Military Recruitment in Times of Population Decline: Spain’s Missing Soldiers

Military Recruitment in Times of Population Decline: Spain’s Missing Soldiers
Working Paper


Starting from the end of the 1990s, in less than ten years the number of people in Spain aged 18-28 has declined from 7 million to just under 5 million (considering both sexes). That is, young people are becoming increasingly scarce and, as a result, we can expect the competition for human resources to be fierce. This is likely to have consequences for most institutions in our society. However, it is not unlikely that the Spanish armed forces are facing –and will continue to face– the greatest difficulties in attracting young people. Current demographic developments will have serious implications for the numerical strength of the armed forces and consequently restrict their capacity to carry out their tasks effectively. This paper aims to establish the basis for a recruitment policy that can defy the current demographic developments and assesses the minimum recruitment target to be reached in order not to jeopardize the numerical strength of the armed forces in the future. The last part of the paper discusses a series of interrelated measures that should be considered to facilitate future recruitment efforts.

Current Demographic Developments: A Brief Introduction
From the mid-1960s demographic developments have taken a drastic turn. What has happened is that in the course of just a few years the behaviour of European mothers has changed from giving birth to approximately 2.5 children per woman to approximately 1.5. Changes of this magnitude have serious implications on how we think about demographic developments. Instead of seeing the historical pattern whereby each new generation outnumbered the older generations, for the past twenty years we have observed a reversed pattern, whereby each new generation is outnumbered by the previous ones.

However, the effects of the changes have barely started to become noticeable. For example, despite a smaller and smaller number of births over the past two decades populations are still growing in most European countries. We should not be fooled by this growth pattern as it is only the result of past population growth and has nothing to do with new developments. The reason for this is that there are large numbers of people in a reproductive age as a result of population growth before the 1970s. Because they are so many, the total number of births still exceeds the total number of deaths even though the average number of births per woman is alarmingly low.

The reversed trend –population decline– will soon become a reality across a large number of European countries. The most likely scenario is that natural population decline will set in at around 2010 and accelerate to 2060, and possibly longer if fertility does not rebound and reach the replacement level in the next few years (2.1 children per woman in Europe).

When the population structure changes drastically, as it is doing now, it is a signal that the time has come to reflect more seriously, and in less conservative ways, on how population developments might affect our society in the near future. Going from a situation of population growth to one of population decline in many ways constitutes a revolution rather than a simple transition. In contrast with traditional revolutions this one is extremely slow, and it is easy to miss what is going on until the changes have become manifest.

Before population decline becomes a reality many of the consequences of the demographic changes are already evident, since population decline starts by a substantial decrease in population subgroups such as children and adolescents. That is, demographic changes of the type discussed here start from the bottom of the age structure and slowly work their way up to encompass older age groups as time passes. If the changes are persistent they eventually involve several age groups and, finally, generations. When the changes come to encompass generations, they will very likely affect society’s capacity to provide different services and eventually also the geo-strategic outlook for entire countries and regions in a variety of contexts.

Most European countries have so far experienced a substantial decrease in the number of young people. For example, in 1991, the demographic revolution in Spain only affected the size of age groups under age 14. In 2004, it affects the size of age groups under age 25. And if this trend should continue, by 2050 all age groups under age 75 should be substantially reduced as a result of the demographic revolution. It is worth pointing out that in 2050 those aged 75 will be the largest age cohort in the population instead of one of the smallest, as in 1991. This tells us that the demographic revolution also means that the population is ageing tremendously.[1]

Since it is primarily the younger age-groups, those aged under 18, that have become smaller, the socio-economic consequences for Western societies have so far been relatively limited. Younger age groups have very limited roles in society –they are economically dependent on their parents and they do not work, pay taxes, fight wars or perform any significant functions in Western society. Simply put, they are on standby and/or in training for the future. Eventually they will enter the active population and take over from their parents as breadwinners, fathers, mothers, politicians, doctors and soldiers.

Demographic development has now reached a point in most European countries at which the younger generations born after the onset of the demographic revolution are leaving their adolescent years behind and are starting to replace their parents. In other words, we are now entering a more sensitive phase of the demographic revolution from the point of view of society.

Spain and many of the countries in southern Europe are on track to register the largest changes in the Union. While many of the northern European countries have managed to contain the drop in births per woman (the fertility rate), their southern European neighbours have failed in this task. The result is that the drop in fertility rates in southern Europe is far greater than in the rest of the Union. Spain and Italy have the lowest fertility levels in Europe and, as a consequence, will also face the roughest demographic developments in the region. One of the areas to be among the first in line to suffer as a result of the new demographic reality is the armed forces, since they depend on the continuous recruitment of young people to carry out their mission.

The following analysis will focus on how demographic changes will affect the number of young people in Spain, and how this in turn will come to influence Spain’s defence capacity. I will show that Spain’s defence capacity is becoming seriously undermined by the ongoing demographic changes. I will thereafter discuss some of the options that the country has to consider if it intends to maintain its current military strength in the future.

