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Is conscription coming back? How it’s been used in previous wars – and what a UK ‘citizen army’ would involve in future | UK News

Conscription hasn’t been used in the UK for more than 60 years. 

But comments from top military officials about what could happen if NATO goes to war with Russia have made the possibility of being called up to fight feel closer than it has in generations.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing head of the British Army, said such a conflict would need to be a “whole-of-nation undertaking”, which reignited a debate about defence cuts and volunteering to fight.

Here Sky News looks at how the UK has used conscription before, and what military experts and the government say about bringing it back.

What is conscription and when did the UK last have it?

Conscription legally requires certain groups to join the armed forces.

It was introduced in January 1916, 18 months into the First World War, when a law required all single men aged 18 to 41 to join up.

There were exceptions for certain workers and people considered medically unfit, and a few months later married men were also called up.

The law wasn’t popular; more than 200,000 protested against it. About 2.5 million men joined through conscription, which lasted until 1920. Although the main conflict with Germany ended in 1918, conscription was extended to “enable the army to deal with continuing trouble spots in the Empire and parts of Europe”, according to the UK parliament’s website.

Conscription returned in the Second World War, adding about 1.5 million people to the army, and was extended to women for the first time.

It started with “limited” conscription in May 1939 – as fears of another war in Europe grew – requiring single men aged 20 to 22 to sign up for military training. In September of the same year, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the law was toughened and widened to men aged between 18 and 41.

Conscription applied to women – those who were unmarried and childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 – from December 1941. At the same time, the age ranges for men were changed – requiring military service up until the age of 51 and some form of service until 60. This was driven by a shortage of men for roles in the police and other services during the war.

Is conscription likely to make a comeback?

Military experts are split on whether conscription is a realistic prospect in 21st-century Britain.

Military analyst Professor Michael Clarke told the Sky News Daily podcast the UK will probably have to go back to having a “citizen army” – but stressed this is “not the same as conscription”.

“It will need to be a citizen army, but a citizen volunteer army of the sort that we’ve had in the past, and we will probably have to have once again in the future,” he said.

The UK army has “almost never” had conscription during its more than 360-year history, he said, adding it was “completely antithetical to the British thinking on the military”.

But former UK defence secretary Michael Fallon told Sky News it was time to “think the unthinkable” and consider conscription.

Not that he was a fan of the idea: “Conscription to most professional soldiers, and I count myself as one, is absolute anathema,” he said.

“Britain’s armed forces have traditionally and culturally relied on long service, volunteer, highly professional soldiers with huge experience – and that is really the way we would all want it to go on.”

But given the current global situation and defence funding cuts since the end of the Cold War, he said it was time to “get over many of the cultural hang-ups and assumptions” and “look carefully” at conscription.

“Sooner or later, if the military can’t improve the way they recruit, then, if it comes to conflict, obviously they will have to look at other methods,” he added.

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‘Right time’ to think about conscription

What has the government said about conscription?

Any talk of the UK introducing conscription to the army if NATO goes to war with Russia is “nonsense”, the armed forces minister, James Heappey, has said.

Mr Heappey said the UK “long had plans” readied for “mobilising volunteers” in the event that Britain enters a new conflict but stressed that “nobody is thinking” about bringing back conscription.

Number 10 has also ruled out any suggestion conscription was under consideration, saying there were “no plans” to change the British military’s “proud tradition of being a voluntary force”.

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‘There’s a 1939 feel to the world at the moment’

What is a citizen army?

A citizen army is made up of volunteers from the public, rather than career soldiers.

At the beginning of the First World War, 750,000 men volunteered to join the British Army in just eight weeks.

The volunteers had to undergo a series of medical and fitness tests before being accepted as a soldier.

Admiral Lord West, the former head of the Royal Navy, told Sky News this week that the UK would have to “mobilise” in the event of a war between NATO and Russia, hinting citizen volunteers would likely be part of that.

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What is the difference between conscription and national service?

National service was the standard peacetime form of conscription in the UK, introduced after the Second World War.

