The initial complaint of the Telegraph appears to be that it is unacceptable that there are still 130 2* officers in service, despite the downsizing that is occurring to the rest of HM Forces. A search back of the excellent DASA website (www.dasa.mod.uk) helps review the broad strength of senior officer’s numbers since 1996. A quick search shows two things - firstly, it is hard to get an accurate figure as the statistics round to the nearest 10 - not handy when you realise you are talking about a tiny number of people, and almost certainly misleading. Secondly, the figures show that there has been a general fluctuation between around 110-150 senior officers over this time period.
What then do these officers do all day, and why are there (in the mind of some) so many of them? At its simplest, the tasks of senior military officers could be broken into three distinct areas.
Single Service Duties
Representational duties / NATO Posts.
Single Service Duties
The single service role represents the pinnacle of those individuals charged to manage the service. It is a role though that has got smaller in number over the years. Taking the example of the RN, as recently as 1991, there were four permanent 4* positions assigned to the command of the RN - 1SL, CINCFLEET, 2SL, CINCNAVHOME. There were a further series of 4* roles in NATO, and also on the service chiefs committee - theoretically, it could have been possible for there to have been at least six 4* officers in service at any one time. Today though, in the post SDSR environment, the RN is reduced to just one 4* officer - the 1SL post. CINCFLEET is soon to be renamed FLEET COMMANDER, and drop to 3*, while the 2SL/CINCNAVHOME posts have long merged into one 3* post. This is a pattern seen across the board - while numbers may remain similar, the level of representation has dropped substantially, with many posts merged or combined into one job.
In general terms, the role of service posts at 2* is to act as either the professional heads of the various fighting arms (in the RN), or alternatively to head up the various training or personnel areas. It is common for most of these posts to have more than one role, and also for them to merge over time. 20 years ago the RN had a series of three sea going 2* officers heading up each of the surface flotillas, complete with staff support, which was echoed through the existence of squadrons to administer ship types. Today the flotilla commanders have been replaced by a single 2* officer who in addition to other jobs handles the lead for the surface fleet. Similarly, the squadrons roles and associated lower levels of command have all been abolished – despite perceptions to the contrary, a lot of the command has been stripped away.
There are a small number of staff jobs - essentially acting as deputies, or assistants - this isn't to make out that these individuals are in any way second rate individuals. In fact, some of the busiest and most pressured posts out there are the Asssistant Chief of the (Naval) Staff posts, in which high flying 2* officers are required to oversee the strategy of their service, deputising for the 4* service chiefs, who are all too often focused on other matters.
Other posts which exist oversee the RN's capability development - a terribly business sounding process which can be summed up as the means by which the Service identifies what equipment, vessels and capabilities it needs in the future, and works out how to deliver them. There are also posts looking after our regional naval footprint, and broader development.
There is a range of war fighting posts too, although the increasing complexity of operations, and the requirement to work in information dominated environment means it is unlikely that you will see many Admirals choosing to fly their flag from the sea in future. Instead, it is likely that command at sea will be delegated out to 1* level at best, with the Admiral remaining ashore at a maritime headquarters where they can oversee the hugely complex maritime campaign as a whole.
In total, there are, including the 1SL, 2SL and CINCFLEET posts, a grand total of 16 Admirals or Major Generals (RM) overseeing the modern Naval Service - Two (soon to be one) 4*s, three 3*s and 10 2*s (including a very senior vicar...). This represents well under 0.01% of the entire Naval Service, and gives a lie to the tired old cliché that the RN has more Admirals than ships.
The role of Joint Posts is where the services seek to put senior officers into posts to work in either joint positions alongside the other services, or to head up areas which sit outside their traditional service. Some posts are known as 'tied posts' which means that they are filled on a rotational basis by each service, in order to ensure no one service achieves dominance, and some would suggest more cynically to ensure that all three services wish to keep funding intact to an organisation in order to justify their senior position.