The Demographic Obstacle to Military Recruitment
Spain, similarly to many European states, now has a professional army which relies on voluntary recruitment among people aged 18 to 28. This means that every reference made by the Spanish authorities to armed forces recruitment is dependant on the willingness of people within this group to join the army. When the Spanish government changes the size requirements for its armed forces at the same time it is implicitly appealing to people aged 18 to 28 to consider joining the army. In other words, the 18 to 28 age group forms an important population niche for Spain’s defence capacity. When the niche expands or contracts, it simultaneously changes the conditions under which the government and the Ministry of Defence make decisions concerning the future numerical strength of the armed forces.

The demographic developments mentioned in the introduction will result, and are already resulting, in a drastic reduction in the number of people aged 18 to 28. The scope of the change is such that it is likely to influence Spain’s defence capacity for decades to come.

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 leaving it (those turning 29). The data are based on projections prepared by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE)[2].

Figure 1. Change in the size of the armed forces’ recruitment niche

Figure 1 is informative insofar as it gives us an idea of the magnitude of the current demographic developments inside the armed forces’ recruitment niche. Starting from 1997 and until 2020 the armed forces recruitment niche should decrease steadily. The decrease should peak in around 2005, when the number of people leaving the recruitment niche should exceed those entering it by more than 250,000 (the figures reported concern both sexes).

Figure 2. Size of the armed forces’ recruitment niche over time

It is obvious that the changes depicted in Figure 1 affect 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 about 7 million people in the late 1990s to 4.6 million by 2020. By 2050, it will have decreased further to around 4 million (figures correspond to both sexes).

Military Recruitment in Times of Population Decline
If we can agree that there is a demographic obstacle to military recruitment as shown in Figures 1 and 2, how will this obstacle influence army recruitment and the capacity to meet the requirements set out in the law regulating the numerical strength of the armed forces?[3] To answer this question it is necessary to look at the context in which recruitment takes place.

The professional armed forces are a relatively new phenomenon in Spain. Being a new phenomenon, the armed forces have benefited from the ‘one-off’ opportunity of being able to direct their recruitment efforts at people of all ages in the recruitment niche with the same intensity. As time passes, more and more people in the recruitment niche have already been exposed to army recruitment efforts of some kind.

If the people already approached have not joined on earlier recruitment calls, the likelihood of attracting them on subsequent calls is likely to become smaller. This phenomenon could explain why 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. Or put differently, recruitment in the first three years averaged around 20,000 people, compared with only 10,000 people in the recruitment campaigns carried out in 2001 and 2002.[4] [5] [6]

One consequence of this is that it is among the people turning 18 that we find the greatest potential for successful recruitment of soldiers in a particular recruitment year. As the demographic data displayed above have shown, this group is shrinking with tremendous speed. This poses some serious problems since it implies that bringing the recruitment success ratio up to past levels is becoming increasingly difficult as time passes and the recruitment niche diminishes.

If we assume that the armed forces are only capable of maintaining a recruitment success ratio of 1.6 ‰ of the total niche size in the coming years, the total number of new recruits should decrease for each year as a result of the negative demographic developments. The total number of new recruits would approach 8,000 by 2010, compared with 10,690 in 2002. In 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 the above 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 very dramatic way. While the success ratio in recruitment has been decreasing, 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 success ratio in recruitment should stabilize at 1.6 ‰, and the current ratio of soldiers leaving the armed forces at 15%, the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces would be more or less programmed to decrease by 1,000 soldiers per year for the foreseeable future. As a result, by 2010 the numerical strength of the armed forces would approach 62,000, while in 2020 it would be at a meagre 52,000 soldiers.

Given the current demographic outlook, the armed forces have to consider two factors when reflecting on their future recruitment objectives: (1) they have to recognize that a yearly success ratio of 1.6 ‰ would lead to a situation that sooner rather than later would put at risk the successful professionalization of the Spanish armed forces; (2) to successfully provide a reasonable numerical strength, the armed forces will have to seriously look into the possibility –in the short, medium and long term– of bringing the recruitment success ratio back up to a level of 2.5 ‰ of its recruitment niche.

Figure 3. Simulated size of the armed forces in two different scenarios

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 ratio either stays at its 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 Statistics Institute (INE).

Figure 3 shows with some clarity that if the current recruitment success ratio of 1.6 ‰ were to prevail, 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, raising the success ratio to 2.5 ‰ would bring the numerical size of the armed forces up to par with the government’s current requirement of 86,000, stipulated by the State Budget for 2003, in just a few years time. Moreover, a success ratio of this magnitude would maintain the numerical strength of the armed forces relatively intact, thus defying the negative demographic developments described above. It is interesting to note that a recruitment success ratio of this size actually allows the armed forces’ numerical strength to range from 86,000, which is the target in the State Budget for 2003, to 75,000, which is the number mentioned by the Ministry of Defence as the minimum operational size of the Spanish armed forces[7]. Needless to say, both scenarios would imply a contingent below the 102,000-120,000 soldiers set out in article 9 of Law 17/1999 on the professionalization of the armed forces.

The problem of course remains: what should the army do to raise its recruitment success ratio? Before answering this question we have first to ask whether a success ratio of 2.5 ‰ of the recruitment niche is a realistic target. This question can best be answered by comparing Spain’s performance with that of other countries. The armed forces which provide data that are detailed enough to put this question to the test are the UK’s.