It came into force in January 1949 and required all men aged 17 to 21 to serve in one of the armed forces for an 18-month period.

It was discontinued in 1960, with the last servicemen discharged in 1963.

The UK’s political parties have debated whether or not to reintroduce some form of the service at a number of elections since the 1960s.

Often, calls to bring it back now focus on volunteering or public service for young adults, separate from the military.

Last year a thinktank proposed a “Great British National Service” volunteering scheme that won the support of the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, and former Tory minister Rory Stewart.

It proposed a “civic” national service scheme for 16-year-olds that would see them complete a certain number of volunteering hours, although it would not be mandatory.

What happens if you refuse conscription?

People who refuse conscription on moral grounds are referred to as conscientious objectors. They may object to fighting for political, religious or other reasons.

In the First and Second World Wars, conscientious objectors had to appear before a tribunal to argue their case.

If it was accepted, they may have been given a non-fighting role. If it was dismissed, they had to join up or risk being fined or jailed.

Prince Harry to be recognised as Living Legend of Aviation for services to British Army | US News

Prince Harry has arrived at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles where he will be recognised as a Living Legend of Aviation.

Just hours after the Duke of Sussex withdrew his libel claim against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, he arrived at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he will be honoured for his work as a British Army veteran and pilot.

The 39-year-old completed two tours of Afghanistan as a forward air controller and an Apache helicopter pilot, having flown countless training missions in the UK, US and Australia.

He served in the military for 10 years, rising to the rank of captain, and later founded the Invictus Games – a sporting event for wounded military personnel and veterans.

Hosted by actor and aviation ambassador John Travolta, the duke will be inducted alongside US Navy pilot Fred George, former world speed record holder Steve Hinton, and Jeff Bezos’ fiancee, Lauren Sanchez.

Similar to her husband – who has already been inducted – Sanchez is set to receive the Elling Halvorson Vertical Flight Hall of Fame Award for her skills as a helicopter pilot and aviation businesswoman.

File photo dated 16/09/23 of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf, Germany. A coronation, a reignited race row and a controversial memoir by the Duke of Sussex shaped the royal family's 2023. It was the King's first full calendar year as monarch, as he bedded into the role and was crowned with great splendour alongside his Queen. Issue date: Wednesday December 13, 2023.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during the closing ceremony of the 2023 Invictus Games

The duke was described as a “humanitarian, military veteran, mental wellness advocate and environmentalist” on the awards website.

“He has dedicated his life to advancing causes that he is passionate about and that bring about permanent change for people and places,” a statement read.

Earlier on Friday, Prince Harry dropped a libel claim against Associated Newspapers Limited over a February 2022 article about his legal challenge against the Home Office following a decision to change his publicly funded security arrangements when visiting the UK.

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The story claimed Harry “tried to keep details of his legal battle to reinstate his police protection secret from the public”.

A ruling was scheduled to take place between May and July, until the duke’s lawyers filed a notice of discontinuance at the High Court in London.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson said the duke’s focus remains “on the safety of his family” and on his legal action against the Home Office.

Nathanel Young: British man serving in Israeli army killed in Hamas attack | UK News

A British man who was serving in the Israeli army has been killed in an attack by Hamas militants.

Corporal Nathanel Young, 20, from London, was a soldier in the 13th Battalion, according to the Israeli Defence Forces.

His family shared a post on Facebook saying they are “heartbroken”, adding: “Our little brother Nathanel Young was tragically killed on the Gaza Border yesterday.”

Israel-Gaza latest – follow live updates

He was a former pupil at JFS, a Jewish mixed comprehensive school in Kenton, north London, who was living in the Bayit Shel Benji home for lone IDF soldiers in Raanana, north of Tel Aviv, according to the Jewish News.

Nathanel Young
Nathanel Young’s family are ‘heartbroken’

Mr Young’s family said in a tribute: “Nathanel was full of life and the life of the party – he carried the nickname DJ on base and at Benji’s house, the lone soldier house that he lived at.

“He loved his family and friends and was loved by everyone. He loved music and was a talented DJ.

