By Nicholas Drummond
This is an updated version of an article originally written for the Wavell Room blog in June 2018 (see wavellroom.com). It makes a case for a flatter hierarchy by cutting the number of ranks we have today by a third. This is a controversial topic, but one based on a belief that if UK Armed Forcers are to reflect the nation they serve then they must incorporate the ways in which contemporary society has evolved. One of the most important changes we’ve seen in industry and commerce in recent years is a reduced number of corporate rungs. Today, the technically competence of an employee in a particular area matters just as much as absolute seniority or the management position held.
The case for change
Today, the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force each have 18 different ranks. Compared to other organisations, both civil and military, this is a substantial hierarchy, especially when you factor-in the five levels of General rank. Some would argue that the manpower intensive way in which the Armed Forces operate demands a hierarchy that allows effective command and control at all levels across each of the services. In considering whether a reduced structure is desirable, what reasons are there to justify it?
1. The Armed Forces are smaller. The total number of British Police Officers is 123,142* yet the Police Force manages to do with a total of just nine different ranks. Contrast this with any major UK professional services firm and you’ll see that they also adopt lean structures. Typically, they have just five management levels: Associate, Associate-Principal, Principal, Director, and Managing Director. Thus, the first reason to consider a rationalisation is the size and structure of Britain’s Armed Forces. The days of a standing army of 300,000 men are long gone. The largest of Britain’s services, the Army, has only 77,000** soldiers. Is the command of soldiers, sailors and air crew, even in combat, so demanding that we need such an extensive array of hierarchies? Given that UK Armed Forces have evolved so much over the last century, a flatter structure might actually simplify things and make command easier. Moreover, Warship Crews, Battle Group structures and Fighter Squadron compositions have become much leaner. We can expect this trend to continue, especially as we embrace AI and autonomous weapon systems more widely.
The reduction in size of UK Armed Forces was not accompanied by a reduction in the number of senior ranks. After all, why would you want to get rid of a large number of competent senior officers with experience and ability? However, it means that the British Army has become quite top heavy. Today, the Army has 207 generals (brigadiers and above). This is almost more generals than tanks. *** Even so, the Army still has one general for every thousand soldiers. Similarly, The Royal Navy has 121 Admirals (Commodores and above) but only 49 active warships.***
2. The nature of leadership has evolved. Discipline and obedience to vital direct orders remain paramount, but today’s soldiers, sailors and air crew are more self-disciplined and educated**** than their predecessors, and therefore more capable of independent thought, judgement and action. It means that military leadership is less dependent on rigid chains of command to get things done. Better educated junior ranks translate directly into more competent junior leadership, which means command can be delegated with confidence. This is important, especially when personnel on the ground are likely to have a more informed view of a tactical situation than senior officers tucked away in HQs many kilometres away from the action. The concept of the “Strategic Corporal,” ***** which is the recognition that junior commanders can directly influence mission success despite their position, by exploiting time-critical information that enables them to take the best possible decision on the spot and at an appropriate moment, stems directly from this devolution of leadership.
Today’s soldiers no longer need to be bullied into obeying orders, unlike their forbears going over the top during the First World War, who were often described as being more afraid of their own NCOs than they were of the enemy. This is because contemporary service men and women are much more self-motivated and self-disciplined, not least because we have professional forces not conscripted ones. Special Forces unit leaders tend to adopt a more relaxed style of command, because they know that the soldiers under them have a great sense of purpose and the highest standards of self-discipline. But such attitudes are not just true of UKSF; they are hallmarks of all three UK services.
3. Technical competence to operate different weapon systems has become as important as management of units. Increasingly, today’s forces are reliant on weapon and equipment systems that require a high degree of professional skill to operate them. This means that force structures need to be focused more around operational or combat roles than ranks. A streamlined rank structure would help to disconnect rank with role. It also means appointments could be based more on ability rather than on just seniority. Increasingly, we’re seeing how important it is to reward talent with greater responsibility earlier. If we want to retain talent, then we need to recognise not only competence, but equally effort and commitment.
