It is often commented on the fact that rank inflation, where senior ranks do not shrink at the same rate as lower ranks, is making the armed forces top-heavy. Senior ranks are very expensive with extensive salary and pension costs.
Using data from the underused and thoroughly professional Defence Analytical Services and Advice (DASA) we have created a graphical representation of the underlying data.
Major combat units have declined consistently over the last 20 years across all three services.
Figure 2 shows the combined strength across the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force. The rate of decline in officers has not matched the rate of decline in other ranks although in percentage terms the increase is quite modest, in 1990 the Officer percentage was 14% of the total establishment, in 2009, the figure stood at 17%
Figure 3 shows that whilst the rate of decline across the aggregate of services and rank has been consistently downward the rate of decline in the 2 highest rank groups has been relatively modest whilst in the Colonel/Group Captain/Captain (RN) has actually increased recently.
Many of the senior ranks fill command posts in NATO and other Headquarters units that demand rank parity with other countries but without a doubt officers as a percentage of the whole have seen an increase and certain rank bands have actually increased despite the overall combined strength falling by a third in the last 20 years.
When examined as a proportion it is blindingly obvious that given the modest rate of decline in senior officers and the dramatic decline in other ranks, inflation has bloated the upper echelons.
Other Ranks have also seen rank inflation, in 1990 the Private to Warrant Officer ratio was 91% to 9%, in 2009 the same ratio is 88% and 12%.
The armed forces rank structure is a layered pyramid and as the whole shrinks, the layers will not always shrink in proportion because of promotion lag and the need for certain ranks to be retained for command and technical reasons.
One should also remember that promotion, whether for OR’s or Officers, is an important retention tool.
Whilst Bird and Fortune might offer an amusing viewpoint the future defence review must examine rank inflation, the disproportionate increase in certain rank bands and whether rank is the best means of measuring career progression.