“Always willing to go to any lengths for his loved ones. An amazing uncle and brother. He was so happy and thriving in Israel. He loved the country.”

His brother Eliot Young told Sky News: “Nathanel always had strong Jewish pride. From a young age he has always wanted to play an important role in defending his country – it’s something he talked about a lot.”

He added: “Nathanel was also a bubbly guy who my two little daughters loved playing with and were always so excited to visit.

Nathanel Young
Nathanel Young was serving in the Israeli army

Nathanel Young
Nathanel Young ‘was loved by everyone’

“When Nathanel could have taken his days off to sleep and re-energise, he instead found out where we were, which wasn’t always so close to him, and came to join us.”

It is understood that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is in contact with and assisting the families of several people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Another British man Jake Marlowe, 26, has been “missing near Gaza” since Saturday morning after Hamas attacked a music festival in southern Israel, the country’s embassy in the UK told Sky News.

Hundreds of Israelis were killed and thousands more were injured after Hamas fired missiles into Israel while fighters launched a surprise attack on Saturday morning.

Gunmen targeted up to 22 locations in the initial assault, with gun battles continuing into Sunday.

Invictus Games: ‘It’s like a true rebirth,’ says Ukrainian army medic who was captured and tortured | World News

A Ukrainian army medic who was captured and tortured by the Russians has said her involvement with the Invictus Games saved her life.

Yuliia “Taira” Paievska took part in last year’s games and is currently competing in Dusseldorf.

Prince Harry paid a personal tribute to her bravery at the game’s opening ceremony.

“I think I speak for everyone when I say I think you embody the true spirit of Ukraine and of Invictus,” he said.

We caught up with Taira who told us, she can’t believe she’s made it to the games.

“When you prepare yourself for death and then you get out of those horrible cells and then you see all this, it’s like a true rebirth,” she said.

Taira featured in Prince Harry’s recent Netflix series, Heart Of Invictus.

She was imprisoned for 12 weeks earlier this year, and says her links to the games secured her release.

“I am thankful for this competition because it made me famous and because a lot of people got to know me, that’s why I was freed so quickly.”

Ukrainian medic Yuliia Paievska, known to Ukrainians by the nickname Taira, gets emotional during an appearance before U.S. lawmakers on the Helsinki Commission, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
Ukrainian medic Yuliia ‘Taira’ Paievska

Taira had a private meeting with the Duke of Sussex. She still needs more surgery, but won’t stop fighting for her country.

“The conditions in captivity are horrible, the tortures in basic basements which they use for captivity,” she said. “I want the world to demand the release of all prisoners.”

When Prince Harry founded the games it was all about Afghanistan. A different conflict has brought new competitors.

Semen Lahun, 26, who is part of team Ukraine at Invictus Games. Bundock VT grab
Semen Lahun, who is planning to return to the frontline after the games

Semen Lahun, 26, who is part of team Ukraine at Invictus Games. Bundock VT grab

We met Semen Lahun, 26, who’s part of team Ukraine.

He was a builder in Lviv but signed up to fight when Russia invaded.

Last August, Semen was badly injured when a landmine exploded. He nearly lost his foot, but surgeons saved it.

Training for the games has helped his recovery.

“It is an escape, a recreation, both physical and mental. I have lost some of my brothers-in-arms and I felt so helpless, but the games have put me back on track,” he said.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, talks to participants and officials at the 6th Invictus Games. Pic: AP
Prince Harry at the 6th Invictus Games in Dusseldorf. Pic: AP

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Semen will soon return to the frontline. He was moved when Prince Harry spoke about Ukraine, and says his Invictus involvement makes a difference.

“He’s a special person for me. I admire him because he made this happen, and he organised it and developed it, and it helps so much. Not just me, but my family too.”

Grant Shapps defends new role as defence sec – but admits he lacks knowledge about Army | Politics News

Grant Shapps has defended his appointment as defence secretary – saying the department “needs highly experienced cabinet ministers”.

There was a backlash after Rishi Sunak’s ally was moved into one of the top roles in government amid a war in Europe – despite having no military experience.

