The British military is one of the world’s most legendary fighting institutions. It enabled the British monarchy to become one of the world’s most powerful institutions, conquering huge swathes of the world and building the largest empire in history.
During World War II, besieged by Nazi Germany, the Royal Air Force fought for Free Europe’s survival as the Luftwaffe bombed London and British planes fought back. When America entered the war, Britain was the hub for the Western Allies’ European operations. British commandos pioneered modern special operations.
Many armies around the world base their organizational structures, training, tactics and traditions on the British military. And today, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, training fledgling armies in Afghanistan and Somalia, keeping watch in the Falklands and operating in many other places around the world.
But these missions have put a great deal of strain on the British military and its troops. At the same time, fewer and fewer young Brits feel compelled to take up the mantle.
Much like the U.S. military across the pond , the British military is struggling to find new recruits to take on new missions. Figures show 15,140 regular troops left the British military during the past 12 months, but only 13,450 new troops came in.
It’s a particularly acute problem for the British Army. The British parliament released data showing that 6,910 new recruits joined the Army over the past 12 months. The target was 9,580 — adding up to a shortfall of 28 percent.
Most notably, 2,380 troops signed up for the infantry against a target of 3,480 — the largest gap.
The British military — the Army in particular — has been very active in the 21st century. In May 2000, hundreds of British paratroopers with full-force protection intervened in Sierra Leone’s civil war as part of Operation Palliser fighting Revolutionary United Front rebels. It was a relatively short intervention and was widely hailed as a success.
After 9/11, the United Kingdom joined the United States in the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and later the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq, while American troops fought to battle insurgents and terrorists in the Sunni triangle north of Baghdad, British troops to the south battled Iranian-backed Shia militias and navigated an incredibly corrupt local government system — similarly plagued by Iranian influence.
Meanwhile, as the world focused on Iraq’s sectarian woes and the American-led Surge campaign, under-resourced British troops were also taking the lead in Afghanistan in the country’s volatile southern Helmand province.
Alongside Canadian and Danish troops, the Brits engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of a war that many Western officials at the time believed was winding down. The resurgent Taliban would prove to be a stubborn foe.
U.S. Marines eventually took over in Helmand. The Americans found the Taliban to be a tough opponent, and that a clearly defined “victory” remained similarly elusive.
In all, 456 British troops have died in Afghanistan compared to 179 in Iraq. Four-hundred fifty British troops remain in Afghanistan as advisers to the Afghan military.
British planes also joined the NATO mission to support Libyan rebels in their war with dictator Muammar Ghadafi, and have pounded Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
British forces continue to support operations for peacekeeping missions. In 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that his country would boost support for international peacekeeping operations, promising troops for missions in both Somalia and South Sudan.
It wasn’t a move motivated by altruism. The world is currently experiencing what may be history’s worst refugee crisis with millions of people displaced. Some have made their way to Europe in hopes of resettling in Britain. A vocal contingent of Britons have expressed strong opposition to immigration, and refugees in particular. Cameron wanted to stem the flow at the source.
“If we can, as peacekeepers, help to maintain order and peace and see stable development in that country then that is going to be, again, less poverty, less migration, less issues that affect us back at home,” Cameron told the BBC.
That strong opposition to immigrants and refugees in some corners of the United Kingdom was one of many factors in the recent referendum that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union.
Theresa May, Cameron’s successor, hasn’t backed down from missions abroad and has emphasized the mission in Somalia — where British troops have already been active for some time . She asserted that the United Kingdom will play a key role in the fight against Al Shabab, a hardline Islamist group. She’s also promoted greater cooperation with Arab Gulf countries .
However, the broad reach of these operations comes at a cost.
Even as the British military continues sending troops around the globe on potentially dangerous missions, its resources are shrinking. In addition to the toll of continuously deploying a relatively small body of troops, there have been increasing cuts to budgets and equipment.