Rank Inflation

It is an often commented on 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.

UK Armed Forces Strength
FIG 1 – UK Armed Forces Major Units Strength


Major combat units have declined consistently over the last 20 years across all three services.

UK Armed Forces - Officers and Other Ranks
FIG 2 – UK Armed Forces – Officers and Other Ranks

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%

FIG 3 - UK Armed Forces Rank Comparison
FIG 3 – UK Armed Forces Rank Comparison


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.

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Euan Stewart
November 17, 2009 11:34 pm

Excellent work with the number crunching to produce some nice simple graphs. They clearly show how the services have become more top heavy. The idea that we should keep all these high ranking people just to keep rank parity in NATO commands is barmy to say the least do other nations do the same thing or are they a little more realistic? For the UK to have rank parity in commands alongside nations such as the USA with a much larger armed forces seems a bit odd we should have rank parity with nations of a similar size for example France or Italy. There may be good reasons why we should keep all these high ranking officers but there are reasons on why we should not have them. Cost would be a major point as each of these officers would no doubt be on a handsome salary with a dreaded expenses system to match. When money is as tight as it is logic should prevail over pride, tradition, jealousy, prestige and plain stupidity.

I would like to see the upper ranks get a proper trimming and brought into line with the rest of the force structure and if that means assigning lower ranks to positions within commands then it should happen. As long as the person sent to do a job is competent I do not see why his/her rank should affect the respect they receive from other nations within a command. In many respects the current command structure is outdated and looks to have changed little in decades, it really needs a top to bottom overhaul like much of the Armed Forces. There are many anchors on restructuring not least traditions and history which have a strong influence in the British Armed Forces and on the will to change but at some point change needs to happen.

November 18, 2009 10:42 am

I think Rank Parity means if the Americans appoint a Colonel to the working party that decides the next NATO infantry weapon calibre, we send a Colonel as well, or if the US Navy sends a Fleet Admiral to co ordinate joint fleet deployments, we send a Fleet Admiral too, rather than the Americans have 5000 Colonels, so we must have 5000 Colonels.

The privates to warrant officers ratio is actualy surprisingly private heavy, since the army lacks any sort of pay/skills recognition beyond rank, and the army has lost the 100,000 men who used to stag on all day every day, I’d expected that to be much higher.

The “Soldier Soldier” changes seem to have gutted the lower end of the higher ranks, but entirely unaffected the mid and high end of the top.

I again find myself argueing for the “proper” forces to be split from the “paper” MoD army and the logistical army.
And I swear, its been years since I last read Starship Troopers.

Euan Stewart
November 18, 2009 10:00 pm

Dominic I do agree in part with the idea of they send an Admiral we send an Admiral but part of me says no we should send who we can afford to send and who is suitable to send whether that means a captain or whoever. I don’t think we should try and match ranks with other nations as we simply cannot afford to play that game and do not have the armed forces of the size to generate the people with experience to match other nations. For example a US Admiral would have had a much broader experience than any RN admiral could hope to have so from that point I don’t see the point. From these graphs and statistics the conclusion I draw is that we have more officers than we need and they simply cost more to keep employed and skew the structure of the armed forces. You may be correct that many of these people are at the upper end of the ranks while the middle might have a void. I must admit I have no expertise or much knowledge in this area so I can only stab in the dark.

Could you explain or elaborate what you mean by “I again find myself arguing for the “proper” forces to be split from the “paper” MoD army and the logistical army.” I’m guessing what you mean is not counting desk bound officers in commands like NATO and MoD as part of the actual armed forces and instead count and pay them under the MoD staff list?. This would be one way of helping alleviate the pressure but my opinion would be to reduce the command structure down to what is workable and prudent.

November 19, 2009 7:40 am

Thats pretty much what I meant.
If you want to be called Brigadier, then there better be an actual Brigage sat underneath you.
If you want to be called Corporal, there better be 6 privates and a lance underneath you.

If you want to be called Colonel because your a surgeon and what the pay grade, you should be called, I suppose lance corporal or corporal, speciality surgeon.
Or simply removed from the army altogether.

Euan Stewart
November 19, 2009 4:04 pm

I agree with the first part of your comment, officers should have the responsibilities, experience and knowledge that come with holding a certain rank. Medical officers is an area I know even less about but the staff in the Royal Army Medical Corps I feel should have their own ranks rather than having ranks like colonel etc. I also think A&E doctors who work for the NHS should have to do a stint in the Armed Forces especially if they have had training paid for from the NHS or public purse, it will also be invaluable training for them.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
May 9, 2011 12:53 pm

According to Defence Analytical Services and Advice (DASA) the army had 170 Brigadiers as of 01 Jan 2011 (all figures are provisional), as well as 20 Generals and Lieutenant Generals and 40 Major Generals. It says a great deal about our structures and processes that for an army that currently maintains:

Field Army: two deployable 2 star HQs (1 and 3 Divs), 7 manoeuvre brigades, two logistic brigades (and 8 FEB);
Regional Forces: three two star HQs and 10 regional brigades;

So for a total of some 20 Brigadier command slots and 7 Maj Gen command slots (I include HQ Th Tps and an additional MOD Capability Director) we maintain such a high ratio of high powered staff.

As a comparison the US Army has some 302 generals (Brigadiers and above) compared to our 220.