Critics claimed the prime minister had chosen appearance over substance.

Politics Hub: First PMQs since recess today

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Who is Grant Shapps?

But Mr Shapps, who has also run the energy, business and transport departments, brushed off criticism that he got his role “because it was a job for the boys” – even as he admitted he lacked knowledge about the Army.

Grilled on how many ranks there are in the Army, he told Sky News he did not know the answer “off the top of my head”.

But he insisted: “Look, what the Ministry of Defence needs is the highly experienced cabinet ministers who can run a complex infrastructure-orientated department.

“I’ve had a lot of experience of running very large budgets and complex departments.”

Mr Shapps added that “only two of the last 15 defence secretaries have had any military background themselves”.

He said: “It’s not usual in democracy where we actually pride ourselves on having civilians run all elements of government, including our military. What I do know is how to run the department.”

Ben Wallace, Mr Shapps’ predecessor and a former Army officer, had played a key role in galvanising international support to arm the Ukrainian military.

He resigned from cabinet last week with a warning that “over the next decade, the world will get more insecure and more unstable”.

In a parting shot to secure his department’s future, Mr Wallace also added: “I know you agree with me that we must not return to the days where defence was viewed as a discretionary spend by government and savings were achieved by hollowing out.”

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‘What do you know about defence Grant Shapps?’

Asked if he would be as vocal as Mr Wallace, Mr Shapps suggested he would lobby for higher defence spending but said he’ll “do it in my own way” – adding: “I’ve spoken before about my desire to see a higher defence budget, well before being in this role.”

He said defence spending is already on the rise, with the aim of it going up to 2.5%.

“I fully support that,” Mr Shapps said. “I think it’s very important that we are protected as a nation, but also that we’re doing our part around the world to help the world be better protected.”

‘I owe them my life’: Army veteran rescued by coastguard after mayday call ends Rockall record attempt | UK News

An army veteran who hoped to set a world record for the number of days living on a remote North Atlantic islet says he owes rescuers his life after issuing an emergency mayday call.

Christopher “Cam” Cameron VR FRGS planned to remain on Rockall for 60 days and managed to make it to the halfway point before his charity challenge was scuppered by treacherous weather.

Much of his equipment was destroyed by wind and waves throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, and he was almost swept away at several points overnight.

After issuing the distress call to HM Coastguard on Wednesday evening, the crew of nearby ship MV Nassauborg kept in visual contact from the water as waves continued to crash over the islet.

Mr Cameron told Sky News: “I was reassured at all times that I was in safe hands and that I would return to see my family despite being in pain, exhausted and hypothermic.

“I’ll need a moment or two to take stock, decompress, and get home to see my family.”

Christopher “Cam” Cameron. Pic: Rockall Expedition/MPV HIRTA
Pic: Rockall Expedition/MPV HIRTA

Christopher “Cam” Cameron. Pic: Rockall Expedition/MPV HIRTA
Pic: Rockall Expedition/MPV HIRTA

Stornoway Coastguard responded to the alert. Mr Cameron was winched to safety via helicopter and then flown back to the Scottish town – the largest in the Outer Hebrides.

Mr Cameron said: “I’m safe and well after a good night’s sleep, courtesy of the hospitality and kindness from the people of Stornoway.

“I owe this all to the courageous and speedy extraction from Rockall by the professionalism of HM Coastguard.”

Rockall is an uninhabitable granite islet around 230 miles west of North Uist.

Mr Cameron had hoped to beat the world record of a 45-day stay on Rockall, set by Nick Hancock in 2014.

Christopher “Cam” Cameron. Pic: Rockall Expedition
Pic: Rockall Expedition

Mr Cameron, who is usually based in Wiltshire, took on the challenge for The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

He has raised more than £12,000 for the causes so far.

He said: “I did it for the charities and we have raised some much needed money for them.”

Mr Cameron thanked all those who have sent kind words.