Joint posts emerge as, and when the need is there. This will often be a range of different roles which rotate between the three services, and for which there is a need for a senior officer to command. There are some posts headed up at senior levels where military officers could, theoretically, be replaced by civil servants – the head of Defence Estates (currently a 3* role) seems a good example.
These posts sit in a range of areas, mainly in what is known as 'The Centre' or MOD London, and also in PJHQ in Northwood. At present the RN occupies 11 'joint positions' which range from running the directing staff at the Royal college of Defence studies (a position which despite its seemingly anachronistic title, is an incredible influence generator for the UK and an unsung jewel in the crown of UK policy), through to the Chief of Defence intelligence.
It is likely that as further joint organisations emerge, and structures change, we will see more joint posts established. For instance, it may see merging of two or three different single service structures, and instead creating one structure of increased size and importance – on paper a net gain of a single 2*, but in reality offset by a loss of several command appointments and staffs at lower levels. This pattern is likely to continue for some time to come.
A key complaint is that many of the senior posts are reportedly Defence Attaché roles, or NATO posts. In reality, this is a complete exaggeration. Humphrey is aware of one (1) post at 2* level which is a Defence Attaches role, and that is the military head of BDS Washington. Given the importance attached to the UK/US relationship, and the very complex nature of the UK presence in the US, which encompasses representational work, liaison jobs, exchange positions and operational roles totalling well over 600 personnel at all ranks / rates, it is not unreasonable to have a sole UK 2* as representation over there. Beyond this post, the remainder of the senior posts overseas in DA roles are all 1*s.
The reason why 1*s are often needed in DA roles, and senior officers in NATO roles, is often down to the host nations value and perceptions of rank. While in the UK it may be fine to say ‘speak to the subject expert, who may be an SO1’, in many countries, rank is seen as directly equivalent to experience and importance – regardless of what the individual actually knows. Junior officers will often not get access or the ability to meet more senior host nation officials if the host nation doesn’t perceive them to be of a certain standing.
While the natural response in the UK may be to say ‘so what, it doesn’t matter if they don’t want to talk to our SO1, we’ll wait for them to come to us’, the reality is more complex. The UK has influence to a point, and has influence in more countries than some might expect. But this influence only extends so far, and is often reliant on dealing with people who respect rank and hierarchy as part of their culture – a junior officer delivering a message from London is not going to be accorded the same respect and more importantly, discrete face time as an equal, with senior figures in a foreign nation. In some cultures, if you are not perceived as an equal, you will not get any real time with the decision makers. This means that when the UK needs a favour, or over flight rights, or basing, or wishes to put a sales pitch forward, it may have to do so from an inbuilt disadvantage.
If nations think that a downgraded representational post reflects the UKs attitude towards them, and then contrast that to other nations which either upgrade, or maintain their representation at a certain level, then the UK is going to struggle to keep up. This can have a real impact on the UKs power, influence, economy and prestige. Bluntly, we may not be concerned about whether it’s a 1* or a SO1 as our DA, but other countries are. This author knows personally of one case where during a recent war, an NCO in theatre had to be temporarily local acting SO1 in order to get to talk to the host nation. Ignore the fact that he was the subject matter expert, ignore the fact that he knew exactly what he was talking about – until he was seen to be a fairly senior officer, he was of no interest to the host country. Had this not been done, then there would have been significant strategic consequences to the UK in that particular area (and the author does not use that phrase lightly). Whether we like it or not, to others, rank matters.
The other reason why we need senior military officers in posts such as NATO is to ensure that the UK retains influence, and can direct, rather than be directed on certain matters. It is fair to make the argument that much of the UKs NATO strategy could be seen as being built around retaining sufficient representation at the senior posts, where real decision making is made in the alliance.
