The end of conscription will be “a death knell” for the island’s defence force, a group of former commanding officers warned yesterday.
The Nine Colonels, who battled against plans to end conscription into the Royal Bermuda Regiment, said it had predicted not enough volunteers would be found to maintain numbers at Warwick Camp.
Lieutenant-Colonel Allan Rance, speaking on behalf of the group, said: “We argued that it was unlikely that sufficient volunteers could be attracted from our small and shrinking population to maintain the numbers needed for the Regiment to fulfil its responsibilities.
“We warned that the regiment had a critical mass and that if manning fell significantly below the accepted optimum strength of 420 at all ranks, a process of collapse would begin which, in a few years, would result in the collapse and disappearance of the Royal Bermuda Regiment altogether.”
But John Rankin, the Governor, said that the RBR planned to enhance its capabilities and recruitment would continue to maintain an effective force.
Wayne Caines, the national security minister, dismissed the group as “relics from another era”.
Mr Caines, a former regiment officer, added: “We must look at the battalion with a clinical eye. It is myopic and bereft of creativity to simply rely on conscription.
“This is proof positive that the Nine Colonels have a very limited understanding of what will make Bermuda better, and the Regiment stronger.”
Mr Caines said that some might suggest from the last Recruit Camp that the RBR might have problems in the future, but that was not the case.
He added: “This is where the opportunity lies. We must look at the constituent parts of the Regiment, at what is working and what is not.
“The regiment has been given an opportunity to revamp and reorganise and come back as a stronger, more focused battalion.”
Colonel Rance said the group had backed the idea that Bermuda should try to keep up its numbers by recruiting volunteers.
He explained: “We felt it was an experiment that needed to be tried to establish once and for all whether it could work.”
But Colonel Rance said the group thought it would be a mistake to legally abolish conscription. He added: “We thought that we should try volunteerism by simply changing to a recruitment policy while leaving a possible resort to conscription in our laws. If not, conscription would be there as a back-up option.”
Colonel Rance said the group was “delighted” when former premier Michael Dunkley suspended conscription for 2015 recruitment but left it on the law books.
He added: “We have now been through three recruitment cycles since that debate. The numbers have unfortunately got worse every year.”
Colonel Rance said the regiment needed 120 new soldiers every year to maintain its strength, although that would vary depending on the numbers who leave each year.
He added that the RBR attracted 65 recruits in 2015, 60 in 2016 and 40 this year.
Colonel Rance said: “The regiment intends to have another drive for recruits for a summer intake but it is unlikely that many more volunteers will come forth.”
He added that the regiment numbers stood at 344 across its ranks, but that it needed 420 soldiers and the organisation was already unable to fulfil all its roles.
Colonel Rance said the Progressive Labour Party government had promised to remove conscription from the island’s legislation — against the advice of a National Security and Defence Review panel in 2014.
He said the review panel, appointed by George Fergusson, the former governor, “recommended in the strongest terms” that conscription should be retained “to preserve the now Royal Bermuda Regiment and thereby the safety and security of all Bermudians”.
Mr Rankin said: “As Governor and Commander-In-Chief, I remain fully committed to maintaining the capacity of the Royal Bermuda Regiment to perform its duties in supporting the defence and security of Bermuda in line with modern requirements.
“In 2017, the Regiment played a key role in supporting the security arrangements for Bermuda’s successful hosting of the 35th America’s Cup and in deploying to the Turks and Caicos islands to assist in hurricane relief operations.
“Planning is now under way for the Regiment to undertake Inshore Coast Guard functions and to further enhance its humanitarian and disaster relief capability.”
Mr Rankin said: “Active recruitment to the Regiment will continue in support of these goals, providing a well-trained and professional force to meet this island’s security needs.”
Mr Caines added: “Trying to keep up with a regiment of 400 people is now a nonsense. We have a very clear mandate to allow our young men and women to see the Regiment as a legitimate opportunity for employment, like the Bermuda Fire Service, to create clear opportunities for leadership roles and to provide for their families.
“The Regiment’s Lieutenant-Colonel David Curley has realised this.”
• To read the minister’s full statement, issued on Tuesday, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.