Thursday, 26 July 2012

90% of statistics are made up on the spot - or why there aren't that many senior officers out there...

The Telegraph reported on 23 July that despite there being massive cuts to the military, there remained a glut of senior officers (e.g. 1* and above) occupying jobs. According to the DT, based on DASA (the MOD statistics team) results, since 2000 there had been no loss of 4* posts, a growth of in 3* posts and a loss of only four 2* posts in the Army. Meanwhile at lower levels, both 1* and OF5s appeared to have a small growth in relative rank terms.

On the face of it this appears to be a story designed to ignite outrage, after all when 20,000 of our brave boys are being fired, isn’t it terrible that the top brass are feathering their nest, and creating jobs for their own boys? The reality though is more subtle and reflects wider changes in the system and way that the military is managed.

The first question Humphrey would have is simple – how reliable are the statistics? If you play around with the DASA website (  then you can discover all sorts of interesting stats, which help build up a picture of the manning situation. The first thing to note is the little disclaimer, cunningly omitted by the Daily Telegraph which points out that all figures are rounded to the nearest 10 – this may not sound like much, but when you consider that the figure is static for 4* officers, you realise that its misrepresenting how many 4*s are actually in the services.

According to the DT, in 2009, and 2012 there were 10 4*s in service. Humphrey has done some quick sums and worked out that the 4*s would be CDS, VCDS, 3x Service Chiefs, 3x CINC, and DSACEUR. This is actually only 9 posts – so already the DT is 10% out on its accuracy. If one looks ahead to 1 April next year, the figure will be even lower, as the CINCs will all have gone, and been replaced by 3* Officers, while rumour has it that VCDS is looking vulnerable, particularly as the 2PUS has been lost. So, potentially next year’s figure could only be six 4* officers (CDS, 3 x service chiefs, JFC, DSACEUR) but due to the methodology used, this would still show as 10 on the reporting totals.

So, the first lesson to take away is that these figures are not reliable, and that they can easily be manipulated to suit political ends.

The next thing to consider is the downgrading of posts leading to a growth in jobs. This may sound paradoxical, but as there is a pressure to downgrade roles, it could lead to a growth in numbers in lower rank levels. For instance, next year’s figures may show a small growth in the number o 3* Officers as the new Commands settle in, and deputies are stood up. Also, the new NATO command structure is working up, which may see the UK gain a new multi-starred officer at Northwood.

The Army for instance is pushing to downsize its 1* head of arms roles, such as the Royal Signals and Int Corps 1* posts, and instead downgrade them to OF5 posts. What this means then is that over time there will be a short term bulge as officers taking up these posts come into service, while other OF5 positions have not yet been eliminated from the plot. It will take a couple of years for the changes to armed forces manning to work through the system, so its likely that the statistics will give the impression of a military which is boosting its officer ranks, when the reality is that they are being cut.

These stats also don’t take into consideration issues such as temporary promotions to handle short term roles, such as the deployment of officers in acting up roles, or the assignment of personnel to overseas organisations. One reality is that many nations do not respect more junior officers, and even an experienced SO1 or OF5 may struggle to get doors open to senior national figures, or to have sufficient clout to able to do their job properly. They may get a local acting rank to ensure they can do the job properly while deployed, which will bolster statistics, but which doesn’t actually count as a permanent established post.

Changes in NATO are another good reason why numbers may vary – as the UK commitment to NATO has changed over the years, and posts occupied by UK personnel alter, the manning makeup varies. The UK has long tried to keep personnel in key posts within NATO in order to keep UK influence in certain areas. This has required the deployment of officers across a range of ranks in order to justify the hold on certain ‘plum’ posts at the most senior levels. If the UK didn’t contribute to some of the wider NATO OF5 and above roles, then it is likely that there would be less chance of us securing the DSACEUR and other posts which are seen as a vital national role. So, part of the reason for the relatively static number of senior posts is simple, until NATO significantly downsizes its HQ establishment, or until the UK changes its aspirations for NATO posts, there will be a requirement to provide a fairly substantial number of OF5 and above posts. This will continue to be an issue, and may even grow as alternate HQs such as the EU Military Staff grow in significance as the UK tries to secure its influence in these areas.