There are substantial differences between Spain and the UK. The UK’s population is some 18 millions larger than Spain’s. Its army is also substantially bigger. If we include officers, Spain’s current numerical strength is 120,000 and the UK’s is 204,000. If we exclude officers the differences are much greater, 72,000 soldiers for Spain and 173,000 for the UK. A consequence of having a larger population is that the UK’s armed forces have a much larger recruitment niche. We also have to consider existing differences in age requirements. The British armed forces recruit people in ages 16 to 30, while Spain’s, 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 in contrast with Spain, the UK had to deal much earlier with the demographic changes now faced by Spain, since its demographic transition started earlier. Over the next decades the UK should also see far less dramatic changes due to its much higher fertility rate –its recruitment niche should decrease by only 1 million by 2050 compared with close to 3 million in Spain’s case.[8]

Focusing on the differences in turnover rates, we find that for the last six years the armed forces’ recruitment success ratio in the UK has never fallen below 2.0 ‰ of its recruitment niche. This corresponds to a yearly intake of approximately 22,000-23,000 soldiers. Over the same period the rate at which the UK’s soldiers leave the armed forces has been almost stable at 13%. That is, comparing the UK and Spain we find that people leave the two armies at more or less the same rate, but that the UK’s armed forces have a much better recruitment success record (note that if the British age requirements had been closer to Spain’s, the UK’s success ratio would have to be raised to achieve the same total number of recruits). All in all, striking this balance in recruitment and resignation ratios has enabled the UK’s armed forces to maintain an extremely stable numerical evolution. In 1998 its army size was 210,000, and in 2003 it is 207,000. Moreover, and in contrast with Spain, its numerical strength is in accordance with the British government’s requirements.[9]

Based on the UK’s experience, we can safely conclude that a recruitment success ratio in the range of 2.5 ‰ is not an altogether unrealistic target. Nor is the assumption of a level of resignation of around 15% unrealistic. Adding to this that a study by the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) found in 2002 that over 10 % of the armed forces’ target population had more or less actively considered the idea of joining the army, a recruitment target of 2.5 ‰ in Spain is certainly not impossible and is therefore a viable strategy to follow.[10]

To summarize, the Spanish debate about recruitment has focused more on the total number of soldiers recruited and rarely on the success ratio of its recruitment efforts. This means that the Spanish recruitment target has been set in isolation from the country’s demographic developments. When we bring the demographic reality into our analysis we can see that the Spanish armed forces have done significantly worse in their recruitment efforts in the past two years than they did in the first three years of their transition from a conscript to a professional army. Comparing Spain’s success ratio with that of the British armed forces we can see that it is reasonable to ask more from the Spanish armed forces as regards successful recruitment. The simulation using the 2.5 ‰ target above shows that it is possible to introduce some consistency into its recruitment efforts and at the same time preserve the numerical strength of the armed forces within the range of the existing working definition of the armed forces’ size requirements.

Turning the Tide: Reinforcing the Spanish Armed Forces’ Recruitment Capacity
So far, I have discussed the demographic changes concerning the Spanish army in isolation from events in the rest of society. However, demographic changes are, if not a global, at least a national phenomenon. Hence, demographic developments are likely to have repercussions in other sectors also and in Spanish society in general. If demographic developments affect all of a society’s institutions, this could easily turn into a vicious circle, adding a further strain to the armed forces’ recruitment efforts.

From the point of view of those interested in military recruitment, the largest obstacle to raising the recruitment success ratio is the simple fact that the armed forces’ recruitment niche overlaps those of institutions for higher education and the labour market. It is no secret that these two options are the preferred alternatives for many of the young people in the army’s recruitment niche. Since institutions for higher education and the labour market have to deal with a lower supply of young people as a result of the current demographic developments, it is not unlikely that competition for the decreasing number of able young people will become fiercer over time. The chances are that the armed forces will find increasing difficulties in drafting young people as a direct result of this greater competition, and that young people will prefer higher education or a paid job in the private or public sectors to a military adventure.

Increased competition over a decreasing number of people tells us that pushing up the recruitment success ratio to the levels suggested in the section above could become a much harder task than is implied by a scenario of reversed demographic developments. Other drawbacks are easy to identify as well. Being the least preferred option, the worst-case scenario is that the armed forces will have to settle with recruiting only those who fail to qualify for positions in other sectors of society. Should this occur, Spain’s defence capacity would not only become limited by decreasing numbers but also by the lower quality of its troops.

There are several options available to the armed forces to cope with the harsher demographic reality and the increased competition it implies. In a situation of decreasing manpower supply, which does not necessarily coincide with decreasing defence needs, the first measures to consider should always be improvements in efficiency and/or productivity. In military jargon this normally implies increasing the striking power per unit/soldier or, to put it more simply, finding the way to have fewer men/women equipped and organized so that they are capable of doing the same job as a larger contingent. The result of such reforms is that fewer soldiers are needed to fulfil the armed forces’ goals and objectives. Hence, it opens the possibility of cutting back on past size requirements, allowing the armed forces to lower their yearly recruitment target.

