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 has become just as important as absolute seniority or the management position held.
(Above) British Army Brigadier. (Image: National Army Museum)
The case for change
Today, the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force have 16, 18 and 23 different ranks respectively. Compared to other organisations, including commercial and government entities, this is a substantial hierarchy, especially when you factor-in five levels of General rank. Those who defend the existing rank structure 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 service. You need to know who is responsible and to whom responsibility devolves in case a commander is injured, killed or captured. Further, the current rank system has been in use for more than a century with proven utility in two major conflicts as well as countless small wars. This means that even the most compelling case for change will be met by stiff resistance. Given the likely reluctance of senior officers to accept the need for change, the first job of this article is to explain why the system is broken and what the benefits of change would be.
(Above) The NATO Armed Forces Rank System allows for 10 Officer Ranks and 9 Other Ranks. Do we really need such a hierarchical and stratified system?
Five reasons to consider streamlining the total number of ranks across the UK’s armed forces:
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 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 400 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. This means we can and should rely more on junior leaders.
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 more 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. Flatter structures tend to promote greater teamwork and mutual dependancy. Another reason to consider fewer 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. The apocryphal story that illustrates this is the Field Marshal whose staff officers only tell him what they think he wants to hear, rather than what is actually going on. So, he leaves his HQ and visits a forward unit where he finds a platoon sergeant who tells him the unvarnished truth. Less hierarchical structures promote good communication between team members, both upwards and downwards. They foster a group dynamic that promotes cohesion and cooperation. This allows tasks to be 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.
4. 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 technical skill to operate them. This means that force structures need to be focused more around professional skills 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 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 years of service and absolute seniority. There might still need to be minimum and maximum pay bands for each rank and such an approach ought to apply to warrant and non-commissioned officers as well as commissioned officers, 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 might be paid the same or more than an older and less motivated senior rank. 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.
Technical competence is about education. Many soldiers who join the armed forces may be intelligent and capable, but not have benefitted from the same quality of education enjoyed by commissioned ranks. One of the great strengths of all three services is that they facilitate personal and professional development. The ability to unlock potential and create new opportunities post-service has been a longstanding aid to recruitment. With industry and commerce requiring higher standards of technical competence, the Navy, Army and RAF may no longer train service men and women to same standards as commercial firms. If this is correct, then technical training must be re-prioritised.
5. 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. This is as it should be. Higher standards of education have done much to promote equality and it is right that UK Armed Forces should reflect contemporary society. This means, as well as having fewer ranks, we also need to remove some of the non-professional barriers that prevent talented non-commissioned officers from obtaining 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. This could be detrimental to attracting technically skilled people.
An integral part of streamlining the total number of ranks is to reduce the delineation between Officer and Enlisted Ranks. A smaller number of senior ranks will help the Armed Forces to become more classless and less stratified. In particular, it would be helpful to allow Warrant officers to assume command roles earlier in their careers as well as making the transition from Enlisted to Commissioned status easier.
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 that enhances your mental faculties:, i.e. that teaches you to think, helps prepare you 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 also paves 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 and professional development as a career enabler. We need to look beyond basic degrees too. Allowing personnel to study for advanced degrees, Masters and Doctorates, would do much to promote the Armed Forces as a source of thought leadership.
The opposite is also true. Is it still acceptable for any officer to join the services without a degree and to command personnel who are better qualified than he or she? Or, to put it another way, can leadership be effective without technical training that reinforces the authority of command decisions?
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 9 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 Enlisted 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. The following six commissioned ranks and six non-commissioned ranks are proposed:
(Above) The proposed simplification of the UK armed forces’ rank structure would streamline the total number to 6 Officer Ranks and 6 Enlisted Ranks. The approach would aim to harmonise rank titles and insignia as much as possible, but without sacrificing the heritage and tradition of each service.
Any approach to simplify the total number of UK Armed Forces ranks must be relevant to contemporary needs and forward looking. It must manage the levels of command relevant to all three services. It must maintain tradition and links with the past. The resulting structure should be simple and easy to understand.
For the sake of commonality across the forces and simplification across different Army branches, it is proposed that the anachronistic and confusing practice of having different names and insignia 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 still be called a Petty Officer and use a system of anchors.
We also need to recognise the increased number of women serving in all three forces. Although it’s acceptable to call enlisted soldiers “Private,” ‘Trooper” “Gunner” and “Sapper,” it is not correct to refer to a female soldier as “Rifleman,” “Kingsman,” 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 enlisted personnel within the infantry 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 “Aircraftsman” or “Aircraftswoman,” though it might be worth exploring whether a new and simpler gender-neural rank could be introduced, e.g. “Technician.”
