Theme: This analysis provides a benchmark for military recruitment, taking into account Spain’s difficult demographic development and its aim of preserving the numerical strength of its armed forces.
Summary: The purpose of this analysis is to trigger a debate on the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces. I present some dramatic demographic developments and show how they are likely to affect the numerical strength of the armed forces in the future. I show that on the basis of the performance of recruitment in 2001 and 2002 the Spanish armed forces are at risk of decreasing by 1,000 soldiers per year as a result of the country’s unfavourable demographic development. If this prediction is confirmed, the implication could be that the armed forces would consist of 62.000 soldiers in 2010 and 52.000 soldiers in 2020. The analysis shows that to overcome these demographic developments the only solution is to have a recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ of those aged 18-28 as a benchmark for future recruitment efforts.
Analysis: Similarly to many European states, Spain now has a professional army which relies on voluntary recruitment among people aged 18 to 28. This means that every recruitment effort made by the Spanish authorities hinges on the willingness of people inside this group to join the armed forces. In other words, the 18 to 28 age-group forms an important population niche since it indirectly dictates Spain’s defence capacity. When the niche expands or contracts, it simultaneously changes the conditions on which the Government and the Ministry of Defence base their decisions on the numerical strength of the armed forces.
Around the time when compulsory national service was discontinued in Spain, the armed forces recruitment niche started on a descent of an unprecedented scale. To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, let us first look at yearly changes in the size of this niche by comparing the number of people who enter the niche (those turning 18) with the number of people leaving it (those turning 29). The data are based on projections from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Change in the size of the armed forces recruitment niche
Figure 1 is informative since it gives us an idea of the magnitude of the demographic developments shaping the armed forces recruitment niche. Starting from 1997 and until 2020, the armed forces recruitment niche should decrease continuously. The decrease should peak in around 2005, when the number of people leaving the recruitment niche should exceed those entering it by more than 250 thousand.
It is obvious that the changes depicted in figure 1 are affecting the total size of the recruitment niche in ways never before experienced. To illustrate just how much, Figure 2 shows the total size of the recruitment niche. By 2020, the recruitment niche is projected to have decreased from around 7 million people in the late 1990s to 4.6 million by 2020. By 2050, it should have further decreased to around 4 million (note that figures correspond to both sexes).
If we can agree that there is a demographic obstacle to military recruitment as shown in figures 1 and 2, then in what way will this obstacle influence army recruitment in the future? Furthermore, how likely is it for the requirement for 102 thousand to 120 thousand soldiers, as set out in the law regulating the numerical strength of the armed forces, to be met?
The armed forces’ recruitment success rate ([number of new recruits]/[size of the recruitment niche]) has fallen from 2.5 ‰ of the recruitment niche between 1998 and 2000 to 1.6 ‰ in 2001 and 2002. This corresponds to a level of recruitment in the first three years of around 20 thousand people, compared with only 10 thousand in the recruitment campaigns carried out in 2001 and 2002.
If we assume that the armed forces are at best capable of maintaining a recruitment success rate of 1.6 ‰ of their total recruitment niche in the coming years, the total number of new recruits would decrease for each year as a result of Spain’s negative demographic development. The yearly intake would approach 8.000 by 2010, compared with 10.690 in 2002. By 2020 the number would be down further to 7.500. If nothing drastic happens with the number of recruits leaving the armed forces each year, the result of these developments would be a very significant reduction in the numerical strength of the armed forces.
However, it seems unlikely that the proportion of people leaving the army should change in any dramatic way. While the recruitment success rate has been on the decline, the ratio of soldiers leaving the armed forces each year has increased from 7 % in 1998 to 15 % in 2001 and 2002. Thus, if the current recruitment success rate should stabilize at 1.6 ‰ and the current rate at which soldiers leave the armed forces stabilize at 15%, the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces should be more or less programmed to decrease by 1.000 soldiers per year for the foreseeable future. That is, by 2010 the numerical strength of the armed forces would approach 62.000 men and by 2020 it would be merely 52.000 soldiers. Needless to say, a reduction of this importance could jeopardize the whole project of professionalizing the armed forces.
Given the demographic outlook, the armed forces have to consider two factors when reflecting on its future recruitment objectives: a) they have to recognize that a yearly success rate of 1.6 ‰ would lead to a situation that sooner rather than later would imply the complete failure of transforming the armed forces into a professional army under present demographic conditions; and b) to successfully obtain a reasonable numerical strength, the armed forces have to seriously look into the possibility –in the short, medium and long term– of making the recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ the benchmark for its yearly recruitment needs.
To illustrate these two points, Figure 3 show a simulation of the numerical strength of Spain’s armed forces based on the assumption that 15% of recruits leave the armed forces each year and that the recruitment success rate either stays at the current level of 1.6 ‰ or immediately rises to 2.5 ‰ of the recruitment niche. The size of the recruitment niche is assumed to develop according to the projections provided by Spain’s National Statistical Office.
Figure 3 show with some clarity that if the current recruitment success rate of 1.6 ‰ prevails, the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces would decline rapidly. If we assume that the strategic outlook remains stable in the coming decades, the scope of the decline is such that in less than a decade the future size of the Spanish armed forces would border on the level of insignificance for a country of Spain’s size and international importance.
