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Is it Time for a New Military Rank Structure?

Part 1 – What are the reasons for considering a flatter ranks structure and what are the potential benefits?

Today, the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force each have 18 different ranks. Compared to other organisations, both civil and military, this is a substantial hierarchy, especially when you factor-in the five levels of General rank.

The total number of British Police Officers is 123,142[1]yet the Police Force manages to do with a total of just nine different ranks. Contrast this with any major UK professional services firm and you’ll see that they also adopt lean structures. Typically, they have just five management levels: Associate, Associate-Principal, Principal, Director, and Managing Director. Is the command of soldiers, sailors and air crew, even in combat, so demanding that we need such an extensive array of hierarchies? Given that UK Armed Forces have evolved so much over the last century, there may be a case for simplifying the number of ranks we now have.

The first reason to consider a rationalisation is the size and structure of Britain’s Armed Forces. The days of a standing army of 300,000 men are long gone. The largest of Britain’s services, the Army, has only 81,120[2]soldiers. Moreover, Warship Crews, Battle Groups and Fighter Squadrons all have much leaner structures. We can expect this trend to continue, especially as we embrace AI and autonomous weapon systems more widely.

The nature of military leadership has also changed so that we no longer need rigid chains of command to get things done. Today’s soldiers, sailors and air crew are more educated[3]than their predecessors, and therefore more capable of independent thought and action. Better educated junior ranks translate directly into more competent junior leadership, which means command can be delegated with confidence. This is important, especially when personnel on the ground are likely to have a more informed view of a tactical situation than senior officers tucked away in HQs many kilometres away from the action. The concept of the Strategic Corporal,[4]which is the recognition that junior commanders can directly influence high level mission success despite their position, stems directly from this devolution of leadership.

Nor do today’s soldiers need to be bullied into obeying orders, unlike their forbears going over the top during the First World War, who were more afraid of their own NCOs than they were of the enemy. Contemporary service men and women are much more motivated and self-disciplined, not least because we have professional forces not conscripted ones. This is not to say that discipline has become irrelevant, but rather the way in which it is achieved has evolved. Special Forces unit leaders tend to have a more relaxed style of command, because they know that the soldiers under them have the very highest standards of self-discipline. Higher standards of self-discipline have become a hallmark of all three UK services.

Another reason to consider change is that the existing rank structure reflects what used to be a much more socially stratified UK society, which existed until after the First World War. Today, Britain is a meritocracy and although not quite classless, previous divisions have become irrelevant. Someone’s family origins and connections no longer matter; it is who you are as a person that counts. Former Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, reached the pinnacle of the Armed Forces, despite having had a state school education, something that might have been unthinkable 20-30 years ago. Higher standards of education have done much to promote equality and it is absolutely right that UK Armed Forces should reflect contemporary society. This means that, as well as having fewer ranks, we need to make it easier for talented non-commissioned officers to obtain commissions. We also need to consider the need for lateral entry. Experienced civilians entering or re-entering the military, and used to flat hierarchies, are likely to find current structures cumbersome and overweening.

A third factor is that today’s forces are reliant on weapon and equipment systems that need a high degree of professional skill to operate them. This means that force structures need to be focused more around roles than ranks. A streamlined rank structure would help to disconnect rank with role. It also means appointments could be based more on technical ability rather than simple seniority. Increasingly, we’re seeing how important it is to reward talent with greater responsibility earlier. If we want to retain talent, then we need to recognise not only ability, but equally effort and commitment. We talk much about transforming the Armed Forces so that they are a truer reflection of society, but if time served is a primary deciding factor for promotion, we will perpetuate a top-heavy structure with a rigid pecking-order.

Equally relevant to reflecting contemporary society, UK Government figures on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) integration into UK Armed Forces [5]suggest that more needs to be done to help minorities succeed. We need to ensure that anyone who achieves the required standards can reach the top. Creating a flatter, fairer rank structure is a step in the right direction towards giving individuals the recognition they deserve, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin.

A further benefit is that pay could be disconnected from rank and years of service or absolute seniority. Obviously, there would need to be minimum and maximum pay bands for each rank, with such an approach applying to non-commissioned officers as well as to commissioned ones, but it would create a greater incentive to do well, which would help motivation and retention. Thus, you might have a younger and promising non-commissioned officer who is paid the same as an older, crusty and less motivated senior officer. If we linked pay more to performance rather than just time in the job, we could start to see other efficiencies, including a reduction in the duplication of roles.

A fifth reason to consider a fewer number of ranks is that flatter structures help to promote teamwork and mutual dependency. The quality of NCOs today is superb, and having fewer ranks would make it easier to provide upward feedback. We all know how difficult it is to “speak truth to power” but it is vital, given that lives depend on good leadership decisions. Less hierarchical structures promote good communication between team members, both upwards and downwards, and foster a dynamic that promotes cohesion and cooperation. It means that tasks are completed in a way that focuses on who does what, not who is in charge. In days gone by, a clear chain of command was essential because casualty rates were often so high. But, even during the First World War private soldiers naturally took command of Sections or even Platoons when the established chain of command broke down. Today, operating complex weapon systems is about technical ability as much as leadership prowess.

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[1]Source: Home Office data, November 2017

[2]Source: MoD, UK Armed Forces Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics, 1 April 2018

[3]Source: Education at a Glance, OECD, 2011. Over the last 50 years, higher education has been more widely available to young people, with 81% of the population completing secondary education versus 45% prior to 1960; while 37% of young adults achieves a tertiary degree versus 13% prior to 1960.

[4]The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War. Gen. Charles C. Krulak, Marines Magazine. (January 1999)

[5]Source: UK Armed Forces, Biannual Diversity Statistics, 1 October 2017

Text version of rank tables

Commissioned Ranks:

Royal Navy                            British Army                          Royal Air Force

O1       Lieutenant                               Lieutenant                               Lieutenant

O2       Commander                            Captain                                   Squadron Leader

O3       Captain                                   Major                                       Group Captain

O4       Commodore                            Colonel                                    Air Commodore

O5       Vice Admiral                            Brigadier                                 Air Vice Marshal

O6       Admiral                                    General                                   Air Marshal

Non-Commissioned Ranks:

Royal Navy                            British Army                          Royal Air Force

OR1     Sailor                                       Private                                     Aircrafter

OR2     Senior Sailor                            Lance-Corporal                      Senior Aircrafter

OR3     Corporal                                  Corporal                                  Corporal

OR4     Petty Officer                            Sergeant                                 Sergeant

OR5     Chief Petty Officer                   Senior Sergeant                      Flight Sergeant

0R6     Warrant Officer                       Sergeant Major                       Warrant Officer

Nicholas Drummond
Defence Industry Consultant

Nicholas Drummond is a former British Army officer and now works as a strategic consultant serving the Defence Industry with clients in the EU and USA. Prior to establishing his own firm in 2002, he worked as Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company, London, where he specialised in marketing and related topics.

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