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Meritocracy and a Royal Marine Route to First Sea Lord, 1SL.

The First Sea Lord or 1SL is the Head of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. A role which has never been filled by a Royal Marine. Why?


How can it be that Marines – 21% of the Navy – have such successful Joint and Defence careers and yet the most senior Navy roles elude them? Is it a lack of talent? No. It is cultural – on both sides… It is not acceptable that you can only get to 3* or 4* by ‘leaving’ the Navy and relying on Defence positions.

 – 1SL Speech at the Supersession of the Commandant General Royal Marines 30 Apr 2021


2023 sees the 50th anniversary of the UK and Netherlands Amphibious Force, a milestone marked by celebrations of the joint history of the United Kingdom’s Corps of Royal Marines (RM) and the Netherlands’ Korps Mariniers. Yet what is apparent from an analysis is the very different opportunities that the members of each Corps enjoy. No RM has occupied a Navy Command (NC) 3* or 4* position since the downgrade of the Commandant General role in 1996. Since that date nine RMs have achieved 3 or 4* rank but on each occasion by promoting into joint or international rather than Royal Navy (RN) roles. In contrast, two of the last five Chiefs of the Royal Netherlands Navy have been appointed from the Korps Mariniers. This presents a range of questions which this article examines: if the RMs now comprise 21% of the RN what are the reasons for an apparent underrepresentation of RMs at the senior levels of the Service? What is the route to RN 3-4* roles? Is there scope for a RM to become 1SL?

Whilst the prospects of a RM general becoming 1SL are a frequent topic of discussion among Service personnel, there is a lack of evidence-based research examining historic examples, highlighting trends, or offering options for the future. This is not to say that RM integration is a topic outside the concerns of the Navy’s senior leadership. The opening quotation from Admiral Radakin highlights his interest in this issue, and as early as 1902 the Selborne-Fisher scheme aimed to create a system where “all officers -whether destined to be seamen, engineers or Royal Marines -would enter…Dartmouth and undergo a common training…Later in the rank of sub-lieutenant and junior lieutenant, they would be trained according to their specialisations but from the rank of commander onwards there would be much interchangeability of functions and all would have a chance of promotion to the highest ranks.” The Corps’ decision to withdraw from the scheme in 1912 would have long-term consequences, potentially pushing back the opportunities for a RM 1SL by over a century.

The article however is not purely backward looking, the system of selecting and promoting senior officers is changing, and new opportunities are emerging. This article uses the biographical information available from books and obituaries to examine trends over the last century combined with interviews with senior serving and retired officers including 1SL and the Naval Secretary (NAVSEC) to present its conclusions. What is clear from the research and examination of the careers of senior RN officers is that there is no one path to 1SL, but there are clear trends in how individuals have made it to the top of the RN.

The Definition of Merit

The RN defines merit as “suitability, capacity and having sufficient experience to be employed in at least the next higher rank alongside a proven track record of caring for and developing subordinates…” The breakdown of the criteria into suitability, capacity, and experience is important. An individual arguably inherently possesses a level of suitability and capacity but experience provided by the Service is also critical for merit and therefore advancement. It follows that suitability and capacity alone are insufficient: a highly capable RM would be ruled out of the Service’s top roles if they lacked sufficient experience, a risk inherent in a RM pursuing a purely Commando Force-focussed career. What is needed for a RM to be competitive is the right blend of operational and staff experience to succeed in the Navy’s senior positions.

One possible conclusion from analysing senior RN careers over the last century is the necessity for command of a ship at sea, although the evidence suggests it may be less important than it once was. The current Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) held no sea command beyond OF4, yet still achieved the top uniformed role in Defence. If holding command is critical to credibility for senior rank, and the current CDS has not commanded at sea beyond OF4, does command of a RM Commando equal command of a frigate, destroyer or submarine? The evidence from research and interviews suggests this is the case; as NAVSEC noted “You’ve got to command, either a ship, a Commando, or professional command. Command is essential if you’re aiming for the top.”