While improving the armed forces’ efficiency and productivity is probably the easiest way to offset increasing recruitment difficulties, it might also be the most expensive solution. Another important drawback is that no matter how much efficiency and productivity are improved, we have yet to see a soldierless army. In sum, the armed forces might need fewer soldiers to carry out their tasks, but they still have to compete for those they need. A third drawback of raising the efficiency and productivity of the armed forces is that it requires able soldiers to operate the often complicated technical equipment needed to enhance efficiency. However, while this is likely to create difficulties as competition for people in the army’s recruitment niche becomes tougher, they are not impossible to solve. One could even argue that in the medium and long terms it might actually improve the army’s recruitment capacity, since it would raise the status of the military profession.

A second more or less instrumental measure to deal with the country’s demographic developments is by following the UK’s example of using a larger recruitment niche. It might be difficult to argue for an age limit of 16, but Spain could seriously consider raising the upper age limit for joining the army from 28 to 30. After all, one of the demographic changes we are experiencing is increased life expectancy, and there is no reason to believe that those aged 30 are less capable than those aged 28 of performing military duties. Expanding the age interval would theoretically allow the recruitment success ratio to be lowered from 2.5 ‰ to 2.0 ‰ to achieve the effects shown in Figure 3 above.

A third option to consider is extending the armed forces’ recruitment efforts to include foreigners. This solution has already been considered by the armed forces.[11] Royal Decree 1244/2002 allows the recruitment of up to 2 % of the total from among foreigners of Hispanic origin. However, 2 % (or 1,440 soldiers based on the size of the armed forces in 2002) is a fairly low figure considering that the recruitment niche is contracting by more than 200,000 people yearly. Thus, it is unlikely that the current policy will significantly remedy the armed forces’ difficult demographic reality.

If immigrant soldiers are to be seriously considered as a response to the recruitment difficulties arising from current demographic developments, the foreign contingent in the armed forces would have to be extended. This is obviously a sensitive matter. After all, the armed forces are traditionally a national affair, and national defence with a large proportion of foreign soldiers would challenge some of our conceptual ideas about defence and the armed forces.

But maybe the time has come to take a different strategic view on the role of our armed forces and the nationality of their soldiers. After the end of the cold war there is no serious threat to Spain’s national sovereignty or territory and this situation is likely to endure. Spanish military action in the past decade has been limited to missions in distant lands, notably in the Balkans and in Iraq, as part of a larger international intervention and usually within the framework of joint NATO operations.

Following the September 11 attacks and the subsequent declaration of war on terrorism, it is likely that there will be more missions of this type in the future. Such missions, while highly dependent on the military capacity of each country, have little to do with the traditional role of the armed forces, ie, defending their ‘homeland’. The strategic review of Spain’s armed forces clearly indicates that this strategic refocusing of the armed forces’ mission, if not yet implemented, is imminent.[12]

In reassessing the strategic role of the armed forces, the Spanish government is implicitly broadening the army’s capacity to recruit from the fast-growing immigrant population at a time when demographic conditions are extremely unfavourable for the recruitment of its own nationals. Since the new role facing Spain’s armed forces has more to do with peace-keeping and nation-building in places far away from Spain, and much less with homeland defence, the importance of a soldier’s citizenship should not be overrated.

If Spain chooses to participate in international operations and global peace-keeping of the type mentioned above, it should be more concerned with satisfying its need for motivated and well-trained soldiers who are willing to accept dangerous and not so dangerous missions in remote places. In other words, the nature of modern military activities in combination with the professionalization of the armed forces in the late 1990s suggest that it may be time to consider part of the armed forces’ activities as simply a job option among many other job options in Spanish society.

As a job among others, there are no reasons why we should exclude certain immigrant groups from the possibility of being included in the armed forces’ recruitment niche. Nor are there any reasons why the immigrant contingent should be smaller inside the armed forces than it is in the rest of society. The latter issue is particularly important since immigrant groups are the only population groups in Spain that are actually growing, and are likely to continue growing over the coming decades as Spain becomes forced to deal with the emerging problem of declining population as described above.

Reforming defence along these lines implies that the foreign contingent could be expanded. The following measures should be considered:

(1)     The restriction of foreign elements to include only those of Hispanic origin, as laid out in Royal Decree 1244/2002, fails to reflect the actual situation in Spain and is discriminatory towards other immigrant groups with residence permits. Taking this into consideration it would be preferable to accept foreign recruits regardless of nationality as long as they have residence permits.

(2)     The size limitation of the foreign contingent to 2% of the total number of soldiers in the Spanish army is below the current percentage of immigrants in Spain’s population. A minimum requirement would be to allow an immigrant contingent which is closer to the proportion of immigrants in Spain’s general population. There is no reason to not set the limit even higher, since the immigrant population is Spain’s only population group to be actually growing, something it is likely to continue doing in the foreseeable future.

