Attrition: Gurkhas Replacing British Infantry


January 13, 2009: Unable to recruit enough Britons for their infantry units, Britain is experimenting with attaching a company of Gurkha infantry to British infantry regiments (actually battalions), in place of a company of British citizens. Currently, infantry regiments are under strength 5-10 percent. As an experiment, two companies of Gurkha infantries are being assigned to British regiments. In the United States, recruiters have no problem getting enough new men for combat units, while having to scramble to find enough for non-combat units.

Gurkhas have been recruited for over two centuries from Nepal, where the Gurkha tribes live. There are currently 3,500 Gurkhas serving in the British army, and recruiting more is not a problem. Because of high unemployment in Nepal, a job in the British army is like winning the lottery. British military pay is more than 30 times what a good job in Nepal will get you. There are over sixty applicants for every annual opening for recruits. The men who don't make it into the British army, can try for openings in the Indian army Gurkha units. There are about ten times as many Gurkhas in the Indian army, but the pay is only a few times what one could make in Nepal, and the fringe benefits are not nearly as good. Then again, you're closer to home.

Gurkhas have an outstanding military record. Such duty is a tradition in the Gurkha tribes, where warriors, and things like loyalty and courage, have been held in high esteem for centuries. Nepal was never conquered by the British, although they did fight a war with the colonial British army in the early 19th century. Although the Nepalis lost, they became allies of the British after a peace treaty was worked out. It was during these border wars that the British noted the military prowess of the Gurkha tribesmen serving the Nepali king. The British colonial army in India tended to hire from tribes and ethnic groups that appeared to make better soldiers, and Gurkhas soon made a reputation for themselves in British service. Since then, over half a million Nepalis have served in the British army, with about ten percent of them dying in combat (over 80 percent of those during the two world wars.)

Recently, bowing to years of complaints from retired Gurkhas, and many Britons, the United Kingdom has agreed to pay retired Gurkha soldiers at the same rate as other British soldiers. That will mean a Gurkhas annual pension will go from about $2,200 a year, to nearly $12,000. The average income in Nepal is about $200 a year. The current British pension (for 15 years service) allowed the retired Gurkhas to live very well in Nepal, and start a second career. The new pension will make them quite wealthy, by Nepalese standards. But that's the problem. An increasing number of Gurkhas have been retiring in Britain, instead of returning to Nepal. When they do that, the difference between the two pension systems is more apparent, and that was the main reason for demanding pension equality.

Two centuries ago, Gurkhas were first recruited into the British Indian army, not the British army. Thus, until the recent changes, when Gurkhas signed up for the British army (and there is fierce competition for the few hundred openings each year), they agreed to receive a pension based on what soldiers get in the Indian army. After India became independent in 1947, they too recruited Gurkhas for Indian infantry units. But service in the British army was considered a better deal, even though the pay was the same as that received by Gurkhas in the Indian army.

The Gurkhas asked for an end to the two century old colonial arrangement, and get paid the same as any other foreigner who joins the British army. Made sense. After all, the Gurkhas are not just another foreigner signing up. The Gurkhas have an outstanding reputation for military skills, discipline, bravery and all round kick-ass soldiering. Last year it was agreed that all Gurkhas who retired after July, 1997, would get the same pension as their British counterparts. The British bean counters refused to make the increase retroactive for the thousands of Gurkha retirees living in Nepal and Britain. So the fight continues, mainly for the 30,000 retired Gurkhas and 6,000 widows. Full pay and pension equality would cost Britain over $3 billion.





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