RN Senior Officer Roles  

What is also apparent from an analysis of RN senior leadership positions is how much change there has been in the Service and in the senior officer plot. Over the last 50 years the size of the Corps as a percentage of the whole Navy has changed markedly. In the early 1970s the RMs comprised 8-9% of the Naval Service compared to 21% today. This is true not because the Corps has grown but it has shrunk at a slower rate than the rest of the RN. At the same time, roles have been created, names and responsibilities amended, and positions subsumed and deleted. Arguably only with the most senior posts has there been some semblance of continuity with the last century seeing a trend of a 5* or 4* Service Chief, 1SL, and two deputies, one covering the operational side of the Service and one covering personnel and infrastructure, the 3* roles of Fleet Commander (FC) and Second Sea Lord (2SL) respectively. These form the triad at the apex of the Service (see Figure 1), but they are not the only 3* posts to be filled by the RN. In the international sphere, the post of NATO Maritime Commander (MARCOM) is tied to a 3* RN officer, whilst in the acquisition arena in Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), although outside NC, the role of Director General (Ships) (DG Ships) has also invariably been filled by a 3* naval officer. These five roles therefore form the focus of this article’s research since they denote the RN’s very senior leadership. What is notable from the outset is that none of them has ever been filled by a RM, despite the Corps’ clear success in joint and Ministry of Defence roles.

What has also changed over time is how senior officers are selected for promotion. Until recently promotion was by an officer’s source branch but under the New Employment Model, introduced in 2017, senior promotions have been made by Career Fields (CFs). This suggests that CFs will become more important than source branches as officers become more senior and means that the distinction between Warfare Officers and RMs, which would both naturally sit in the Operations CF may diminish over time, potentially opening up more roles to RMs.  The manifestation of these changes can already be seen at 1* level in the variety of roles now filled by RMs: notably Brigadiers as Head of Naval Staff, Naval Base Commander Devonport and 1* lead for Integrated Review 25 Shipbuilding. What remains to be seen is how this will impact RM prospects for the most senior posts.

RN Senior Career Paths

Examining the careers of the RN’s senior leadership highlights some interesting trends in terms of branch, experience, education, and operational and staff roles. In the last fifty years no one has become 1SL without first serving as 2SL or CINC FLEET/FC. As may well be obvious to readers, only Warfare Officers have served as 1SL or FC, although they have come from a number of different sub-branches. The last 100 years have seen thirty-five 1SLs, including 27 Surface Warfare, four aviators and four submariners. Despite QRRNs recording that 1SL is responsible for “the fighting effectiveness, efficiency and morale of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary,” no 1SL has completed the Commando course or begun their career with the Corps. This highlights a double standard: a RN officer can be responsible for the Corps with limited experience of the RMs, but one of the arguments against a RM serving as 1SL is that they would have insufficient knowledge of the RN.

Schooling and undergraduate education have limited bearing on future success other than to highlight an increase in education standards. Some 1SLs have come from state schools, (Admirals West, Stanhope, Radakin), but most were privately educated and only the last six 1SLs completed undergraduate degrees.  Of more importance is professional military education: 1SLs have generally undertaken the Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) (or its predecessor incarnations) before either the Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) or the Royal College of Defence Studies course (RCDS). There has been a clear shift from RCDS to HCSC as the preferred means of higher staff training over the last fifteen years which NAVSEC noted was due to HCSC’s more operational focus. In general, those with reach to 3-4* are streamed towards HCSC, those who have reach to 2* being sent to RCDS.