To complement a reduction in ranks, four levels of technical qualification are proposed with service badges that denote the level of competence achieved. For each service, these could include:
- Standard level of military competence
- GCSE equivalents
- Degree equivalent
- Advanced degree equivalent
Part of professional development would obviously include standard military topics such as Weapons, Doctrine & Tactics, C4I, Information Technology, and Logistics, but other subjects like Accounting & Finance, Modern languages, Politics & Diplomacy could also be included. Encouraging all ranks to develop their scientific knowledge would encourage high technical standards across specialist arms, e.g. Law and Mechanical Engineering.
There can be big difference in how officers treat a junior rank who possesses an advanced degree or superior technical competence. When the opinion of technical expert is sought, it can dramatically improve decision-making and thus operational effectiveness.
In terms of implementing a reduced number of ranks, it is important to focus on the concept of a streamlined approach to command levels, not the names of the ranks or insignia used used. So while the examples that follow are illustrative, they are not in any way prescriptive.
(Above) Naval officer ranks would use the two of existing ring-type rank insignia with third thinner ring abandoned. There are two senior admiral ranks, two middle ranks, and two junior ranks. Enlisted ranks remain unchanged with six levels and the existing insignia are also retained using the traditional system of anchors. It might be desirable to add stripes that correspond to the Army and Air Force ranks of Lance Corporal, Corporal, and Sergeant for easier cross-service rank identification.
(Above) Creating a reduced rank structure for the Army is more problematic, because it has traditionally used multiple insignia type. It is proposed that, like the Navy, just two rank insignia are used, the pip and the sword & baton crossed. Like the Navy, this creates two general officer ranks, two middle level ranks, and two junior ranks. A Company or Squadron would be commanded by Captain. A regiment would be commanded by Major or Colonel. A Brigade could be commanded by a Colonel or Vice-General. Enlisted ranks would continue to use traditional stripes, but WO2 and S/Sgt ranks merge into a new Warrant Officer rank.
(Above) The Royal Air Force would continue to use the existing ring insignia types, but, like the Navy, the third thinner ring would disappear. The Enlisted Rank structure follows the Army, as before, but merges Flight Sergeant, Chief Technician, and Aircrew ranks into a new single Warrant officer rank.
An OR-1 (Lieutenant) would promoted to OR-2 (Commander/ Captain / Squadron Leader) after 3 to 4 years of service. An OR-2 would be promoted to OR-3 (Captain/ Major/ Group Captain) after 8-10 years of service. An OR-3 would be promoted to OR-4 (Commodore/ Colonel/ Air Commodore) after 15-20 years of service. An OR-4 might be promoted to OR-5 (Vice Admiral/ Vice General or Vice Air Marshal) very soon after making it to OR-4, based on merit, or might not be promoted further at all. Across all three services, OR-5 and OR-6 (Admiral, General, and Air Marshal) would be rare with not more than 40-50 per service.
Pay would be linked more to role than absolute seniority. it would also reflect personal development and the level of professional development reached. For example, an experienced and highly competent Navy Warrant Officer could be paid more than a junior less technically skilled Lieutenant.
It may be too much to reduce all three services from their current number of ranks to just 12 in one go. If this is the case, it might be preferable to move to an interim number of 14 ranks with eight officer ranks and six enlisted ranks.
(Above) An interim approach to rank reduction might streamline the total number from 18 to 14. Enlisted Ranks would be reduced as already described to 6 ranks, while officer ranks would be reduced to 8 instead of 6. In this case, a new rank between Lieutenant and Captain is added, while a third General rank is retained. The Army rank of Lieutenant Captain is designed to correspond with the Naval rank of Lieutenant Commander.
To summarise, any attempt to streamline the total number of ranks would require a revised system across NATO, so that the armed forces of all member states would reflect the same number of command levels. If there was wide scale buy-in to the benefits, then changing structures across NATO would not be that difficult to implement. The only real barrier to change might be the attitude of senior officers who might feel threatened or marginalised by a perceived loss of status. So, this exercise might need to be a political one rather than a military-led initiative.
Whatever the process or the resulting number of ranks, the goal is to create a flatter structure with a reduced number of command levels that better reflects how commercial and non-military organisations function. This would encourage greater cooperation and teamwork, but would not necessarily lead to a loss of control or reduced standards. Most important of all, such a reduction would allow technical credentials to assume a greater importance, with better recognition and reward. Not everyone wants to be a manager, but competent personnel still want their professional skills to be respected and remunerated.
As weapons and communication systems become more sophisticated, the technical competence of the people who operate them must be given a higher priority. Making professional and personal development a priority will improve technical standards. It will additionally give individuals a greater sense of fulfilment and achievement. Equally, it will allow people to leave the services and rejoin at a later stage. When skilled personnel can be persuaded to return to the services, this not only maximises a return on the initial investment to train them, but raises the standards of the whole force.
For some, these suggestions will be akin to heresy. But the purpose of this discussion isn’t to destroy or compromise the many great service traditions of the past, but to reflect contemporary society and the way the Armed Forces need to function to deliver effect.
 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