So, while it may seem that the senior officers are all in it for ‘jobs for the boys’ the reality is that over the last 15 years or so there has been a significant cull in UK senior officers posts, jobs that once had a 3 or 4* officer doing it are now shifting to the 1 or 2 * level. There seems to be a gentle downwards shift towards using 1 and 2* officers in most roles, although it will take some time for this to work through the system. As Humphrey has noted elsewhere, the RN is now shifting to having only one 1* role, when less than 20 years ago it had four, not including NATO posts.

A final thought, for all the complaints about how many senior officers posts exist in the military, the reality is that the combined total of all OF5 and above posts combined equate to less than 3% of defences manpower totals. The perception is that 1*s are everywhere, but the reality is that they are far less common than perhaps people think.


  1. I'm afraid I'm a traditionalist,

    Lances command fire teams
    Corporals command sections
    Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains command troops
    And so on

    Brigadiers dont command four people.

    I wonder, if you went back to Crimea, or the Boer Wars, would you find as many Major Generals commanding a secretary and a bottle of scotch.

  2. Am I the only one who thought FATS would be the topic of the day?

  3. You might like to read Frank Ledwidge's 'Losing Small Wars' pages 110 et seq. Some choice points: when he wrote his book c2010/11 the Army had 190 brigadiers, 20 more than in 1997; the US Army, about five times the size of the UK's, had 302 generals our Army had 255; Israel's IDF (170000) has no four-star officers at all. He doesn't exempt the Navy or RAF from these criticisms - together the UK had eight times more general equivalents than the USMC (210000) etc. (He counts brigadier as a general)

  4. Western - fair point but dont forget that the USMC is part of the US Navy, and therefore any comparison must also include the USN to be truly effective. If you looked at the RM to the USMC, then that may be a better comparison.

    The difference between the UK and the US system is that as I understand it, promotion to 1* and beyond requires congressional approval, and they have ceilings on how high they can go. Therefore it is not uncommon to find Colonels in the US system running organisations with 3-4000 personnel.

    Would a similar system work here - possibly, but it would require a substantial reshifting of career prospects, and an extension of personnel at the SO3 / SO2 point, spending far longer there and expecting a good SO2 to be doing jobs previously held by SO1s.

    Its not impossible but would need major career changes to implement properly.

  5. The Swiss Armed forces (200,000) do not have any Generals.
    From Wikipedia
    There have been four Generals in Swiss history:
    Henri Dufour (1847–1848, Sonderbund War; and 1856–57, Neuch√Ętel Crisis)
    Hans Herzog (1871–1872, Franco-Prussian War)
    Ulrich Wille (1914–1918, World War I)
    Henri Guisan (1939–1945, World War II)
    Officers which would have the title of general in other armies do not bear the title General.

    I believe that technically they are all full Colonels.i.e. Brigade Colonel, Divisional Colonel etc. and paid as such.

  6. Humph,

    You've been spammed - at least two "comments" above.

  7. I'll have to agree with the skeptics. This post is not entirely convincing.

    For one thing, the rounding part. I don't know which chart you are reading. I'm reading this one (

    Rounding to 10 is done, but it says:
    "Figures less than 100 have been left unrounded so as not to obscure the data."

    It should have been obviously not everything is rounded when the DT article can have 26 3-stars in 2006 and 25 3-stars in 2012.
    As for fighting for NATO posts and acting roles to inflate influence, the truth is that the problem arises b/c the UK no longer has enough formations to have enough "real" generals to go around. For a short time, you can blow up a Colonel into a General (that's just a rank tab), but this is at the cost of the long term reputation of the British Armed Forces.

    How long can this go on b/f other countries give British generals the same (or lack thereof) respect as they might give a Russian Category C division commander, b/c they know neither has ever commanded a formation worthy of the rank?

    Perhaps instead of artificial inflation, it would be better to compete by showing that the BA is still a very good Army and their Captains are worthy of most other countries' Majors.

  8. Sir H, comparing the USMC with the RM would not be a like for like either, just look at their span of capabilities.

    I tend to think with this subject the reality is somewhere between the stout defence and tabloid sensation

    The problem we have is that the MoD civilian management is too weak to impose a proper structure on the services, being blinded by the gold braid etc.

    This was the original role of the MoD and one that is has signally failed in.

    Far too many vested interests and far too many mini empire with dubious justifications combined with weak leadership. Rank inflation is merely a symptom of a wider malaise