The UK naturally wants to see its officers exercise command over certain missions, and also command certain HQs. These posts are not given out naturally, and there is fierce competition between all NATO countries who all want to get the same posts. If the UK does not manage to portray itself as a wider NATO contributor, providing personnel to HQs at all levels, and funding to match, then it is much harder to make a strong case to retain the permanent holding of certain plum NATO jobs. If the UK loses these jobs, then they are assigned to other nations, who may then use those posts to push through policy or operational changes, which the UK may fundamentally disagree with.
To that end, it is perhaps better to see the use of 2*s and above in NATO/EU posts as more of a political or foreign policy role, albeit conducted by a uniformed person. While the end result may be the delivery of military capability or commitments, the reality is that the level of horse-trading, deal making and political machinations attached to senior posts makes this a key reason to keep senior officers in these posts – a need to look after the UKs national interest.
The Myth of the Retinue
One of the key public images that opponents of senior officers try to create is that of an isolated individual, living in a luxury house and surrounded by servants, assistants and sycophants, all of whom exist to make the incumbents life as easy as possible – in other words, the 2* officer is no longer seen as a military officer, but instead becomes part of the establishment.
This image is drawn on many outdated views from years, if not decades ago. It is hard to find any senior officers now with an extensive support team. At best they may have a Flag Lieutenant (essentially bag carrier, timekeeper, note keeper, and indispensable aide), a military assistant (senior officer lead, and true gatekeeper to the Officer in question), and in some very rare cases there may be a more senior figure (OF5 level) heading up the wider staff – but this is primarily for service chiefs. On a good day, there may be a secretary too, although this is becoming an increasingly rare perk – indeed Humphrey has heard that in many areas now, even 1* officers no longer have a PA, and are responsible for managing their own diaries. So, most senior officers are expected to have a direct office staff of two, perhaps three people to handle all their business from travel to decision making, which can encompass a vast range of issues from strategic military affairs, to scrutinising billions of pounds worth of public expenditure.
A very small number of officers have access to what is called a ‘retinue’. This is a group of staff designed to support senior officer’s household and wider domestic issues. This is not intended as a perk, it is designed to provide them with the ability to handle a very busy diary, which may necessitate multiple uniform changes per day. It also enables them to host a range of lunches and dinners, which are also held for visiting dignitaries and VIPS. While some may sneer at the idea that senior officers are being cosseted in this way, to the authors mind, it makes a lot of sense. Having seen how busy very senior officers are – a typical day often begins before 7am, and will often not finish till north of 9pm, there are very few points in there for them to take charge of their personal affairs. It is surely far better to provide a small support staff to ensure their domestic arrangements are sorted, rather than expect them to squeeze in time to sort their washing, shoe polishing and cooking out. Similarly, for formal suppers, it is unlikely that the senior officer has time to cook directly, meaning there is either an expectation that their wife does it – which seems stunningly patronising and naive to assume that their wives have nothing better to do than cook for a business supper, or alternatively get in private contractors, which would cost a lot and also raises security concerns.
The days of drivers are well and truly over for most seniors. A small pool exists through which the majority of them can call for support, but this is essentially a taxi service that cannot be guaranteed. Only the most senior officers still have dedicated drivers now. Bizarrely, this author has heard of personal friends in the army at SO2 level command appointments still having dedicated drivers – the chances are that this is still the case, and that they have more perks than some 3*s!
Culling the herd?
One suggestion often made is that senior officer numbers should be reduced, and that only a tiny number of officers should occupy these slots, with the majority instead working at lower levels. In theory this sounds like a good idea – minimal senior officers, and plenty of hard working mid-level ranking officers. There are several challenges to this, which will be tackled in order.
Firstly, if it were announced that senior officers were to be culled, and that in future work was done at one rank level lower– say 1* as the replacement for most 2*s, and OF5 as the new 1*, this in theory would reduce the number of Admirals considerably.
However, the challenge is how do the Forces continue to offer a credible career structure which matches this aspiration? There are two glaring problems that need to be considered – pay and seniority.
