Saturday, 19 October 2013

This is the Captain(s) of Your Ship Speaking... Why there are 260 Captains in the Royal Navy today

The BBC television show ‘Blackadder’ is arguably one of the funniest and finest comedies of the late 20th century. Achingly sharp, with jokes that are still funny to this day, it was a four series show which finished with ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ set in the First World War. Watching the show today, one is struck by how funny it is, and also worryingly how its anti-establishment jokes aimed at undermining the social structure of the time has become the accepted historical record of the First World War.

The UK has a very strange ‘love hate’ relationship with its military officers – junior ones are portrayed as incompetent (Lieutenant George), Captains are seen as possibly okay (Captain Blackadder), Majors are usually seen retired and with a snifter in their hand (the Major from Fawlty Towers), while Colonels or heaven forbid Generals (General Melchett) are usually seen as inept, incompetent, who do not have a clue about their profession or what it involves. They are seen as people without a clue until the point when they retire, at which point they suddenly become military geniuses, whose angry letters to Broadsheet newspapers warrant being printed on the grounds that they are military commanders who know what they are talking about.

Humphrey was reminded of this during a week in which it was clear that the UK media and MPs will not let nomenclature get in the way of a good story. The alleged outrage was that right now there are 260 Captains in the Royal Navy, but ‘only 19 warships’, which is an interesting fact for the rest of the Fleet to consider. This sort of ‘factual inaccuracy’ should be enough to give the story a stiff ignoring, but to Humphrey, it does warrant a bit of further thought.

The problem that this story generates is that it doesn’t focus on why the RN has 260 Captains and what they do all day (apparently Captains who are not on a ship is a bad thing). Instead, it is arbitrarily made clear that this is a bad thing, and that something must be done about it. Ask any member of the public over the next few months what the RN has been up to in the news, and they won’t focus on the amazing work done in counter narcotic s in the Caribbean, the counter piracy work off Africa, or the reassurance and diplomacy of COUGAR – they will instead focus on their view that there are too many captains and not enough ships.

Why So Many?
The first problem is that there isn’t a good enough way of explaining that the Military runs in a hierarchy, not just for command purposes, but also for career development. It is common to see suggestions that we should just drop everyone one rank, and then that would solve the problem. Broadly in todays military, the OF1 / 2 is a training grade, OF2/3 is the day to day working ranks for departmental and small unit roles such as small ship or Company command, OF4 represents the first opportunity for substantive command of major platforms and squadrons, and OF5 represents command of major platforms, units establishments, heading of branches and career structures and so on.

Looking at the latest round of RN statistics, we can see that of the 260 Captains, there are some 100 warfare, 80 engineers, 20 logisticians (pussers in old Money), 20 medical and 40 Royal Marines and that’s your lot. Looking at branch manpower, Captains make up roughly 4% of the Officer strength of each RN Officer branch.

Dropping everyone one rank down wouldn’t remove the need to have achieved professional training or experience – you still need to have spent quite a few years in the RN before you are professionally qualified to command, and fight, a major RN warship. So, the end result is people spending longer at more junior ranks, and possibly leaving in frustration at the slow pace of career development. Additionally, its unlikely to save that much money – there is not a significant difference between a senior Commander and Captain on the pay scale, and in fact bearing in mind you’d need to lengthen these scales to reflect the longer service in each rank, its likely that it would cost about the same regardless. All that is being saved is the title of the rank.

The reality is that the OF5 level roles (Captain, Colonel and Group Captain) represent a rank which combines the pinnacle of achievement for many branches, with the post holders occupying the top jobs in their subspecialisations. It represents a level of command for a suitably senior person to oversee units or establishments – for instance the presence of a Captain at Faslane as the senior officer for the Faslane Flotilla, and it allows a suitably senior individual to command a shore establishment (e.g Captain BRNC Dartmouth).

Looking more broadly, Captains serve as defence attaches or liaison officers overseas – in many of our allied nations rank counts more than capability, and a Captain can open doors that a Commander could not. While we talk about military capability as being built around ships, units and squadrons, a well-placed liaison officer at suitably senior level in a multi-national HQ can often swing the influence battle far more effectively than an entire Battalion of troops, by ensuring that the UK interests are represented properly and not offered up for sacrifice.

Finally there is a requirement to fill the ever growing list of joint service jobs, such as command of various tri-service training schools and establishments or working in a key MOD staff role. In the constant battle of influence between all three services, the ability to have a well-qualified and senior person to post in to a key job is crucial.