The demographic reality is such, however, that the measures described above are not likely to be enough to remedy the problems faced by the armed forces in recruiting new soldiers. Sooner or later Spain’s armed forces will have to deal with more fundamental aspects of their recruitment policy and start to seek more effective solutions to attract young people to a military career and education. That is, the main challenge for the armed forces in addressing Spain’s difficult demographic situation and still being able to maintain their numerical strength is to find the right mix of incentives to become a serious option for those who want education and a stable job and career.

The first incentive that comes to mind is economic. However, it is not clear that economic incentives are a key ingredient in improving the success ratios of army recruitment. Data on salary levels support this notion. In the first place, the army has played with raising economic incentives for soldiers ever since the beginning of its transition to voluntary recruitment. Judging by the performance of its recruitment success ratio (analysed earlier), it seems these initiatives have had little or no effect so far. Instead of rising, recruitment success ratios have declined more or less continuously.

One could of course argue that without the latest economic improvements, the situation would have been even worse than it is, but this is highly speculative. Available data seem to indicate that economic incentives are not the dominant explanation of why Britain has a higher recruitment success ratio than Spain. Comparing salary levels between soldiers in the UK and Spain it can be seen that there are smaller differences than might be expected (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Nominal wages and real wages of Spanish and British soldiers using Purchasing Power Parities (PPPs)

Nominal Yearly WagesPPP (2001)Real Wage PPPEqualized Nominal WagesEqualization Index
Spain (max)€11,706100€11,706€11,706100
Difference UK/Spain52.3%8.0%41.0%
Spain (min)€8,920100€8,920€8,920100
Difference UK/Spain99.9%41.8%41.0%

Source: PPPs from Stapel (2002)[13] and wages from the British and Spanish Ministries of Defence; an exchange rate of £1.00 to €0.6219 is used, Stapel (2002).

The most straightforward way to compare salaries in the Spanish and British armies is by controlling for the differences in the actual purchasing power between the countries. To do this we first need to assess the nominal wage level in the two armies. In the British case it is simple. All soldiers start at a wage of £11,091/year, which is equivalent to €17,834/year, using the exchange rate indicated in Figure 4 above. In Spain, the wages for new recruits vary from a minimum of €8,920/year to a maximum of €11,706/year. Thus, Figure 4 compares both the Spanish minimum and maximum wages with the single British starting salary.

As shown in Figure 4, the difference in nominal wages is large. The British nominal starting wage is 50% to 100% higher than the Spanish maximum and minimum starting wages. However, if we take into consideration the price differences between the two countries a different picture emerges. EUROSTAT has established that the difference in price levels between the two countries is 141. That is, using Spain’s price levels as a baseline, a commodity worth €1.00 in Spain would cost €1.41 in the UK. The consequence is that although a British soldier is paid more, he gets less for his money than a Spanish one.

By controlling for the differences in price levels using so-called Purchasing Power Parities (PPPs) we can calculate the real wage. The real wage is simply the nominal wage adjusted for the price differences between the two countries. One effect of this transformation is that wage levels in the two countries become directly comparable.

As shown in Figure 4, when we take the difference in purchasing power between British and Spanish soldiers into consideration, the real differences in wages are much smaller, especially if we compare the maximum starting wage in Spain with the UK’s starting wage. The UK wage is 8 % and 42 % higher than the two Spanish extremes respectively. Or put differently, the real wage difference between new British and Spanish recruits ranges from €1,300 to €5,257/year (or €108 and €438/month).

A difference in real salary of less than 10 % suggests that there are small differences between the two armies and it is difficult to see that differences in economic compensation alone are the answer to the very large differences in their recruitment success ratios. However, although Spanish soldiers fare relatively well in a wage comparison with British soldiers, the Spanish armed forces emphasize economic incentives in their recruitment efforts. The Spanish Ministry of Defence has announced a raise in Spanish wages of more than 20 % for 2004.[14] This would reverse the existing difference between the UK and Spain, and make Spanish recruits earn more than their British counterparts in real terms. Based on the findings in this paper, this measure can only be defended if it produces sustained recruitment success ratios above their British equivalents in the coming years. Should this not be the case, there are reasons to believe that something else is causing Spain’s low recruitment success ratios and that the armed forces risk overspending on wages.

If we set aside the issue of money, how can the armed forces improve their recruitment success ratio in the future? The best way to find out is by asking the potential recruits. Since the start of the transition from a conscript to a professional army, the armed forces have conducted several surveys in cooperation with the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (CIS).

These surveys ask among other things about the target group’s preferred incentives to consider joining the army. The CIS found on repeated occasions that around 60 %-65 % regard the decision of joining the army as a career choice, around 20 %-25 % a decision based on adequate compensation and a meagre 5 % as a means to increase their social standing.[15] Of those who had considered joining the armed forces, the main incentives that could sway them included professional stability and promotion opportunities, the possibility of gaining civil-servant status, access to military schools and inclusion in institutions for state security.

The CIS surveys therefore tell us that if recruitment officers want to tap into the most important aspects of joining the army in their efforts to draw up recruitment strategies, it would be advisable to address the vocational and educational aspects of joining the army, rather than mere economic conditions. In doing this it should not be forgotten that the army is competing for human resources with both higher education and the labour market. This implies that those in charge of the battle for human resources have to consider the attractiveness of the job and the education that they offer relative to what is offered by their competitors. That is, the armed forces have to make a strong case of convincing their target group that they represent a viable and attractive alternative to the two other competing options.

