LONDON             -             Britain faces an army recruitment crisis, with frontline combat units operating as much as 40% below strength, figures obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Data released by the Ministry of Defence under freedom of information laws shows the number of soldiers in the British army’s infantry regiments has declined steadily over the past five years. There are more than 2,500 fewer personnel in frontline units than 2015, and all 16 regular regiments have shortfalls. The figures have prompted criticism of the outsourcing company Capita, which signed a contract with the MoD to manage recruitment to the armed forces in 2012, for its “shambolic and chaotic” handling of the situation. There have also been calls for the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to address the crisis urgently.

Publicly available data published quarterly by the MoD shows a 7.6% deficit in personnel across the army on 1 January 2019, but the figure masks a more dramatic shortfall in frontline troops.

Analysis of the FOI data for the same period shows that nine of the 16 infantry regiments were 20% or more below their “workforce requirement” – the planned number of personnel needed. Four were 25% or more below their required strength.

The Scots Guards regiment, which has fought in nearly every major conflict since the reign of Charles I, is worst affected. The figures show it is 257 soldiers below its target strength of 697, a shortfall of 37%. If the regiment’s F company, a supporting unit, is removed from the figure, the shortfall grows to 42%. The Guardian reported in March that figures from October 2018, which were released to the MP Mark Francois, revealed that almost half of all infantry battalions sitting within regiments were missing 20% or more of their required personnel.

The data released for January 2019 reveals a significantly worsening picture, with 10 out of 16 regiments having fewer soldiers than four months earlier.

The figures show there were 2,580 fewer soldiers in infantry regiments than there were five years ago.

There were 15,880 personnel serving at regimental duty at the start of 2015, 6% lower than the 16,847 needed. On the same date this year, there were 13,300 people serving, 17% below the target strength of 15,940.

The shadow defence secretary, Nia Griffith, said Wallace had to get to grips with the recruitment and retention crisis as a matter of urgency. “Several of his Conservative predecessors have talked a good game, but all have failed to turn this shocking trend around,” she said.

“Army numbers are in freefall under this Conservative government. At a time when our country faces an increasing number of threats, it is simply unacceptable for numbers to be falling year after year.”

Bob Seely, the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight and a former army reservist, said the infantry was “at the heart of any fighting army” so it was worrying to see infantry numbers so low.

“If you have units below par it puts pressure on those who are serving, because they have to do more,” he said. “It also puts pressure on other units and the system overall. Clearly if there are thousands of empty posts then we should be filling them.”

The MoD signed a decade-long contract with Capita in 2012 to manage recruitment to the armed forces. The National Audit Office found in December that Capita had consistently missed the army’s targets, with the shortfall ranging from 21% to 45% each year, and parliament’s public accounts committee said in March that the partnership between the army and Capita had “failed dismally”.

Seely said the recruitment system Capita had created was “ridiculously slow and ridiculously bureaucratic. I’m afraid to say that Capita have not been a success. If you talk to people who are wanting to go into the army, the most common way they describe it is shambolic and chaotic.”

Dr Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said: “The basic implication at the moment is that if there was a crisis where you had to deploy those units you would need to draw infantry [from elsewhere] to make up the numbers.

“Those soldiers would not have trained with the people they were fighting alongside and wouldn’t necessarily know the officers, so you would have a much less combat-effective unit than it should be.”

Among the other reasons posited for the fall in recruits are comparatively low unemployment, an ageing population, the increase in people taking up post-16 education and the fact that the army is not currently involved in a major conflict. “When there isn’t a conflict you see a trailing off of interest,” said Watling.

Experts told the Guardian the problem was not just with recruitment, but with retention. They said soldiers were being required to undertake repetitive training exercises with no other purpose than to keep them busy, which could have a negative effect on morale. There was a net outflow of 2,130 personnel from the UK’s regular forces in the year to 31 March.

A Capita spokesperson said the company’s partnership with the army was starting to see excellent results. “This includes the busiest quarter since the partnership started seven years ago, with 1,000 more enlistments in January to March than the same three months last year; a successful trial to halve the amount of time to get recruits from application to basic training; and increasingly high proportions of applicants getting an offer of basic training, which is substantially better than pre-2012.”

A spokesperson for the army said it was fully committed to improving its recruitment process and was working with Capita to address remaining challenges. “The army continues to meet all of its operational commitments to keep Britain safe.

“Applications to join the army are at a five-year high, with around 77,000 applications to join as a regular soldier alone in financial year 2018-19. We have also increased the enlistment to conversion rate from one in 10 to one in eight.”