It’s also important to realise that relative to the size of the Naval Service, there are not actually that many senior officers out there. The current strength of the Naval Service today including untrained personnel and the RNR is approximately 36,000 people. Of this total there are roughly 1100 Commanders, 260 Captains, 80 Commodores and 30 Admirals. In practical terms this means that barely 1% of the entire Naval Service is at Captain level or above
The media like to portray that the Royal Navy (and to a lesser extent the wider forces) is somehow overweight with Captains, Commodores and Admirals, all of whom apparently do not know what they are doing and are incompetent (until such point as they retire, write to the Daily Telegraph at which point they are rebranded as tactical geniuses). Firstly it’s clear that you have to be bloody good at your job to be promoted to Captain – only one in four of today’s Commanders go on to make Captain. Even allowing for smaller branches, it is clear that only the very best of the Commanders make it beyond this point.  The harsh truth is that there has been a steady downward decline in the number of senior officers for decades. It’s also forgotten that the military is a hierarchical organisation which needs a rank structure and career path – it’s all very well cutting people out of the system, but how do you generate your future leaders, managers and, most importantly of all, warfighters?

It’s worth remembering that people at Captain or above are in their mid-forties at the very least – they usually have families, wider commitments and are thinking about their next options. To keep the best in, you need to have a reasonable package of promotion to motivate people to stay in a role for which they are paid vastly less than their civilian peers in industry – one only has to look at the responsibilities placed on most OF5s and OF6s to realise they could command much larger salaries.

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves during this insane argument that there are more Captain than Ships that the Royal Navy has ALWAYS had more Captains than ships. During the 1980s there were nearly 600 Captains out there, and it was doubtless vastly higher than this during the earlier Cold War.

Part of the problem seems to be a desire on the part of the UK to do down our senior military personnel – there seems to be a natural reluctance to criticise and attack the idea that a large military, based on all continents of the earth at over 2000 locations and with over 300,000 people directly involved in it needs to have a pool of senior leaders and managers. The media seems to revel in arbitrarily deciding that because there are only X ships in commission, it is a bad thing to have an officer corps which doesn’t reflect this. Yet at the same time the moment cuts are made, there will usually be some near hysterical story about how the loss of Admiral X or Air Marshal Y’s post means the end of the UK as we know it (cue letters from now tactical genius retired officers saying this wouldn’t have happened in their day…).

There is no easy answer to this, and it’s inevitable that for as long as the services maintain a rank structure, there will be complaints that they are over manned at senior levels, although it is very odd that there isn’t the same complaint levelled at the number of ratings – for instance, why are people not angry that there are 5,790 Leading Hands in the RN, when there are ‘only 19 Warships’?


  1. But that article was from the Daily Mail. or what people call the daily fail.

  2. I had this argument once with an army guy, a his argument was much the same as yours, in essence, "shut it civi you dont know what your talking about".

    A Captain commands a warship, a Colonel commands a battalion, a wing commander commands a wing.
    Calling a Surgeon who commands a trainee surgeon, an anesthetist and two nurses a Colonel doesnt (just) add to the respect of the doctor, it detracts from the respect of a Colonel.

    Now, I'm not so closed mined as to say its a hard fast rule, 1 Brigadier per Brigade, but three seems a fair compromise.
    The British armed forces (last time I looked) had three hundred and forty Brigadier equivalents for 40 Brigade equivalents (200,000 personnel in 5,000 man Brigades)

    "in many of our allied nations rank counts more than capability,"
    What shit allies we have, no wonder we lose so many wars.
    I thought you normally complained about people focusing on "paper strengths" and ignoring the deploy-ability, now your demanding we do just that, pretend that men who have never commanded more than a dozen truck drivers are 25* generals.

    I'm currently contracting for a Quango and it does my ****ing head in when a Senior financial accountant turns up to a meeting, because they arent, in the private sector, the SFA would have some real budgetary authority, in the public sector, I'm lucky if the finance director can authorise a spend.

    I remember reading a US Army officers memoirs/advice to junior officers about dealing with foreign officers that covered this crap, the distilled message was expect foreign officers two ranks higher than you to have the same authority, or less than you.

    1. "A Captain commands a warship, a Colonel commands a battalion, a wing commander commands a wing."

