Across the West, militaries are on the precipice of momentous change. The current aggression from Russia and volatile geopolitical environments in the Asia Pacific have triggered an uplift in defence spending across the Five Eyes. 

Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to re-examine the government’s allocation for defence spending in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the growing threat to NATO. 

Though an important commitment, there are serious doubts the western militaries will be able to attract the massive numbers of new personnel required, when existing recruitment and retention targets are struggling to be met. The British Army is still thousands shy of its target for fully-trained troops and while there’s been an upswing in recruitment numbers, this has been countered by a growing number of troops transitioning out of service. 

Yes, there is an urgency to grow our military, but we cannot build the required air, land, sea, cyber and space capabilities with our current approach. To deliver these ambitious personnel numbers, we need to win the talent war – and presently, militaries are just not well-positioned to do this. Most new recruits will be digital natives, which presents a problem. 

Lost spark

At face value, western militaries don’t have the same ‘spark’ with digital natives compared to past generations. Many aspects of military life that were accepted by recruits 20 years ago no longer resonate in modern society. Time away from home. Hierarchy. Lack of innovation. Not to mention a vast difference in remuneration packages between the military and private sectors. 

Although we have seen creative approaches attempting to bridge these shortfalls from the British Army putting a call out on social media to the US Army offering up to $50K in cash bonuses to new recruits.

Yet the problem remains. For militaries to be successful in recruiting digital natives, we need to rethink how we are tackling the issue, end-to-end. defence must know not only how to attract digital natives but how to fully engage them. And to do that, it needs to become a digital establishment. 

Case in point: it’s been long-discussed that defence systems are often slow and hampered by complexity, in an environment requiring speed and agility. In many cases processes are manual and outdated. This weakness is exposed from the first stage of recruitment, where the battle to win digital natives is often lost before they step through the door. 

People-first approach

The UK’s recruitment model must be people-focused and intuitive. It is competing with every business and government agency in the world for talent, so it must streamline the hurdles and create a digitally optimised experience that meets the expectations of a tech-savvy generation. Improving efficiency by harnessing technology in the recruiting process will engage applicants from the start of their military career. 

It is also important to broaden the scope around the type of talent we’re looking to recruit. There are many roles in modern defence forces that sit outside the scope of its traditional recruitment drives. For example, we need people with digital skills to help fight our cyber threats – and these recruits have different skills and backgrounds to what militaries traditionally recruit.

This is an opportunity to bring diversity into our forces – those who may not previously have considered a career in military – as well as revisiting those who have served before. Veterans or those looking to transition out of the military are the perfect candidates to retain and retrain to fill the new demand for digital roles. In fact, social impact company WithYouWithMe tested 30,000 veterans and found that 67% of them had the same aptitude traits as the best software engineers. We are already leaveraging this talent for internal tech development from both the Australian Army and Canadian Armed Forces. 

Modernising recruitment

Providing a dynamic work environment is a value proposition that will resonate with those starting out their careers, as well as those who may have already served or had a civilian career and are interested in supporting military in an off-field capacity, such as through enhanced digital capability. 

If modern militaries are going to effectively recruit digital natives – and meet their recruitment targets – they must modernise recruitment and training processes. And the process must start now.