The second scenario is more optimistic. As shown in figure 3, using the recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ as a benchmark would bring the numerical size of the armed forces on a par with the government’s current requirement of 86 thousand in just a few years’ time, as stipulated by the State budget for 2003. Moreover, a recruitment success rate of this magnitude would maintain the numerical strength of the armed forces relatively stable despite the worsening demographic outlook. It is interesting to note that a recruitment success rate of this magnitude would actually allow the armed forces’ numerical strength to vary between 86 thousand, which is the number mentioned in the state budget for 2003, and 75 thousand, which is the number mentioned by the minister of Defence as the minimum operational size of the Spanish armed forces in the Strategic review of Spain’s defence. Needless to say, both scenarios would imply abandoning the requirement set at 102 thousand to 120 thousand in article 9 of law 17/1999 dictating the conditions for the transformation of the armed forces into a professional army.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether a success ratio of 2.5 ‰ is a reasonable benchmark. This question can best be answered by comparing how other countries are performing. The armed forces who provide detailed enough data to put this question to a test are the UK’s.
There are substantial differences between Spain and the UK. The UK’s population is around 18 millions larger than Spain’s. Its army is also substantially larger. If we include officers, Spain’s current strength is 120 thousand and the UK’s is 204 thousand. Excluding officers the difference is much greater, 72 thousand for Spain and 173 thousand for the UK. A consequence of having a larger population is that the UK armed force’s recruitment niche is much larger. We also have to consider that the UK’s armed forces recruit people in ages 16 to 30, while Spain, as we know, only recruit among those aged 18 to 28. This puts the UK’s current recruitment niche at about 11 million. The reason why it is not larger is that contrary to Spain, the UK had to deal much earlier with the demographic changes Spain is now experiencing. The UK also benefits from a substantially higher fertility rate. Over the next few decades the UK will also see much less dramatic changes due to its much higher fertility rates –its recruitment niche will decrease by only 1 million by 2050 compared with close to 3 million for Spain.
Focusing on the differences in turnover rates, we find that for the past six years the UK armed forces recruitment success rate has never been below 2.0 ‰ of its recruitment niche, resulting in a yearly intake of approximately 22-23 thousand soldiers. Over the same period the rate at which the soldiers leave the armed forces has been close to stable at 13%. That is, comparing the UK with Spain we find that people leave the two armies at more or less the same rate, but that the UK armed forces have a much better record in terms of recruitment success rate. Striking this balance in recruitment and resignation ratios has enabled the UK’s armed forces to maintain an extremely stable numerical development. In 1998 its army size was 210 thousand and in 2003 it is 207 thousand. Moreover, and in contrast with Spain, its numerical strength is in accordance with the UK government’s requirements.
Thus, based on the UK experience, we can safely conclude that a recruitment success rate in the range of 2.5 ‰ is not an altogether unrealistic benchmark for future recruitment efforts in Spain. Nor is the assumption of a level of resignation of around 15% unrealistic. Adding to this is that the centre for Sociological Studies (CIS) found in 2002 that over 10 % of the target population has more or less actively considered the idea of joining the army, a recruitment target of over 2 ‰ in Spain is certainly not impossible, while it is much needed if the goal is to overcome the demographic developments faced by the armed forces.
Conclusions: One lesson from the exercise carried out above is the importance of integrating the demographic element into the decisions to be taken regarding future military strength and yearly recruitment targets. In the past, recruitment targets have been set in isolation from demographic developments.
Our analysis shows that to overcome demographic developments the only solution to stabilize the numerical strength of the armed forces is to use a recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ as a benchmark. Depending on the size of the recruitment niche, which varies as a function of the demographic developments over time, this implies a yearly recruitment of between 16 thousand and 11 thousand soldiers. Recruitment of this magnitude would be far from enough to fulfil the requirements in the present law regulating the soldier contingent of the armed forces. However, it does not seem feasible to ask for recruitment levels higher than those proposed. A recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ is higher than, for example, that of the UK, although the UK has a wider recruitment niche due to its different age requirements. It seems unlikely that the Spanish armed forces would be able to recruit more than what is suggested given the extraordinary demographic developments the country is facing.
There are two direct recommendations to be drawn from the findings concerning the size of the recruitment success rate. First, the Spanish government needs to revise the content of the law 17/1999, which sets numerical strength at 102-120 thousand soldiers and marines, as it is foreseen by the Ministry of Defence. The analysis in this paper has shown that a more realistic target would be 75-86 thousand soldiers. These levels are mentioned by the minister of Defence and the Government respectively when discussing the current missions of the armed forces, and when setting the budget appropriations for 2003, and are probably more or less acceptable as benchmarks for army size. Note, however, that this assessment is based purely on demographic developments and on an assessment of what seems to be a recruitment target within reach, based on past recruitment performance in Spain and in the UK. If the security outlook demands a larger or smaller contingent of soldiers and marines, this should be given priority.
Secondly, the authorities need to establish a fixed recruitment target that maintains the number of soldiers within the established size interval and at the same time considers demographic developments. This implies that the armed forces should be forced to set a recruitment target that varies in relation with the size of the pool from which they recruit. I have shown that a benchmark corresponding to a recruitment success rate of 2.5 ‰ of the recruitment niche would be sufficient. However, to be able to maintain numerical strength within the interval, deviations from the target would have to be small. Experience has so far shown that it is very hard to make up for missed recruitment opportunities from one year to another, especially in situations where the potential number of recruits is declining. Hence, the target should be made explicit and evaluated on an annual basis so that countermeasures to failed recruitment efforts can be implemented at short notice, preferably within the recruitment year.
Demography, Population, and International Migration
Real Instituto Elcano