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'We don't want to highlight Afghanistan'

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Analysis Yesterday the UK's arms industry launched its renewed pitch for more government money. Shooting themselves in the foot somewhat, assembled weapons-biz kingpins revealed that - by their own estimation - the UK taxpayer is already supporting at least twice as many well-paid British arms workers as there are (poorly-paid) soldiers in the British army.

The revelations came at the Westminster launch on Tuesday of two reports from the Defence Industries Council (DIC), the British armsbiz trade body. According to the DIC:

The UK-based defence and security industry... employs 300,000 people across the UK.

Sir Kevin Tebbit, once the top civilian official at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and now chairman of Finmeccanica UK (parent company of the noted AgustaWestland helicopter plant), briefed reporters that 55,000 of these jobs "are linked to exports". Martin Faussett of Rolls Royce added that defence workers "are paid significantly more than average".

That equates, of course, to approximately a quarter of a million well-paid UK armsbiz workers who have nothing to do with exports - in other words they live completely off the taxpayer, just the same as soldiers and civil servants. But there are, apparently, a lot more of them: and civil servants' pay is distinctly average, while soldiers' pay is well below average.

In fact, the British army is budgeted to have 101,000 soldiers on the payroll. Despite the fact that recruiting has improved lately, the army is still short of that figure by nearly 2,000. In general, fewer people apply to be soldiers than there are vacancies - and this is despite vigorous recruiting abroad and a serious rise in British unemployment.

It's not so much the risk of being killed or wounded that puts would-be soldiers off - anyone who has met British troops knows that those who haven't been in action are usually keen to experience it, and in fact some Irish recruits have given the chance of fighting as an attraction for joining the British forces.

What might put some people off, though, is the fact that starting pay for a combat soldier is under £14,000 - less than you can get as a kitchen potwash boy. Even as a veteran corporal years later, in charge of seven other men and enough firepower to blow up tanks or flatten small buildings, a soldier is still paid less than a police constable starts on.

Only as a sergeant, probably into his thirties - quite likely to be running a platoon of thirty men while training up a young officer to do so too - does a soldier start getting up to the average rates of pay enjoyed by the rest of us with our safe jobs back here in Blighty. And don't forget, we taxpayers are also coughing up for two or more arms workers per soldier, each paid, on average, more than we and the sergeant are.

As a final sting in the tail, our early-thirties sergeant is looking at compulsory retirement when he hits forty: there's no job for life for him, and his pension - while nice in terms of bennies per year served - reflects the fact that he probably won't be allowed to keep working for the government until retirement age, the way teachers and coppers and other civil servants do. And the soldier's government lodgings may well be quite disgusting, even with all the millions currently being ploughed into improving them.

So it's not too surprising that even the undeniable warrior spirit of old Blighty (and Ireland, Fiji, South Africa etc.) doesn't furnish enough recruits for the British army - this despite the fact that we have actually cut it in size quite substantially in the last few years.

At the moment, meanwhile, we have 9,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. It's a not-very-well-kept secret that our generals are arguing that this is a foolish number - enough to hurt us, but not enough to dominate much ground or get much done. If Britain is to be in Afghanistan, they argue, it should take on the job seriously.

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