Christopher "Cam" Cameron. Pic: Stornoway Coastguard
Pic: Stornoway Coastguard

Paying tribute to his rescuers, he said: “I would not be here were it not for the courageous efforts of HM Coastguard – in particular, Stornoway Coastguard and the pilots and crew of Rescue 22, and SAR Stornoway.

“A big thank you also to the captain and crew of MV Nassauborg, who maintained a sector screen around Rockall whilst I waited for the [helicopter]. I owe them all my life.”

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MV Nassauborg. Pic: Cam Cameron
MV Nassauborg keeping watch. Pic: Cam Cameron

Christopher “Cam” Cameron. Pic: Rockall Expedition/Cam Cameron
Rockall Expedition/Cam Cameron

Mr Cameron’s family said: “We are hugely proud of all his achievements, but also that he had the courage to make what must have been a very difficult decision in the face of such dreadful weather.

“We are looking forward to welcoming him home and hope that any future adventures will be a little less risky.”

They joked: “Why couldn’t he just have bought a sports car in the first place?”

Christopher “Cam” Cameron. Pic: Rockall Expedition
Pic: Rockall Expedition

A documentary about Mr Cameron’s challenge, titled Rockall – The Edge of Existence, is currently being produced.

Aaron Wheeler, director of the documentary, said: “We’re glad Cam is safely back on dry land and look forward to watching through the footage that Cam recorded during his occupation to tell the story of his adventure.”

Afghanistan: Three British men being held in Taliban custody – including ‘danger tourist’ who returned after army evacuation | World News

Three British men are being held in Taliban custody in Afghanistan – including so-called “danger tourist” Miles Routledge who returned to the country after being evacuated by British armed forces less than two years ago.

The other two men are charity medic Kevin Cornwell and another unnamed UK national who manages a hotel in Kabul. They are believed to have been held by Taliban secret police since January in a separate incident.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spokesperson said: “We are working hard to secure consular contact with British nationals detained in Afghanistan and we are supporting families.”

Scott Richards from the Presidium Network non-profit which is assisting Mr Cornwell and the unnamed Briton, told Sky News that he believes the pair are in good health and being well treated.

But he added: “There has been no meaningful contact [with the men], there has been no access by international monitoring agencies… and there’s been no other form of access to the individuals to date.”

“We’re very hopeful that contact will be made,” he added. His organisation hopes that a positive development in the situation could coincide with the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid.

Mr Routledge, 23, has gained fame – and attracted controversy – by travelling to dangerous countries and posting about it online.

In August 2021 he was on a “holiday” in Afghanistan when he was caught up in the chaos in the capital as the Taliban took control of the country.

He chose the war-torn country having looked up a list of the most dangerous places to visit in the world, despite the Taliban taking control of more and more of the country at the time.

Mr Routledge thanked the British Army after he was among those evacuated during the Kabul airlift.

He appears to have returned to the country since then.

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Mr Cornwell, 53, was arrested at his hotel by officers from the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) on 11 January.

He is accused of having an illegal firearm in the safe in his room, but his family say he had been granted a licence for the firearm.

Mr Richards said this was down to a “misunderstanding” and the licence may have become separated from the firearm during the search.

The FCDO continues to advise UK citizens against all travel to Afghanistan based on the security risks involved, including the possibility of detention by the Taliban authorities.

“At this point in time it would be unwise for anyone to enter into Afghanistan that doesn’t understand the culture, that doesn’t understand these things, because it can change on you very, very quickly,” Mr Richards warned.

Army may be deployed to ease possible strike disruption, Nadhim Zahawi says | Politics News

The government is considering deploying the army to help ease possible strike disruption over Christmas, Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi has confirmed.

Mr Zahawi told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that military personnel could be “driving ambulances” and working on UK borders under the proposals.

The Conservative Party chairman also suggested that pharmacists will be called on to help break the NHS strike action, saying “we have to be able to deliver safe levels of treatment and support to patients”.

“We’ve got to try and minimise disruption,” he added.

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The government has said that military personnel, civil servants and volunteers are being trained to support a range of services, including Border Force at airports and ports, amid fears of Christmas chaos.