Jobs in the Forces are designed to provide experience at each level, to build the overall experience of the individual and ensure that by the time they reach senior levels, they have sufficient exposure to do well and take on a broader strategic leadership role. This takes time – 25-30 years is not an uncommon time from entry to gaining 2*, and requires a great deal of work along the way.
If you downgrade posts, then you have to either lengthen the promotion times in each rank band, which means lengthening pay scales (wiping out most of the financial savings accrued from reducing senior numbers), or alternatively promoting people at the same career points, but having to post them into these jobs at an earlier point than expected. The author expects that what would happen is that the ex 2* and 1* jobs would actually become subtly delineated in the appointments plot, and reserved only for senior officers in rank – essentially maintaining the rank hierarchy, even if the ranks are lower.
It also raises the issue of where to stop downgrading jobs – there are essentially three main ‘working’ officer grades (SO3-SO1), which the vast bulk of Officers exist in. These are staff appointments or military appointments which occupy increasing responsibility as careers develop. While it may seem a good idea to drop ranks across the piece, this may lead to things like Majors commanding Regiments, and Captains commanding Companies. This wouldn’t work if you appointed and promoted people on the same timelines as at present, as people would be too inexperienced to do the jobs. To downgrade jobs at 2* level would actually knock the wider structure out of kilter too, and cause major problems to the manning plot.
So, if there is little money to be saved from doing this, the next problem is that of how one exercises leadership over peers in the same rank. If it was decided to appoint people to fill jobs normally done at the next higher level, then the challenge is to ensure that the incumbents are able to exercise authority. The key strength of the forces is the inherent discipline brought about by a rank based structure – people will defer to more senior officers as a matter of course. People are less likely to defer to people of the same rank at any level regardless of title, and that is something that has occurred at lower levels and higher levels (look at the issues involving UK generals such as Monty in WW2). Of course one would hope that people would be professional about this, but that cannot be taken as an assumption.
Therefore, at senior levels, relying on a gaggle of Captains or Commodores to accept the principle of ‘primus inter pare’ is probably unlikely – it’s much easier to rely on the concept of having one person on the site holding the highest rank in order to exercise the leadership that is actually required.
What this article has attempted to consider is the fact that of the 130 odd 2* officers in HM Forces, despite popular tabloid opinion, many of them occupy hugely important roles or carry out work of critical national importance. Downsizing is an inevitability, but it is not the case that there are more Admirals than ships, and hopefully readers now understand that commanding Divisions is important, but so is delivering leadership to the many complex parts of defence.
2* Officers do not have a particularly cushy lifestyle, despite what some think, and the so called perks they receive are in keeping with those of their peers in industry, and in reality are probably much worse, and certainly the salary level is far, far lower than industry peers.
Restructuring by shifting responsibility downwards would only work if there was a wholesale change in the manning policy and structure of HM forces, and also would not save money by the time that the extended pay spines to cover increased seniority in each rank was introduced. If anything it may damage retention if promotion hungry officers saw their chances of promotion disappearing, and instead took the option of the job in the city. Keeping the pool of talent in the game in the late 30s – early 40s age bracket is crucial – you need to offer a career and remuneration package sufficient to make the right number of officers of the right quality want to stay on. By late 30s – early 40s, most officers know roughly where their career trajectory is likely to take them – people are naturally rank hungry and career keen, and reducing jobs in rank bands will make it harder to convince the good ones to stay on.
The challenge is to generate a pool of officers with sufficient talent that they feel the wish to stay in HM Forces, and see their career through to the very pinnacle of command. Reducing the promotion prospects and career plot too far will only see the very best leave – and that in turn hurts HM Forces and the UK as a whole. It is essential to retain a clear career plot, lest your pool of promotable officers only comprise ones that at present would probably not reach the starry heights of greatness!
In summary, they are much maligned and misunderstood, but the senior leadership in the military play a critical part in looking after the MODs and wider UK interests. Giving into demands to reduce the rank structure would probably be a mistake that could have damaging consequences for the UK as a whole.