      Well, one out of three right isn't bad. In fact a battalion CO will be a lieutenant-colonel, and has been since about the eighteenth century, and a wing will normally be commanded by a group captain, which is confusing, I know, but it's been that way since the 1940s.

    2. TrT

      I often used to issue out 'Senior' in a job title when I deemed a member of staff a cut above the rest but not right for a Manager's role. This was especially true for my Senior Financial Accountant!!!! Perhaps we worked together LOL

  3. I'll have to agree with TrT here.

    It may be true that there are a bit over twice as many Captains in the late Cold War era, but there were at least 3 times as many combatant ships. So any way you cut it the ratio is getting worse, and if you accept that sea command and operational experience + ability is the essence of a Captain, with fewer opportunities the quality is not getting better.

    Why not treat the fewer ships as an opportunity to increase quality in the long run? "OF1 / 2 is a training grade" - yeah, OK, it is more or less the same everywhere in the world. It used to be less true in "officer-centered" militaries like Russia and China, but as they embrace the Western "NCO" and "generalist" manias the officers they are turning out are also becoming less specialized (thus less technically able, whatever the operational consequences).

    Here's the question. Should OF1/2 really be a training grade? A squad leader has a decade, maybe more of experience (the platoon sergeant maybe 20 years) but we are happy with our *platoon* leaders (or division leaders on ships) having nothing but school? Really. Is this a remnant of the old class system, where people of higher class are just "superior" and can command platoons just out of school by grace of their aristocratic class? Or is it necessity, because we used to have a lot of divisions and ships to fill and we have to take a few shortcuts otherwise we won't make it?

    But the class system should be dead and we now don't have a lot of divisions and ships. So why not change the system over time, until eventually you have OF1s and 2s that have 5 or even 10 years of shipboard experience before assuming their lofty posts? So they are up to speed the day they assume the post and not when they leave it?
    The tri-service problem isn't really a problem because the Army and the Air Force are in the same basic position of having fewer and fewer combat units worthy of senior commanders.

    As for the foreign service problem, may I suggest the expedient of taking a page from the Russian Armed Forces and only promoting people just before they assume the position where the rank would be needed? (The Soviet Navy was perfectly happy, for example, to have Captain 3rd Rank Terenov be the commander of a nuke boat, even to be trainer of a bunch of Indians - they promoted him so he was Captain 1st Rank Terenov just before he had to leave for India.) Maybe even go one step further and make it a temporary rank?

  4. Obviously the SSBNs, SSNs, and large amphibs are all commanded by Captains, but what rank of naval officer commands the smaller RN vessels like mine-hunters, patrol vessels and survey ships? Also the Bay class LSDs, in time of war are they commanded by a RN or RFA Captain?

    1. Hi, thanks for your message.
      In general all SSNs and SSBNs are commanded by Commanders these days, while Lt Cdrs generally drive MCMVs and OPVs.
      It is fairly clear now that most up and coming officers can expect at best one 'drive' at each rank, with very few getting more than one frigate or destroyer.

  5. For smaller ships - although calling HMS Scott small is a bit of a stretch - the MCM and patrol ships are commanded by lieutenant commanders and survey ships by commanders.

  6. Wrong: The listen is out there. SSBNs are commanded by Commanders, NATO OF-4. There is no set rule that SSBNs must be commanded by a full Captain (4 stripes). Similarly, the T and A SSNs are commanded by Commanders, not Captains. The type 23 are te same, but only one of them is in command by a Captain--doesnt mean he is the leader of all Type 24s. LHA/LPDs are Captain-led, as were the aircraft carriers and CVF definitely will be Captain-led, XO also likely to be a Captain. Angus is right, the MCMs are LTCR-led or sometimes LT. Captains in the RN, Group Captains in the RAF, Colonels in the Army all usually are in staff positions, defence attaches, deputies of brigade/flotilla (RN doesnt exactly have one as an ocean going group, but perhaps the RFTG deputy is a Captain). The numbers of proper Captains can never be fixed unless you are like the US (even then, they only fix flag officer numbers).

    Same with the RAF and Army, and for the latter, some brigades, especially the non-deployable ones may be commanded by Colonels instead of Brigadiers, so again numbers may add up differently. Plus as mentioned, the UK has committments to NATO, defence attaches, international groups (UN) etc. To say the proportion of leaders to unit or personnel numbers is misleading.