In terms of operational command, all 1SLs commanded at OF4, either as captains of ships or of submarines. Even those who initially trained as aircrew switched back to the Surface Fleet as junior officers and commanded at OF4 at sea. A number also commanded aircraft carriers as OF5s although only one 1SL had previously commanded a Landing Platform Dock, another available OF5 command. During interview, NAVSEC noted that OF4 command at sea confers the experience and credibility necessary to compete for senior joint jobs and provides an equivalent to regimental or air squadron command in the other Services. If this is the case, it raises the question of whether command of a seagoing unit is a prerequisite for senior naval command, given the similar command opportunities open to RMs officers. RM generals have invariably commanded operational units at OF4 level, and most will have served time at sea in more junior roles gaining an appreciation of the challenges of operating in the maritime environment. Staff appointments likewise are designed to provide officers with the necessary experience to compete against their Army and RAF colleagues for senior roles. NAVSEC suggested in interview that broadening staff roles needed to be undertaken from SO1 level, either pre- or post-command, and that wider roles also needed to be achieved at OF5 and 1* before returning to Navy positions.

The unwritten rule that a candidate for 1SL must first have served as 2SL or FC has stood true for five decades. A subject for further analysis may be the importance of these two roles given they confer membership of the Navy Board which is chaired by 1SL. In interview, Admiral Key raised the importance of earlier Navy Board membership to allow an individual to perform credibly as 1SL. He remarked in particular that as 1SL is more akin to a Chairman of the board as opposed to a Chief Executive, 1SL needed “to have as much experience in managing a TLB budget, as they do in having operational experience.” This view was reinforced by NAVSEC who noted that “at the level of 1SL and 2SL you need to remember they are pretty much running a business.” This also adds to the argument that the DG (Ships) position may now become a gateway post to 1SL as this role gained membership of the Navy Board in 2022 and offers a wealth of business and management experience. Analysis of the 2SL, FC and DG (Ships) positions also throw up some clear trends. Whilst incumbents of the FC position (and the predecessor CINC FLEET role) have all been Warfare Officers, 2SLs and DG (Ships) have come from more varied backgrounds including engineers and logisticians. Being precluded from military command at sea, the logisticians and engineers completed similar career profiles with advanced staff training, professional command (usually as an OF4 aboard an aircraft carrier) followed by key staff roles ashore.

In terms of staff positions what is noteworthy is the increasing importance of joint and Head Office experience in order to achieve senior command. Admiral Lewin, 1SL from 1977-79 served only in RN roles until he became CDS in 1979, a story repeated by Admiral Fieldhouse, 1SL from 1982-85.  As late as Admiral Bathurst, 1SL until 1995, it was still possible to enjoy a career only encompassing RN roles albeit some of these were based in Whitehall. Since that point, senior officers have undertaken more varied careers encompassing joint roles as well as more operational tours. Notable roles undertaken in Head Office include important outer office positions such as Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff (PSO to CDS), Military Assistant to the Vice Chief of Defence Staff (MA to VCDS) and key policy roles such as Head of Navy Plans. Of the Service’s current senior leadership, all completed jobs in Whitehall: Admiral Key as PSO to CDS, Admirals Connell and Utley as Deputy PSO to CDS, Admirals Burns and Marshall as PSO to StratCom and General Jenkins as MA to the Prime Minister.

The Changing Route to 1SL

What is clear is that the old orthodoxies are being challenged, the route to 1SL is changing. In the current senior leadership, there is a CDS who has not commanded a ship at sea beyond OF4, a Vice Chief who skipped 3* rank, and a 1SL who came not direct from FC or 2SL but from Chief of Joint Operations (CJO). As Admiral Key remarked in a 2021 speech:


“I joined the Navy 38 years ago, and back then the First Sea Lord, could have had a good stab at predicting my career path. The only certainty I can offer is that the young person today who tries to follow my career path will not be 1SL.


In the next entry at BRNC, the future First Sea Lord is about to take her or his first steps as a naval officer. They may well be about to join Raleigh as a Navy rating. We need to understand now that their path to the top will be radically different from that taken before. Some things are a given, so yes it will involve time at sea leading people on operations. But it could well involve more time in the joint space, a secondment to industry, times overseas, a career break. Or even time doing something radically different for a few years that they bring back into the Service different skills and perspectives. What it won’t involve will be the pure ‘dark blue’ linear progression that I was taught all those years ago was the way.”