A further benefit of this approach is that it could be used to disconnect pay from rank and years of service or absolute seniority. There might still need to be minimum and maximum pay bands for each rank and such an approach would need to apply to non-commissioned officers as well as to commissioned ones, but it would create a greater incentive to do well, which would help motivation and retention. Thus, you might set pay bands for each rank, but include some kind of annual bonus for meritorious service and ability. It means that a younger and promising junior ranks could be paid the same as or more than older and less motivated senior ranks. In any event, if we linked pay more to performance rather than just time in the job, we could start to see other efficiencies, including a reduction in the duplication of roles.
4. Flatter structures tend to promote greater teamwork and mutual dependancy. Another reason to consider a fewer number of ranks is that flatter structures help to promote teamwork and mutual reliance. The quality of NCOs today is superb, and having fewer commissioned officer ranks would make it easier to provide upward feedback. We all know how difficult it is to “speak truth to power” but it is essential, given that lives depend on good leadership decisions. Less hierarchical structures promote good communication between team members, both upwards and downwards, and foster a dynamic that promotes cohesion and cooperation. It means that tasks are completed in a way that focuses on who does what, not who is in charge. In days gone by, a clear chain of command was essential because communication above the noise of battle was so challenging and because casualty rates were often so high. But, even during the First World War private soldiers naturally took command of Sections or even Platoons when the established chain of command broke down.
6. British society has become much more classless. Another reason to consider change is that the existing rank structure reflects what used to be a much more socially stratified UK society, which existed until after the First World War. Today, Britain is a meritocracy and although not quite classless, previous divisions have become irrelevant. Someone’s family origins and connections no longer matter; it is who you are as a person and the qualities you bring that count. It means that where you went to school no longer matters. Former Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, attended a State school and reached the pinnacle of the armed forces. Twenty to thirty years ago, a non-private education might have counted against him. Higher standards of education have done much to promote equality and it is absolutely right that UK Armed Forces should reflect contemporary society. This means, as well as having fewer ranks, we also need to make it easier for talented non-commissioned officers to obtain commissions. Further to this, we need to consider the need for lateral entry. Experienced civilians entering or re-entering the military, and used to flat hierarchies, are likely to find current structures cumbersome and unbearably rigid.
We talk much about transforming the Armed Forces so that they are a truer reflection of society, but UK Government figures on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) integration into UK Armed Forces****** suggest that more needs to be done. Anyone who can achieve the required standards should qualify for promotion. Creating a flatter, fairer rank structure is a step in the right direction towards giving talented individuals deserved recognition, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin.
Education as a key enabler of a flatter rank structure
As has already been suggested, education is an important part of a flatter hierarchy. So an important enabler is offering professional qualifications to all those who want it, regardless of age, rank or unit. Education is expensive and time consuming, but while training prepares you to manage expected situations, education helps you prepare for the unexpected. When it comes to problem-solving, especially in extreme circumstances, education can be a force multiplier. On a practical level, professional education will help personnel of any rank achieve greater recognition while serving. It would also pave the way for a career beyond the services. Positioning the services as a route to a desired career is an effective way of attracting talent. We know that specialised qualifications have become extremely important for industry and technical professions. The challenge is to provide education that gives each service the technical skills it needs while ensuring that specific qualifications have utility beyond military service. A large part of this is promoting a mindset that values education as a career enabler. We need to look beyond basic degrees too. Allowing personnel to study for advanced Masters degrees and Doctorates would do much to promote the Armed Forces as a source of thought leadership.
The opposite is also true. Is it acceptable for any officer to join the services without a degree and to command personnel who are better qualified then he or she? Or, to put it another way, can leadership be effective without technical training that reinforces command abilities?
