ploy to war zones will be ad­versely af­fected.

The reg­u­lar Army is at its small­est size since the Napoleonic Wars – just 76,260 fully trained soldiers, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures – while the Royal Navy does not have enough sailors to man its fleet, in­clud­ing its new £6.2bil­lion air­craft car­ri­ers. More peo­ple also left the Armed Forces last year than signed up to start mil­i­tary train­ing.

While the trial will save the MoD money in wages and bonuses to troops on the front­line, de­fence in­sid­ers in­sist it is in­tended to solve fam­ily is­sues such as troops spend­ing too much time apart from their part­ners and chil­dren.

Last night, one serv­ing of­fi­cer ar­gued that such rad­i­cal changes to

‘This will un­der­mine our na­tional de­fence’

the work­ing prac­tices of the Armed Forces were re­quired to stem the tide of ex­pe­ri­enced and skilled per­son­nel who are leav­ing the Ser­vices ev­ery year. He said: ‘If this scheme works, it will be im­mea­sur­ably ben­e­fi­cial to the Armed Forces. We’re los­ing so many good peo­ple who would stay in if a bit of lee­way and com­mon sense was ap­plied to their work­ing ar­range­ments. The tempo of op­er­a­tions and readi­ness tar­gets are lower to­day than dur­ing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘So com­man­ders can look ahead over the next 24 months and see who they re­ally need to keep on the per­ma­nent staff and who can take a back seat for a while. If giv­ing some­body a cou­ple of years off op­er­a­tional com­mit­ments means they stay in the Armed Forces and are re­freshed and fully charged again, that can only be good.

‘I just hope it is of­fered to the peo­ple who re­ally need it most.’

The plan has been signed off by De­fence Sec­re­tary Michael Fal­lon and Chief of the Gen­eral Staff, Gen­eral Sir Nick Carter.

They hope the trial will ap­peal to fe­male per­son­nel who con­sider mil­i­tary life with its rigid hours and lengthy over­seas com­mit­ments to be en­tirely in­com­pat­i­ble with rais­ing a fam­ily.

A Min­istry of De­fence spokesman said last night: ‘This pi­lot is part of a mod­ern of­fer to help Bri­tain’s world-class Armed Forces keep the broad­est range of peo­ple and give them and their fam­i­lies the broad­est ser­vice op­por­tu­ni­ties.’

AT FIRST sight the Min­istry of De­fence’s plan to al­low the men and women of our Armed Forces to opt out of fight­ing du­ties looks like a satire on the mod­ern world.

Even in this mealy mouthed age, the Armed Forces are paid to fight.

Think how such an ar­range­ment will be viewed by the less re­laxed na­tions who might one day be our foes on the bat­tle­field. They will re­gard this as a sign that we have gone soft. It will en­cour­age them to take ag­gres­sive risks.

There is also the is­sue of how those who can­not af­ford to opt out – and are wounded in com­bat – might view those who have taken a hol­i­day from the bat­tle­field and dodged dan­ger. It can hardly be good for morale.

There is no doubt that the forces face a se­vere re­cruit­ment cri­sis. The opt-out is largely aimed at per­suad­ing good peo­ple to stay rather than quit­ting al­to­gether.

But the roots of this go deep. Bri­tish politi­cians like to boast about – and pose with – the mil­i­tary. They en­joy the pres­tige and glam­our this gives to them.

Yet since the Cold War ended they have not been pre­pared to pay the high price for main­tain­ing a mod­ern and ef­fec­tive mil­i­tary. Re­lent­less cuts have led to grow­ing pres­sure and stress on long-serv­ing of­fi­cers and NCOs, the in­dis­pens­able core of all three ser­vices.

And that in turn has led more of them to leave, mak­ing the prob­lem worse.

This re­sort to a desperate mea­sure is a clear sign these cuts have gone too far. Yet there is still time to re­build the armed ser­vices be­fore they are ur­gently needed.

When it comes to na­tional de­fence, false econ­omy, as we have learned of­ten enough, is no econ­omy at all.

SHORT HANDED? il­lus­tra­tion show­ing HMs Queen El­iz­a­beth sail­ing with an es­cort de­stroyer

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