  7. "The numbers of proper Captains can never be fixed unless you are like the US (even then, they only fix flag officer numbers). "
    Of course it can!
    Dont promote people unless there is a vacancy to promote them in to, just like the real world does.

  8. There is a (reasonable IMHO, YMMV) paper on this subject by POGO here: More Brass, Less Bucks. Sure, it's the Americans, but the same general criticisms apply. TrT's surgeon-colonel may be part of the problem, and would probably be the easiest bit to fix too, but she or he is not the whole problem.

  9. Not convinced by your arguments, you are looking at this from the wrong end. You say the navy is 36,000 strong, now lets see how this is made up,

    1) 9,000 marines

    2) Approximately 3,500 people are required to man the ships, lets allow for double manning (which doesn't happen) so our fewer ships can spend more time at sea in different parts of the globe with the crews flying home after a tour of duty.

    Well we are up to 16,000 people. Now lets add 25% for training and support duties, bearing in mind that dockyards and other bases's are also heavily manned by civilians, either directly or through outsourcing contracts.

    We are now up to 20,000, so what on earth are the other 16,000 doing?

    I believe the philosophy is that once a sailor gets fed up of sea going duties, they are found a desk job rather than being asked to leave, as would happen in the real commercial world. Double manning would help with the at sea problem.

    Naturally a slimmer navy would require fewer Captains and other senior ranks.


    1. Hi Tedgo,
      The current strength of the Naval Service works out as follows:
      36,000 -
      3000 are under training (e.g not in complement billet)
      3000 are in the RNR / RMR - roughly!
      7000 are in the Royal Marines
      4000 are in the Fleet Air Arm
      4000 are in the Submarine Service

      This leaves a total of 17000 (roughly) for all the general service jobs out there. The RN is like most forces and relies on a 'tooth to tail' ratio of roughly 3:1 - e.g. for every sea going job, you need about three people on shore to support it in some way. Added to this is the requirement for career balancing (e.g. back to back tours at sea will break people and they'll leave).
      You need to realise that its a delicate combination of putting people to sea to do a job at different levels - breaking a low level able seaman engineer means he won't stay in to become an experienced CPO engineer - thus causing a manpower gap.
      Its a very delicate balancing act, and by the time you've added up all the direct RN jobs, the joint jobs, the operational posts and everything else, you realise that the RN manpower is actually pretty fragile - there isn't much room to augment in a hurry without denuding somewhere else of a post.


      Backing it up with a link.

  10. What sort of a balance do you want? Doesn't mean you get more savings with less senior officers or more effectiveness with more junior officers in charge of larger roles. There is not simple solution to the number of leaders. Same goes to non-military occupations.

  11. The biggest joke in the article was that it was somehow a 'revelation'! Looking at the numbers it all looks pretty well balanced to me and quite frankly 'lean' compared with most organisations. I once worked (not for very long I am glad to say) for a multinational that had 200 Director Level staff throughout Europe for a total workforce of circa 10,000. Funnily enough when things went wrong they were able to almost half to just over 100 literally overnight, now that is overmanning and in a supposedly profit making organisation! There is also a lesson from history (as always here). Whilst I am sure that all the Captains are fully employed at the moment, having a bit of spare capacity for emergancies is no bad thing. Captain Tennant at Dunkirk anyone!

    1. Reserve officer capacity is generated by giving people plenty of opportunities, not just sticking more people with ranks they barely deserve (on basis of their operational experience). That is to say, all else being even, a Navy with Lieutenants that have commanded warships has more "spare capacity" than a Navy with a bunch of Captains that didn't really have their fill of command.

    2. Given the numbers I really don't think the RN suffer from that scenario. With so few actually making it to Captain I would say it is more than deserved. The RN is far from top heavy.

    3. It is not so much a matter of being top-heavy or not in terms of percent promoted as the numbers in relation to opportunity. To take an analogy, the best pilot in the Iranian Air Force may well be less proficient than even a barely passing pilot in a Western air force. Why? There are a few reasons but first and foremost is the sheer difference in opportunity for professional development.

      What is unavoidable as the Ship to Captain ratio falls is that command opportunities decrease. If we agree that command ability and experience is still the "gold standard" of what makes a Captain, then it is the logical conclusion that as a *group* the current batch of Captains are less qualified to hold the rank than previously, no matter what the promotion percentiles are.