One way of reinforcing the educational aspects of military training vis-à-vis civilian education is by increasing the status of military training and education and making it compatible with some of the educational needs of civilian society. In this way joining the army will become an investment in human capital similar to enrolling in a university or an institute providing vocational training. Such measures would benefit the potential recruits as well as society. In return, it would increase the armed forces’ capacity to attract young people in competition with other sectors of society.

However, it would probably not be enough just to voice intentions in this respect to achieve the desired changes. The Ministry of Defence would probably have to consider the possibility of making military training directly compatible with university and/or vocational education by offering degrees that are equivalent and comparable to those available in civilian education. In part, the armed forces are already progressing along these lines. Several agreements were signed with both the industrial sector and the Ministry of Education at the early stages of professionalization. For example, it is now possible for military personnel to obtain the educational title of ‘Military Technician’ (Técnico Militar).

Reinforcing the educational element of military training is necessary for other reasons as well. As mentioned above, in the likely event of the armed forces opting to improve efficiency and productivity, they have to consider raising the educational level of the soldiers so that they can cope with the increased complexity of state-of-the-art military equipment and operations. Measures to improve efficiency and productivity will be less effective if they are not simultaneously reinforced by educational efforts.

We are still at an early stage in the professionalization process and it takes time to educate both the potential recruits and civilian society about the value of military education. Hence, and given the emphasis made by the target group in the CIS studies mentioned above, it is important that those responsible for recruiting are able to market all the aspects of military training to a higher degree than before. To compete with civilian education the armed forces have to seriously consider competing with the multitude of choices offered by civilian education. It is necessary to be able to offer the recruits a broader variety of training opportunities and a much broader compatibility between civilian and military educations. This does not mean that the armed forces have to cater for all the different interests considered by its recruitment target group, but military training should avoid compartmentalizing and overstating the technical and security aspects of military education (as suggested by many of the initiatives currently in place).

The missions in which the armed forces are engaged require a wide range of skills, which also have civilian uses: medicine and nursing, interpreting, administration, accounting, management, teaching and instruction, construction, environmental work, international aid and rescue work, etc. There is nothing to prevent the armed forces from formalizing training in these areas and attempting to make it compatible with similar educational activities in civilian society. Offering potential recruits access to a more varied education, resulting in some form of recognized degree, and marketing it effectively for the target group would make the armed forces a more obvious choice for young people considering different educational options.

Reforms of this type would probably require a change of attitude in the armed forces’ recruitment efforts. Most young people know about the “romantic” elements of military training. Handling weapons, international missions, high-risk assignments and so on, are usually what comes to mind when we think about the army and what we see on visiting the official recruitment web site However, it is open to question whether the armed forces actually benefit from recruits entering the army in the quest for a “hard power” experience. On the contrary, those who do so might be disappointed when confronted with the day-to-day routine of peacetime work and the not so glamorous preparatory work required to become a soldier or officer, which after all is a large part of life in the services. What most young people know less about, and what the armed forces have to consider offering, is the concept of military training as an investment in the recruit’s future that is similar, if not identical, to civilian education. In other words, upon completing their military training, recruits should be in a significantly better position in the labour market than they were when they entered the armed forces.

It is not just the recruits that have to be convinced. To raise the status of military education it is equally important to market the army’s training capacity among those who are likely to benefit from the education offered by the army. Marketing army education as a quality resource for its beneficiaries is difficult, but not so different from marketing it for the target recruitment group. After all, both parties have to become more aware of the usefulness of the training offered by the armed forces. If the demand among employers for former recruits rises, the demand for army training among potential recruits is likely to rise subsequently.

Another group of potential recruits is made up of those who have already received training elsewhere but are seeking a full-time job. Addressing this category of potential recruits is somewhat different and implies a critical analysis of how the armed forces manage their staff, and how they operate as a contractor of labour. The CIS studies show that many potential recruits consider stability and promotion key incentives when deciding to join the armed forces in search of a job. This seems a natural and legitimate aim. In many instances the armed forces are doing fairly well in this area. The promotion system in the Guardia Civil is a good example. However, when it comes to internal mobility within the armed forces the situation appears less encouraging, and there are still some serious problems to overcome before they will be in a position to respond fully and convincingly to the potential recruits’ desire for promotion opportunities.

While the Spanish armed forces have managed to change the earlier conscript army into a professional army as far as other ranks and non-commissioned officers are concerned, they still maintain their old numerical structure in the commissioned ranks. As a result, the number of officers currently stands at around 47,000-48,000, which is over 65 % of the total number of troops. In the revised defence strategy[16], the Minister of Defence has stated that the ratio between the number of active officers and troops should be 50 % once the army is fully professionalized. The Minister of Defence has also said that 75,000 troops are enough to carry out the missions currently required of the Spanish armed forces.[17]

Analysing these figures, we find that there is a surplus of 10,000 officers. Looking at the proportion in the British army, there is reason to believe that even if the number of officers were to decline to 37,000, as indicated by the Minister of Defence, it would still be too many. The British ratio of trained officers is about 20 % of total troops. However, these proportions are not necessarily directly comparable. Whether this is the case or not, until the armed forces are able to trim down the number of officers per soldier, all promotion will be seriously hampered by the urgent need for the forces to scale down the number of trained officers.

