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Army using AI to speed up soldier recruitment amid fears over shrinking military

Army recruiters are using artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up checks on candidates amid criticism about depleted troop numbers, i can reveal.

The recruitment firm charged with processing applications for new soldiers is using AI to speed up their medical assessments.

It comes as pressure is growing on the UK to reverse the decades-long shrinkage of its Armed Forces to confront new threats from the likes of Russia, China and Iran.

Former military personnel told i that although AI could prove to be a “valuable tool”, more needed to be done to bolster the recruitment and retention of soldiers.

Earlier this month, MPs warned that personnel were leaving faster than they could be recruited and said they were “increasingly concerned” about a “crisis” in the hiring and retention of both regular Armed Forces workers and reservists.

Capita, a major Government contractor, is using AI to analyse and summarise medical documents that are submitted alongside applications to check a candidate is suitable to join up. It is a bid to speed up an often drawn out process, i has learned.

Documents are scanned or uploaded by a GP onto a secure system. The AI technology then converts the information into searchable records, allowing emails, electronic documents, voice messages and handwritten notes to be put into one format to be analysed by recruiters.

When it comes to the size of Britain’s military, the direction of travel has been sharply downward

It is designed to improve efficiency, data security, and the scrutiny of applicants. Previously, 40,000 of these medical documents a year needed to be delivered by GPs and assessed by recruiting staff manually as part of the hiring process. The typical health record analysed by recruiters is between 50-100 pages long and takes at least an hour per applicant to be evaluated manually.

A Capita source said the changes, along with other modernisations, had reduced total application times by 25 per cent since 2016.

According to a defence source, the timespan for processing medical assessments has significantly reduced since the firm began using AI in summer last year and the tech has been credited with more applications being processed in recent months.

Although the use of AI appears to have sparked progress in Army recruitment, concerns still exist about its use within Government. i revealed last year that civil servants had been instructed not to use ChatGPT for any Government-related work over security fears.

However, insiders insist the new Army recruitment system actually increases data security, as well as speeding up the process.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said earlier this month that the number of applicants to join the army reached a six-year high in January, but that the UK was still struggling to replace soldiers at the speed they were leaving the forces.

Mr Shapps has previously denied that the numbers of recruits are a cause for concern, although Capita has acknowledged it has historically underperformed while managing recruitment for the Armed Forces.

In 2019, the Commons Defence select committee labelled the performance of the Army Forces and Capita when it came to hiring as “abysmal”, urging the firm to drive down recruitment times and use more straightforward processes.

A recruitment source said: “We’ve managed to create a streamlined system for reviewing data using artificial intelligence and automation.

“[It accelerates] the managing of around 40,000 documents a year. This not only improves the candidate experience, but also improves data security within the medical process: even very lengthy medical documents can now be scanned or uploaded directly by the candidate’s GP and delivered securely to the Defence Recruiting System.”

Admiral Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, who has repeatedly warned that the UK needed to urgently bolster its defence spending, told i: “I believe in using technology as long as it makes things better. If it makes medical processes better I’m delighted.

“However, Capita have previously had issues where they have looked at medical records of someone who had asthma for three months as a six year old and discounted them because of it, when they are absolutely fit to serve.

“If this technology can improve medical analysis and speed it up, I’m all for it. But it must deal with the issues in recruitment.”

Richard Aitch, a security consultant who has served in both the the Parachute Regiment and the Close Protection Unit, Royal Military Police, said AI could be a “valuable” tool but warned against contractors using it as “a shield” if things go wrong. He stressed that more must be done to speed up recruitment.

“I’ve had two sons join the forces and for each of them, the recruitment process was very long winded,” he told i. Mr Aitch added that it had taken between six to eight months for each of them, which he believed was “ridiculous.”

“The thing with that process is the attention span of applicants isn’t where it used to be decades ago. You have a generation where they want things yesterday for the minimum of effort,” he said.

“If the process is taking six to eight months, people will find other options to pursue.”

Mr Aitch said the armed forces “absolutely” remain in a tricky and potentially vulnerable spot given current personnel and recruitment numbers and threats from the likes of Russia.

“They need to focus their efforts more, I’d say, on the actual retention of soldiers,” he said. “The situation is untenable for the current level of manpower and capability of the UK defence.”

The number of active service personnel has dropped by 60 per cent since the Falklands War, with only 134,000 fully trained staff across the Army, Navy and Air Force.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing head of the British Army recently warned at a conference that the UK’s reserve forces would be insufficient should Britain need to go on a warfooting.

Meanwhile, Carlos del Toro, the US Navy Secretary recently told an event in London that further investment in the Royal Navy was “significantly important”.

Mr Shapps, who has warned that the UK is “moving from a post-war to pre-war world”, ordered a review of Armed Forces last week amid concerns security was being compromised to secure more recruits. The review was launched following press reports security clearance requirements could be lowered for foreign fighters in order to boost application numbers.

A Capita spokesperson said: “Face-to-face contact and engagement with serving personnel will always be at the heart of Army recruitment, but there are parts of the process which have become quicker, simpler and more effective through the use of artificial intelligence technology. We are deploying these tools to streamline recruitment, get people into basic training faster, and help prevent candidates from dropping out.”

The Ministry of Defence was approached for comment.

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