This suggests the posts worthy of examination extend not just to 2SL and FC, but more widely to DG Ships, MARCOM and also CJO, the role most recently held by the current 1SL to see what opportunities they present for RMs.

Second Sea Lord (2SL)

On the face of it, the role of 2SL is the one most likely to be filled by a RM first given the variety of branches which have filled this position. In 2021 the then 1SL, noted during the retirement speech of the CGRM that the next 2SL would be a RM, although this subsequently did not happen. Conversely the position of FC arguably offers the better fit for a RM with its focus on operations, as will be discussed further below.

For at least two decades, all incumbents of the 2SL role have come direct from a NC role, suggesting that whilst earlier joint roles broaden experience, what is more important is less time as a 2* and a focus on RN roles. In particular,  2SLs are likely to have come from ACNS or NAVSEC although the most recent 2SL served as Director FGen. This makes sense if one refers to Figure 1: those 2* posts under 2SL naturally serve as feeder positions for the 2SL post itself. Interestingly, no individual except for Admiral Radakin has gone on to become 2SL if they have undertaken a joint 2* role, in his case Chief of Staff in UKStratCom. The evidence suggests that whilst 1* joint experience is common, and arguably beneficial, 2* joint experience is a career limiter, at least for those who aspire to the most senior NC positions.

Fleet Commander (FC)

Whilst all incumbents to date have been warfare officers, FC’s clear operational focus suggests it could equally be filled by a RM. Holders of the FC position and its predecessor, the Commander-in-Chief (Fleet), have generally come from an operational background interspersed with Head Office roles. As such the gateway roles tend to be the 1* deployable operational commander (Commander UK Task Group, Commander Amphibious Task Group) and 2* deployable operational commander (Commander UK Strike Forces (CSF)) or previously Flag Officer Sea Training. Admiral Key remarked that he was very supportive of RMs in senior NC roles commenting that “when we crack CSF that will make things very clear,” and the recent appointment of a Brigadier as the 1* Deputy CSF potentially paves the way for a RM to move to become CSF and in time FC.

As with the 2SL position, 1* joint roles appear for a large number of those who hold the role of FC, but joint roles at 2* are the exception rather than the norm. Of those to serve as FC only Admiral Zambellas served in a joint 2* role, whilst Admiral Stanhope unusually served his 2* role in NATO Brunssum. As was the trend for 2SL, the pattern is that incumbents of the FC position come direct from a NC 2* post rather than anything in the joint arena. In the 1970s to 1990s those 2* posts tended to be Flotilla Commanders and more recently ACNS, FOST and CSF. As was the case for 2SL, the 2* posts under the FC again serve naturally as feeder positions to the FC role itself.

Director General (Ship) (DG (Ships))

Although outside the NC Top Level Budget this role has invariably been filled by a 3* RN officer. It is also important as it now shares, along with 2SL and FC, membership of the Navy Board and Admiralty Board, It is the role which has seen the most variety in terms of branches, having been filled by Warfare, Logistics, Marine Engineer submariners, Weapon Engineer submariners, and Surface Fleet engineers. However, whilst the fact it has been filled by warfare officers in the past suggests it would be open to RMs, the reality is that under the CF model it fits more neatly into Capability and Acquisition (C&A) and is more likely going forward to be filled by C&A specialists from the engineering and logistics branches. Of the last ten incumbents only three have promoted, and these were the chronologically earlier holders of the role. It is now over a decade since the position was filled by a Warfare Officer and recent incumbents tend to have promoted from the Director Navy Acquisition role in NC focussed on naval procurement. If one follows this logic to its conclusion, whilst the DG (Ships) role has provided a route to 4* in the past, it is more likely that an incumbent who promotes would be the individual who becomes the first engineer 1SL rather than the first RM 1SL.