The reason why this becomes a problem when recruiting soldiers is that to be able to offer recruits prospects of promotion and interesting career opportunities, the armed forces have to ensure a reasonable turnover among the higher ranks. In this way, recruits entering the lower ranks are given a significant opportunity to rise in the military hierarchy as vacancies emerge. While the armed forces fail to tackle the current surplus, there will simply be a lower or no turnover in the higher ranks and, as a result, less promotion opportunities for the lower ranks. This affects career opportunities in a highly negative way for those considering joining the army today. Most likely those interested in an army career have already realised this.

The purpose of this paper is to trigger a much-needed debate on the numerical strength of the Spanish armed forces. I have shown some dramatic demographic developments in this paper and how these changes are likely to affect the numerical strength of the armed forces in the future. Around the time of the introduction of professionalization in the Spanish army, the armed forces’ recruitment niche stood at a historical high –7 million people aged from 18 to 28 (counting both sexes)–. This niche is now rapidly shrinking and will shortly consist of a mere 4.5 million people.

I have shown that based on their recruitment performance in 2001 and 2002 the Spanish armed forces are at risk of losing 1,000 soldiers per year as a result of the country’s poor demographic development. Should this prediction be confirmed, the armed forces would consist of 62,000 soldiers in 2010 and 52,000 in 2020. This is less than half the number mentioned as a requirement in the law regulating the Spanish armed forces, and it borders on the level of insignificance for a country of Spain’s size and international importance.

The analysis has shown that to counter these demographic developments, the only solution is to bring the recruitment success ratio up to the levels reached in 1998 and 1999. These correspond to a yearly recruitment success ratio of 2.5 ‰ among those aged 18-28. Depending on the size of the recruitment niche, which varies as a function of the country’s demographic development over time, this implies a yearly recruitment level of 16,000 to 11,000 soldiers. Recruitment of this magnitude would lead to a contingent below the requirements set out in the present law regulating the numerical strength of the armed forces. However, it does not seem feasible to ask for recruitment levels which are higher than those proposed here. A recruitment success ratio of 2.5 ‰ is higher than, for example, the UK’s, and it seems unlikely that the Spanish armed forces would be able to recruit more than what is suggested in this paper given the extraordinary demographic developments they are facing.

There are two direct recommendations to be drawn from the findings concerning the size of the recruitment success ratio. First, and as foreseen by the Ministry of Defence, the Spanish government needs to revise the numerical strength requirements set out in Law 17/1999. The analysis in this paper has shown that a contingent of 75,000-86,000 soldiers is within reach under current demographic conditions. These levels have already been mentioned by the Minister of Defence and the government, respectively, when discussing the current missions of the armed forces, and when setting the budgetary appropriations for 2003 (see discussion in relation to Figure 3). Note however, that my numerical assessment is based purely on demographic developments and on what seems to be a feasible recruitment target, based on past recruitment performance in Spain and the experience in the UK. If the security outlook demands a larger or smaller contingent of soldiers, this should be given a clear priority.

Secondly, the country’s authorities should establish a fixed yearly 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 to the size of the pool from which they recruit. I have shown that a target of 2.5 ‰ would be sufficient. To be able to maintain their numerical strength within the interval, deviations from the target would have to be small. Experience so far has shown that it is very difficult to make up for missed recruitment opportunities from one year to the next, especially in a situation in which the recruitment pool is contracting. Hence, the target should be made explicit and evaluated on a regular basis. Progress in meeting the established target should be brought to the attention of both Congress and Senate so that countermeasures to failed recruitment efforts can be implemented at the shortest possible notice, preferably within the recruitment year itself.

While setting a recruitment target for the armed forces is a relatively easy task, it is more difficult to actually meet it. I have discussed a series of measures whereby the armed forces can manipulate the size of their recruitment niche upwards, and thus increase their chances of meeting a fixed recruitment target. These measures are: (1) to increase both efficiency and productivity by empowering soldiers so that in the near future fewer numbers can perform the same duties as a larger contingent today; (2) increase the size of the army’s recruitment niche by increasing the maximum age of the applicants, in the first instance from 28 to 30; and (3) allow access to the armed forces to all immigrant groups with residence and work permits regardless of nationality, as well as raising the immigrant contingent to the same level as the percentage of immigrants in the Spanish population as a whole and, if possible, even higher. These three recommendations are of a general nature and the last two in particular are relatively easy to implement. All three should be seriously considered if the aim is to reach a recruitment success ratio of 2.5 ‰.

Finally, the suggested measures, while helpful, are likely to be insufficient to bring the recruitment success ratio up to the levels suggested in this paper. The main obstacle to effective recruitment at the levels suggested is the increased competition from institutions of higher education and from the labour market as a result of the general deficit in young people aged 18 to 28. Thus, the armed forces have to prepare for a struggle for human resources. The recommendations addressing the increased competition from other sectors of society focus on quality improvements in military training and career opportunities.

