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’?