The MARCOM role is the newest of the roles under consideration and to date all five holders have come from the warfare branch, two being pilots and three being mainstream warfare. Each of the officers to serve as MARCOM has fitted similar criteria to the FC holders, being within the Operations CF, and commanding at sea as a Commander, Captain and often Commodore. As a NATO commander, they tend to have come through the gateway role of CSF as well as having operational experience in an international environment. Importantly the role has tended to be the culmination of an individual’s career rather than a stepping stone to higher rank, but the most recent incumbent has promoted to become DSACEUR, showing that MARCOM can lead to 4*, potentially paving the way to offer a new route to 1SL.

Given MARCOM’s role in commanding all of NATO’s maritime assets the role also offers scope to employ a RM officer with an appropriate blend of Naval and Alliance experience. This is particularly important given the Corps’ growing size as a proportion of the RN. Added to this has been the recent success of senior RMs officers in NATO posts with both Generals Davis and Messenger serving as the 3* Deputy Commander of NATO’s Land Command in Izmir and General Capewell as Deputy Commander of NATO’s Rapid Deployable Corps. If the Corps covers land and maritime, and they have successfully filled 3* NATO Land Command roles, why should they be precluded from serving as MARCOM?

Chief of Joint Operations (CJO)

In addition to the roles already discussed, and despite not being a NC role, CJO presents an intriguing additional route to 4*. Notably Admiral Key became 1SL not directly from the traditional route of 2SL or FC, but having served as FC and then CJO. The role presents strong opportunities for promotion: of the 11 incumbents, seven have gone on to 4* roles including CAS, DSACEUR, 1SL, VCDS and CDS. If CJO is regarded as the top joint operational role, then it makes sense that it offers opportunities for advancement both as a Service chief and also in 4* joint roles. What is notable in the career profiles of the postholders is that many have followed a more joint than single Service-focussed career than those who have gone on to lead their Services. Of the seven CJOs who went on to 4* rank, most came to CJO from another 2 or 3* joint post rather than the 3* single Service role traditional for a future single Service chief. Garnett came from NATO, Reith, Capewell and Fraser from MoD, Torpy from a 3* Air Command role, Houghton from Iraq, Peach from Defence Intelligence and Key from FC. Only those who came to CJO direct from their single Services, Torpy and Key, then went on to become their own Service chief.  The RMs have also demonstrated notable success in getting the role twice with General Capewell in 2011 and General Stickland in 2021.

Royal Marine 3* and 4* roles

RM success at achieving 3 and 4* rank outside of the traditional Service structure points to the credibility and employability of RMs across a broad range of roles. Since 1975 sixteen officers have achieved 3* or even 4* rank. Examination of the careers of these senior officers demonstrate some clear trends. As with senior RN officers, university education is of less importance than what career milestones are achieved in the Service. Of the sixteen, at least eight studied as undergraduates, six undertook advanced staff training (ACSC or equivalent), and three undertook higher staff training (HCSC or the RCDS). Of more importance were command roles. All sixteen commanded at Lieutenant Colonel, fourteen at Brigade level and fourteen served as CGRM. NAVSEC’s comments on ACSC being used to ‘rack and stack’ candidates is arguably of especial importance for the Corps with a small pool of candidates all of whom will have been above average simply to join the RMs. Thus, the assessment against one’s peer group was particularly important to differentiate between a range of high potential officers who were all likely to have a range of high-grade reports in their portfolio. Given the paucity of operational commands, the RMs already use ACSC to stream their top officers. “Those who aspire to command of 40, 42 or 45 Cdo need to be in the top 10% of ACSC graduates. Those aspiring to command of a reserve unit need to be within the top third.”