To face the competition from institutions providing higher education, the armed forces need to continue developing their existing educational programmes. They should also consider developing programmes additional to their current strictly technical training. Military missions require people trained in a variety of tasks, of which many have civilian applications. The basic idea is to provide military education across a broad range of specializations, to such a degree that it can actually be considered an alternative to civilian education in some areas, although with a more practical bent. Once a former recruit moves back to civilian life, his army training should have been of such value that it allows him to be an attractive candidate for either continued training or for job openings in his particular field of expertise. Efforts in this area should also target the final beneficiaries of the armed forces’ educational activities, ie, potential recruiters of former military personnel. Increasing the demand for former recruits among the potential beneficiaries would result in an increased demand for military training among potential recruits.

To face the competition from the labour market the armed forces should take the potential recruits’ demand for stable contractual situations and for significant promotion opportunities seriously. To attract people interested in making a career it is necessary to promote internal mobility within the forces. The way the army is currently structured, with a top-heavy officer contingent, it risks devoting the next decade or so to reducing the number of officers. The current imbalance is likely to result in less turnover and a lower internal mobility. The lack of internal mobility is an effective disincentive to all potential recruits who are considering pursuing a military career. To remedy the current situation the armed forces need to strike a balance between the number of recruits and the number of officers so that new recruits get a fair chance to pursue a military career in the ways implied by recruitment prospectuses.

While the earlier recommendations are easy to implement the latter two are more difficult to realize. However, Spain’s labour market and institutions for higher education are serious competitors for the decreasing number of young people. There are usually no shortcuts if the objective is to stand up to serious competition. To be able to attract young people in competition with other sectors the armed forces have to raise the status of the profession and offer viable promotion opportunities. They must make the years spent in the services worthwhile so that when soldiers leave the armed forces they can fall back on the training and professional experience they have received.

Rickard Sandell

Senior Analyst

Demography, Population and International Migration

Real Instituto Elcano

[1] See Sandell, R. (2003), Ageing Populations: An Opportunity for Public Policy Reform, Working Paper nº 20, Real Instituto Elcano.

[2] See

[3]Ley 17/1999, de 18 de mayo, de Régimen del Personal de las Fuerzas Armadas (Spanish Law 17/1999).

[4] Data concerning the Spanish armed forces referred to in this paper are compiled to a large extent from the information requested by the Spanish Congress and Senate and so-called ministry briefings. Data has also been collected on the Spanish Ministry of Defence’s official web site ( and the recruitment office web site ( Any faults are the author’s responsibility.

[5]Ley 52/2002, de 30 de diciembre, de Presupuestos Generales del Estado para el año 2003 (Spanish Law 52/2002).

[6] Had the success ratio remained at its initial level of 2.5 ‰, the numerical strength of Spain’s armed forces would be close to or above the government’s implicit requirement of 86,000 soldiers, as stipulated in the State Budget for 2003.

[7]Ministry of Defence (2002): Revisión Estratégica de la Defensa, Comparecencia del Ministro de Defensa.

Federico Trillo-Figueroa y Martínez-Conde ante la Comisión de Defensa del Congreso de los Diputados 18 de diciembre de 2002, Madrid, Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General.

[8] All the data referring to the UK’s armed forces are extracts from the British Defence analytical services agency’s web site Some additional information has been collected through the UK’s Ministry of Defence web site

[9] The British government’s requirements are currently 195,000 trained soldiers and officers. The figure of 206,000 mentioned above includes untrained soldiers and officers. The figures for Spain also include untrained soldiers, but there is no distinction in the Spanish target between trained and untrained personnel. Gavin Berman (2002): Defence Statistics – July 2002, Research Paper 02/48, London, Social & General Statistics Section, House of Commons Library.

[10] Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (2002): Encuesta nº 2447, La defensa nacional y el ejército, V.

[11]Real Decreto 1244/2002, de 29 de diciembreReglamento de acceso de extranjeros a la condición de militar profesional de tropa y marinería (Royal Decree regulating the incorporation of foreigners in the Spanish armed forces.)

[12]Ministry of Defence (2003): Revisión Estratégica de la Defensa (Strategic Defence Review), Madrid, Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General.

[13] Stapel, Silke (2002): ‘Purchasing Power Parities and Related Economic Indicators for EU, Acceding Countries and EFTA’, Statistics in Focus, Luxembourg, EUROSTAT.

[14] See

[15] Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (2002), Encuesta Nº 2447La defensa nacional y el ejército, V; see also earlier editions of the same survey from 1997 onwards.

[16] Ministry of Defence (2003), Revisión Estratégica de la Defensa (Strategic Defence Review), Madrid, Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General.

[17] Ministry of Defence (2002), Revisión Estratégica de la Defensa. Comparecencia del Ministro de Defensa Federico Trillo-Figueroa y Martínez-Conde ante la Comisión de Defensa del Congreso de los Diputados, 18 de diciembre de 2002, Madrid, Ministerio de Defensa, Secretaría General.

Rickard Sandell

Written by Rickard Sandell