      And that's not a funny thing. The Royal Navy takes great pride in the idea that they and their officers are a cut above most (and we only count the "advanced", "1st World" militaries in this). That may well be. But how long will it last if they keep diluting the "gold" in their Captain's bars? When will others finally figure out that the 24K gold (and it really hasn't been 24K gold, at least on average since at least the 50s, when they officially decided that about half of Executive branch's commanders will be "Dry" with no further sea command experience) in a Royal Navy Captain's 4-stripes has deteoriated to 3K?

      Of course, this is not only a Royal Navy or even British Armed Forces problem, but that doesn't make it healthy.

    4. In the real world just because you have director or regional director or regional sales director doesn't necessarily make you a director. Customers like to feel they are dealing with someone important. Despite the name there are few actual directors. The clue is in the pay usually - directors pay has to be in the notes to the accounts, whilst people that are called directors doesn't.

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  13. There is a perception, probably based in reality, that when the axe falls it falls on the lower ranks and on equipment, but not if it can be at all helped on those with scrambled egg on their hats.
    It is quite absurd, from a PR point of view, to have more chiefs than wigwams for them to abide in.
    The UK is trapped in the post war conundrum - that of being torn between the modern world, modern budgets, the reality that we always radically, perhaps even viciously, downsize between major conflicts and the perception, supported by the media, of 'the Forces that won WW2' with its visions of of hundreds of ships, fields full of armour and skies full of planes. Try to tell people that numbers of units and size of guns is no longer an indication of ability to deal damage and their minds shut down.

  14. And when we drastically cut the number of admirals/captains/generals/brigadiers/colonels etc and fnd that the work they were doing still has to be done, but is now being done by more junior people who we haven't adequately trained and aren't properly renumerating for the responsibility, what then? Buy in consultants?

    1. Do we need a Captain in charge of paperclips?
      I'm sure the Captains of paperclips and tip ex are thoroughly decent hard working chaps. But do they increase the ability of the Navy to fight a war?

      How many Captains without ships did Charles Howards Navy have?
      Or Nelsons Navy? Or Fishers?

    2. No, of course we don't need a captain in charge of paperclips. That's why we don't have any, The OF5s and up I know have fairly demanding jobs (albeit not at the same level as when in operational command). I'm sure you could probably crawl around and find some posts that don't need an OF5+ (quite possibly in some cases because it could be done perfectly well by a civil servant for about half the cost, but let's not go there today). But if you're looking around for lavish senior management structures in the public sector to cut, I wouldn't start in Defence, which the stats suggest is actually fairly lean.

    3. Anon
      I'm currently looting a public sector organisation where one in nine staff are "director" level.
      Saying "defence is leaner than....." is very different from "defence is lean"

      I ask again
      "How many Captains without ships did Charles Howards Navy have?
      Or Nelsons Navy? Or Fishers?"

      We're replacing real experts, men who have spent ten years at sea on a destroyer, with fantasists who have spent 6 months at sea on a destroyer, and ten years writing papers on the proper employment of Destroyers*

      *I wouldnt enforce it strictly, but you've got to wonder if it doesnt make sense for officers to serve most of their career on one sort of vessel.

    4. TrT
      I'd happily agree that any organisation where one in 9 are 'director level' - which equates to 2 star in military terminology - is grossly top heavy. As of April the Armed forces had 134 officers of that rank out of about 171,000, as well as about 1,400 OF5/6. And yes, 'leaner than' is not the same as 'lean', but it is nonetheless valid in terms of prioritisation. And bearing in mind that the leaner you are, the less resilience you have to cope with the unexpected if the relevant skills aren't available elsewhere.

      I'm not enough of a naval historian to offer an informed view on the compostion of the Navy of 400, 200 and 100 years' past. Given the changes in warfare, technology and society over that period I suspect they had, relatively speaking, a smaller proportion of officers. For those same reasons I'm dubious about how relevant such comparisons are to the present, but I'm open to argument supported by evidence.

      And should you be a British citizen, have you considered raising with your MP, the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office, or the media the inefficiency and/or incompetence you say you see in whichever organisation it is you're dealing with? All would, I am sure, be delighted to receive it and follow up, thereby at least possibly improving the efficeincy and effectivenss of public administration in the future.

    5. "How many Captains without ships did Charles Howards Navy have? Or Nelsons Navy? Or Fishers?"

      At a guess - hundreds. Read any account of Nelson's navy and you'll find references to captains on half pay - not only didn't they have ships, they didn't have any jobs at all, and were still drawing a salary. You couldn't fire officers back then...