OF4 Command assignments have shifted over time, originally 40, 42 and 45 Commandos were the only routes to senior rank, whilst more recently command of 30 Cdo Information Exploitation Group, which General Magowan commanded, has served as a route to General Officer-rank. Of note, no-one became a 3* without serving either as Brigade Commander or as CGRM arguably highlighting the importance of these roles to demonstrate credibility for very senior rank. What is interesting here is how things develop in the future. 1* Brigade command remains a coveted position given it is the pinnacle of command opportunities of a formed RM unit but in time the Deputy CSF with its wider Navy focus may become the more important 1* assignment. The changing nature of the CGRM position however may become of less importance as the role has shifted from operational head to tribal chief: General Jenkins for example only became CGRM as an additional duty after he achieved 4* rank as VCDS, not as a stepping stone to becoming Vice Chief. General Messenger meanwhile achieved 4* rank as Vice Chief without ever serving as CGRM. What was particularly telling during interview was the comments in relation to the CGRM position. A number of serving Brigadiers felt that the loss of status of a designated RM General Officer was less important than the opportunities for the Corps which were opening up given the drive to align the RMs more closely with the rest of the RN.

The changing course of career paths is also something which stands out. For the RMs to achieve 3* rank from 1975 onwards what is discernible is an ever-increasing number of formerly ‘dark blue’ roles which are undertaken. Senior RM career structures from the 1970s through to the mid-2000s operate in a clear RM-only stovepipe. Command of 3 Commando Brigade is almost a prerequisite for senior rank, and the majority of 3*s serve as CGRM. By the early 2010s there is a notable shift with RMs undertaking roles previously filled only by RN officers. Yet whilst change is occurring, that change is limited: at 2*-level RMs have only undertaken the Director Develop and Director Strategy and Policy roles in NC. Time will tell if RMs compete for and are successful at promoting to wider NC 2* positions.

Discernible Trends

Command at OF4 seems to be vital for credibility at senior rank but how this command is undertaken is open for debate. Does OF4 sea command outweigh OF4 command of a Cdo unit? Is cross-over achievable? Given the requirements under International Maritime Organisation regulations for ship commanding officers, and the need for RMs to be commando-qualified there seems little opportunity to allow for cross-over before individuals promote to OF5. It is at this point that individuals with reach to the most senior ranks need to be developed so they have sufficient experience and credibility of both the maritime and marine aspects needed for senior officers.  Significant roles which have historically been used to develop the most senior officers include challenging outer office roles, jobs which offer operational experience, and jobs which offer experience in the joint space.

Roles which seem to be of particular importance include MA to 1SL, MA to VCDS, PSO to CDS and more recently MA to Commander UK Strategic Command.   Operationally focussed roles which would fit both Warfare Officers and RMs include those in key headquarters such as in the Maritime Operations Centre (DACOS Operations and DACOS Commitments) and PJHQ (ACOS J3 and ACOS J5). At 2* level a number of roles could easily be filled by RMs. At 2*, the positions under the FC could all conceivably be filled by RMs:  Director Force Generation, CSF (noting that the 1* deputy position is already filled by a RM) and Commander Operations (noting that the 1* deputy position was created specifically to allow for a non-submariner to fill the 2* post). Under 2SL, General Jenkins became the first RM to fill the role of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (now titled Director Strategy and Policy), a position previously filled by warfare officers. Director Develop, previously known as the Controller of the Navy, has been filled by non-warfare officers as has Director People and Training (previously known as the Naval Secretary). Arguably of the key 2* posts named in How Defence Works only that of Director Navy Acquisition, sitting in the Capability and Acquisition CF would not sit easily within the career profile of a senior RM.

How to Grow a RM 1SL

Taking the above points together, how do you train and develop an individual to be a credible 1SL? Figure 2 distils the trends uncovered by the research to show the milestones which must be achieved to provide a path to the Service Chief. Green arrows denote RM milestones, light blue indicates staff training, purple indicates joint roles, dark blue indicates naval positions.