If a reduced rank structure is desirable, what is the optimum number of ranks?
If the case for a flatter rank structure has been established, the next question is: what is the optimum number of levels? To go from 18 to 6 ranks might be too radical a change. But any reduction cannot be an arbitrary decision, but based on the minimum number command levels necessary to ensure effective command, control and communication in battle. At a basic level, we can divide command levels as follows:
With this in mind, a reduction to just 12 ranks is proposed. This would include six commissioned officer ranks and six non-commissioned ranks. Using the Army as an example, the lowest rank would be Private and the highest General. While there would be an increased number of officers holding the same rank, defining necessary hierarchies for effective command would be achieved by role appointments, e.g. Company Commander, Ship’s Captain or Squadron Commander.
In order to differentiate the new structure from the old one, it may be a good idea to adopt simplified badges of rank. The Royal Navy could have two sizes of gold ring as before. The Royal Air Force could also use two blue ring sizes, while the Army would have just two rank insignia instead of four. The crown is so ubiquitous and used so widely across regimental cap badges, uniform types and buttons that it could be replaced by a different insignia. In this example, it is proposed to use a star plus a lion. The important thing is not to get preoccupied with the rank name or badges, but to focus on the concept of a flatter structure.
For the sake of greater commonality across the forces and simplification across different types of regiment in the Army, the anachronistic and confusing practice of having different names for the same rank is replaced with a common structure across all three forces with only minor variations in name. So three stripes would denote a Sergeant in the Army, as it always has, a Sergeant in the Royal Air Force, but, for the sake of tradition, in the Royal Navy this rank would be called a Petty Officer.
We also need to recognise the increased number of women serving in all three forces. Though it is acceptable to call all enlisted soldiers “Private,” “Gunner” or “Sapper,” it is not correct to refer to a female soldier as “Rifleman” or “Guardsman.” This is also true for the Royal Navy with the the rank “Able Seaman,” or the RAF with “Aircraftsman.” Therefore, it is proposed that gender neutral ranks be introduced. All Army enlisted personnel would be called “Private,” while Royal Navy male enlisted personnel would be called “Able Seaman” with the corresponding rank of “Able Seawoman” introduced for female enlisted personnel. However, like the Army, it might be simpler to refer to all naval enlisted personnel as “Sailor” or “Able Rating.” Similarly, Royal Air Force enlisted personnel would be called “Airman” or “Airwoman,” though it might be worth exploring whether a new and simpler gender-neural rank could be introduced, e.g. “Aircrafter.”
In summary, the following six commissioned ranks and six non-commissioned ranks are recommended:
To complement a reduction in ranks, we could introduce technical qualification and service badges that denote competence. For each service, these could include three levels of professional achievement corresponding to a basic degree, a master’s degree, and an advanced degree. It may also help to introduce badges that show proficiency in weapons, gunnery, communications, engineering, and other key systems.
We could introduce a third range of uniform badges that denote length of service. While medals might still be used to reward meritorious service, a simple system of uniform bars could be worn to recognise the number of years served, with one bar denoting five years of service; two bars denoting ten years of service, and so on, up to six bars denoting thirty years of service. These would be worn by all ranks.
For some, these suggestions will be akin to heresy. But the aim of this discussion isn’t to destroy or compromise the many great service traditions of the past, but to reflect contemporary society.
* Source: Home Office data, November 2017
** Source: UK MoD, Armed Forces Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics, 1 April 2018
*** Source: Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics,,UK MoD, July 2018 Edition
**** Source: Education at a Glance, OECD, 2011. Over the last 50 years, higher education has been more widely available to young people, with 81% of the population completing secondary education versus 45% prior to 1960; while 37% of young adults achieves a tertiary degree versus 13% prior to 1960.
*****The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War. Gen. Charles C. Krulak, Marines Magazine. (January 1999)
******Source: UK Armed Forces, Biannual Diversity Statistics, 1 October 2017