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Rishi Sunak's national service pledge is 'bonkers', says ex-military chief

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Britain's armed forces need more money not untrained teenage volunteers, former military leaders and Tory figures have said in a new blow to the Conservatives' faltering election campaign.

Within hours of being announced, Rishi Sunak's election pledge to bring back military service for 18-year-olds was rubbished by army chiefs and a former Conservative defence secretary.

Rishi Sunak pledged to introduce mandatory national service which would see young people spend a year in the military or do volunteer work on weekends.

The prime minister doubled down on the proposal on Sunday night, saying that national service schemes in other countries "show just how fulfilling it is for young people".

But Adm Alan West, a former chief of the naval staff, said it was a "bonkers" plan which would deplete the defence budget.

"I'm delighted if more young people become aware of defence and are involved … but this idea is basically bonkers," Lord West said. "We need to spend more on defence, and - by doing what he's suggesting - money will be sucked out of defence."

He added that Rishi Sunak should have committed more funds to the defence budget before the election.

Richard Dannatt, a former chief of the general staff, said the proposal was "electoral opportunism". "The costs of this would be considerable in terms of trainers and infrastructure. This task cannot just be imposed on the armed forces as an extra thing to do," he added.

Rishi Sunak on Sunday said that national service schemes in other countries 'show just how fulfilling it is for young people'. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Reuters

Michael Portillo, a former defence secretary, said the announcement could do further damage to the Tories' reputation for fiscal responsibility.

He told GB News on Sunday: "The way in which this policy has been produced worries me very much indeed. That is to say, I very much doubt whether it's been thought through, and I doubt whether the armed services and all the charities that need to be involved have been consulted and are on board.

"It represents an increase in public expenditure and that's very important, because it puts the Conservatives on the back foot. Because, on the whole, the Conservatives have been saying we've got clear plans, we're the government. Now ask Labour how they're going to find the extra money. But now this reverses all that, because now Labour can say the Conservatives are making promises which aren't funded."

The pledge was launched just two days after the defence minister Andrew Murrison said that the government had no plans for national service in "any form" because it would do more harm than good.

In an answer to a written parliamentary question, Murrison said placing "potentially unwilling" recruits with professional soldiers "could damage morale, recruitment and retention and would consume professional military and naval resources".

He added that if, on the other hand, temporary recruits were kept separate "it would be difficult to find a proper and meaningful role for them, potentially harming motivation and discipline".

John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said the Conservatives' national service proposal was "an undeliverable plan and a distraction from their failures in defence over the last 14 years. Even Rishi Sunak's own defence minister dismissed the idea days ago.

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"Since 2010, Tory ministers have missed recruitment targets every year, hollowed out and underfunded our armed forces, and cut the British army to its smallest size since Napoleon. It's time for change. Britain will be better defended with Labour," Healey added.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said the plan was an "ill-thought-out and expensive election gimmick which will do nothing to add to the nation's security".

Some Tory MPs welcomed the policy but privately said they thought it had been poorly communicated. "We've made something bold but actually incremental sound insane," one said.

Facing questions about the proposal on Sunday, James Cleverly, the home secretary, said that no teenagers would be sent to prison for avoiding "mandatory" national service.

Tory estimates said the policy would cost £2.5bn a year by the end of the decade. Of this, they said £1bn would come from cracking down on tax avoidance and £1.5bn from extending the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which was designed to regenerate underfunded towns around the UK.

On Sunday night, the Conservatives said they would ask a royal commission to look at international examples of how full-time armed forces placements can offer young people better opportunities later in their careers.

The commission would be asked to look at Norway and Israel as case studies and asked to design incentives for young people to complete a year in the military, such as by offering them fast-track interviews in the civil service or with big employers.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson, Richard Foord, said of the plans for a royal commission: "As Suella Braverman once said, when you're in a hole, keep digging."

Nigel Farage, the honorary president of Reform UK, told the BBC that the proposal was designed to appeal to his voters but ultimately a "joke" and "totally impractical".

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