Figure 2: RM path to 1SL

With a bottom-fed organisation such as the RN, time left to serve becomes crucial. Civilian education plays little role in future employability, so entry as a non-graduate does not preclude advancement. In reality, joining as a non-graduate, and therefore able to join some three years earlier than a graduate may well be beneficial. Thereafter a standard career path needs to be followed to SO1, including ICSC, company command, ACSC and OF4 command, interspersed with suitable staff roles, ideally those which boost joint and dark blue experience. During interview NAVSEC noted that today’s RM “already possess a breadth of general experience, what we need to offer them to be credible for senior NC posts is a depth in dark blue.”

If the Corps are placing the candidates with the greatest reach into Command appointments, this predicted career path should be evident from the roles they have undertaken. Among the current Commanding Officers of 30, 40, 42 and 45 Commandos all have undertaken troop command, sub-unit command, ICSC and ACSC. However, what is also clear is that all have also covered SO1 roles with a RN or joint focus. These include Director of Staff in the Maritime Operations Centre, Navy Plans on the Naval Staff, working within the Operations Directorate and senior Military Assistant positions in the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office. Gone are the days when an officer could follow a career path solely within their own Service or arm and hope to rise to the top.

At the point where an officer becomes an OF5, it becomes ever more important to mix RM and RN experience, by using those RMs with the greatest reach to serve in NC roles. 1* roles which offer a mix of RM, RN and joint credibility are important, rather than staying within a RM stovepipe. Roles which may be of particular relevance include the 1* deputies to the 2* NC directors: Deputy CSF, Deputy COMOPS under FC and 1* people roles, COS Navy, Deputy Director Policy and Engagement and Chief Technology Officer and 1* Senior Responsible Owner roles under 2SL. In the joint environment RMs have a track record of success in roles including Chief of Joint Force Operations, ACOS 3/5 in PJHQ, Head of Crisis and Commitments in MoD. Thereafter 2* roles need to be focussed on NC positions (primarily CSF, COMOPS, Dir FGen, Dir Dev, Dir S&P) rather than on joint posts. Service as a NC 2* then needs to be used as the springboard to make the move to 2SL or FC if a RM is to compete for 1SL.


In over 350-years no Royal Marine has held any of the top three jobs in the Royal Navy, despite Royal Marines excelling in single Service, operational and joint roles. In the absence of evidence that Royal Marines are lacking in ability, the natural conclusion is that an absence of opportunity has led to this situation. In an age where sister Services and international partners are opening opportunities to the widest possible talent pool, it seems counter-intuitive that the Royal Navy would not do the same. This paper has shown that there are few set rules but there are clear trends and there is a discernible path to grow a 3-4* Royal Marine as shown in Figure 2.

Examination of the careers of senior naval officers over the last century, and particularly the last fifty years, highlight a number of factors which point to chances of being appointed to senior roles. Whilst selection by branch has played a significant role in the past, this should diminish as the Service looks to appoint senior personnel by Career Field rather than source branch in the future. As the role of branches diminishes, an individual’s education, staff roles and operational experience will become of greater importance which will necessitate careful career management and earlier career decisions made by individuals.

Whilst undergraduate education appears to have little bearing on career progression, the evidence suggests that advanced and higher staff training are desirable if not essential pre-requisites to advancement. Command is vital. More important still is the right range and balance of operational roles for leadership and management credibility and staff assignments which act to broaden and provide gateways to advancement. Roles which give early exposure to higher level Defence and cross-Whitehall leaders are particularly important at removing barriers for non-warfare officers to progress. These roles including key outer office experience, or important policy and strategy roles in Head Office are the gateway positions which must be filled.  Joint credibility coupled with single Service expertise mean Royal Marines will soon have candidates pushing for NC 2* posts which in turn will open up 2SL, FC and 1SL in due course.

Cdr Oli De Silva RN

Oli de Silva is a naval barrister. He has served at sea as Logistics Officer of a nuclear submarine and Type 23 frigate and in staff roles in Whitehall, PJHQ and prosecuting Somali pirates.

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