A statement from Number 10 said the decision on whether troops would be deployed was yet to be taken, but that personnel “are part of the range of options available should strike action in these areas go ahead as planned”.

The UK faces a wave of strikes this winter, which will affect services including transport, the NHS, education and delivery drivers.

Tens of thousands are expected to take industrial action as the UK is gripped by recession and the cost of living crisis.

Mr Zahawi told Sky News that “this is not a time to strike”.

“If you chase inflation or above inflation, in some cases pay, then you will embed inflation for longer and hurt the most vulnerable,” he said.

“In fact, our message to the unions is to say, you know, this is not a time to strike. This is time to try and negotiate.

In the absence of that, it’s important for the government. It’s the right and responsible thing to do, to have contingency plans in place.”

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He continued: “We’re looking at the military, we’re looking at a specialist response force… surge capacity.”

Military personnel were previously deployed to drive petrol tankers and deliver COVID jabs during the pandemic.

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How will strikes affect businesses?

The government statement said: “Multiple unions have taken the decision to strike over the coming weeks, leaving millions of people facing disruption over the Christmas period.

“Many unions are asking for uplifts in line with inflation or even more – despite comparable uplifts in the private sector averaging between four and six per cent so far this year.

“The government recognises these are very challenging economic times. That’s why it is focused on getting inflation under control as the best way to help everyone’s money go further and avoid soaring inflation rates being embedded in the UK economy.”

It added: “There is still time to call off planned strikes and ministers have repeatedly called for unions and employers to keep talking and come to an agreement, rather than take pre-emptive industrial action.”

Labour’s education secretary Bridget Phillipson could not confirm whether her party would increase pay in line with inflation in the public sector.

She told Sky News her party want a “fair deal” for workers.

‘Arrogant’ defence chiefs condemned for refusing to review cuts to army numbers | UK News

MPs have challenged a decision to shrink the size of Britain’s army by thousands of soldiers as a war rages in Europe, demonstrating the need for large land forces.

The Defence Select Committee also criticised cost-saving plans to retire dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles before replacements are ready.

The MPs urged the Ministry of Defence at the very least to review the timelines for any changes to avoid creating capability gaps that could leave the armed forces vulnerable.

And they accused defence chiefs of appearing “arrogant and unwilling to learn lessons” from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or from last year’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the committee, called on the next prime minister to commit more funds to defence.

“It is clear that now is not the time for personnel cuts or budget shortfalls in our armed forces,” he said. “We cannot afford for our [armed] services to become poorer and weaker. We need to spend more and spend it wisely.”

The cross-party committee has published a report into a major review of defence, security and foreign policy and accompanying papers released by the government last year.

It criticised commanders and mandarins for a reluctance to look again at the conclusions of their work – which set out the future size, capabilities and priorities of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – in the wake of the subsequent Afghan withdrawal and Russian war.

“No strategy should be set in stone nor subject to constant revision,” the committee said.

“However, there is a need for government to be able to respond to major events… rather than downplaying the potential implications of such geopolitical shocks.”

Read more: World entering ‘dangerous new age’ of threats, says UK’s top national security adviser

A move that came in for particular criticism was the plan to reduce the size of the army by almost 10,000 troops, from a target of 82,000 to 72,500, by 2025 – a reduction that would diminish the force to its smallest in more than 300 years.

The MPs said it was a worry given – on top of security threats – the UK’s already over-stretched soldiers are increasingly called upon to help in non-military emergencies such as floods and the response to COVID.

“We are especially concerned about the proposed cuts to personnel numbers and the effective reduction in mass, particularly since that we are seeing defence being used more and more often as an emergency measure to relieve exceptional pressures on public services and perform such tasks that otherwise might be expected to be carried out by others,” the committee said in its report.

At the same time, it noted that General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new head of the army, had described the cuts as “perverse” and that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, appeared to support a review of the decision.

Separately to the evidence considered by the committee, Mr Wallace told Sky News this week that the army would likely grow rather than shrink if the next prime minister commits to a significant uplift in defence spending at a time of growing threats.