Rank Inflation – Perceptions

Just been indulging in a spot of number crunching on rank inflation.

The common perception, if you read any of the mainstream media, seems to be that senior officer numbers have been outstripping junior officers and other ranks by quite some margin, especially over the last decade.

More Admirals than ships, Generals than Regiments, Air Marshalls than Squadrons and bumbling idiots all round is the general narrative.

Now I know the readership of Think Defence is a better informed group than the average MP or mainstream media defence journalist so before I spring forward with the actual numbers, it would be most interesting to see what such a well informed group thinks of the the issue.

Over to you…

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Sir Humphrey
February 20, 2012 11:20 pm

My own view is that we’re seeing a growth in the OF5 / OF6 roles, as posts that previously occupied 2* posts are downgraded.
At the same time, the 2* plus plot has remained relatively static, but the plot has downgraded – look at the loss of 4* officers to 3*, and 3* – 2*. The RN is moving to a structure of only one 4* and two 3* in the fleet hierachy, plus some wider purple posts. Compare this to twenty years ago and its a massive change.

I expect to see OF5 / OF6 as the future capping out point for most officers, with a much smaller cadre making 2* and beyond.

My own blog has done a piece on this already, and will be doing a piece on the ‘what do they all do’ shortly, once I can get round to finishing the text – http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.com/2012/02/stars-and-their-p45s-downsizing-at-top_05.html

February 21, 2012 1:25 am

Depends, some fill some proper needed roles that outnumber the ‘ships, tanks and planes’ to be CO of and some have that level of experience, skill and leadership the forces would be bereft without.

Maybe it would be solved by either only limiting the numbers that each ranks can have, but to some; they would see it as preventing their hard-won/worked for careers, wouldn’t be fair…although a fair few officers sometimes dont want to climb the ladder…pilots and ship captains detest being ‘desk-bound’, leaders of troops who’d prefer to stay with a company… when they’d prefer to stay infront. But that can only remain so for so-much time.

I think in the end, experience, merit and leadership should be the first things to be considered for promotion to the ‘egg-on-cap-peak’/special rope-yanyard ranks…not numbers; it should be that such positions have a change in bloke when the older lad retires/moves on. We’re seeing an inflation because defence is way more complicated/sub-divded than it used to be due to the paper-work, planning, intelligence, technology etc etc. Basically there’s a lot more than just the troops, planes and boats to be IC/OC of… and the media/public is unaware of that… Logistics alone would have many different departments needing people with the right knowledge to head them. How to streamline such diverse and different depts to save costs and personell numbers is beyond me really :/

February 21, 2012 6:36 am

Not quite rank inflation but. In our mob it’s over 100 I think (1* and above). I know it’s the norm to knock these numbers as in the videos above but their does seem to be some truth behind it. The numbers of OR has fallen very sharply in the past, say, 15/20 years and the number of 1* and above hasn’t changed by anything like the same number. Case in point the number of rn 1* has gone up in the past few years. There are whole areas across defence that we don’t do anymore or has been largely cut back yet figures from FoI, PMQS, defence Qs etc show number haven’t moved anywhere at the same rate over the same period. We know that it can’t be a one for one, but there still is the need for a similar number of high ranking OF, with far fewer things to manage which doesn’t really add up.

February 21, 2012 7:24 am

you did this about a year ago, the papers were right…..

February 21, 2012 7:29 am

you’ve got it wrong, we see sub division because rank inflation.
Its just ‘jobs for the boys’ and it stinks.

February 21, 2012 7:54 am

Would be very interesting to know the real figures on this one. In some ways to mirrors the same process thta has happened in industry. i.e less people making more stuff with the same number of board memebers and senior execs. While I realise there are allot of areas that need high ranking officals (such as captains to over sea ship construction projects) I think allot of it does smack as jobs for the boy’s. With the reduction in pen pushers (or qualified civilian staff) in the MOD this is probably understandable but we should probably be asking the question of weather a senior officer is the right person to be in charge of something like Typhoon, T45 or FRES or weather it should be a specialsit project manager with experience.

February 21, 2012 8:29 am

Don’t know anything about the topic, but will still be very interested to find out how purple posts are doing (and what they are, or are becoming, concentrated on).
– stats won’t necessarily give the answer to the latter, but Sir Humphrey’s ‘what do they all do’ might

February 21, 2012 8:35 am

Hi Martin,

RE “we should probably be asking the question of weather a senior officer is the right person to be in charge of something like Typhoon, T45 or FRES or weather it should be a specialsit project manager with experience.” it is two very different jobs to
– be managing the requirements input, finding the balance and then keeping an eye on VFM in getting that balance delivered (as we know gold plating has been more common than compromise)
– be managing the delivery (where project experience is what counts, and that role could be a civvy job)

February 21, 2012 9:37 am

I think they probably are too many CO to OR, I looked at general statistics and the ratio was about 1CO:10OR.

However before I pass judgement I want to know the number of purple CO and their jobs.
Then we could look at all the jobs and see which could be merged. :)

Brian Black
Brian Black
February 21, 2012 11:09 am

Hi, ACC. Why should the requirements input of a project need a guy in uniform? Doesn’t a lot of the gold-plating come from the military endlessly sticking their oar in. Once the military has laid down its bottom line requirements, and the MoD has capped its development budget, then the contractors should be left to get on with it.
There obviously needs to be customer/end-user liaison, but it shouldn’t need a uniform running the show.

February 21, 2012 11:22 am

Hi BB,

This part of the string of statements is undoubtedly true “Doesn’t a lot of the gold-plating come from the military endlessly sticking their oar in”

However, you can turn it on its head and say:
– the term of the requirements owners (I won’t use SRO as I don’t know to what degree they delegate to others) in their posts has been far too short for them to either take a 100% interest (e.g. read day and night on what they have taken on)or have enough skin in the game in terms of their career progression (in fact, the contrary has probably been true: a pressing need to get a “real” posting next)

That, I would say, has been the inherent weakness in the overall system, and the power to say ‘no’ to officers (various collections of them, in bodies with defined decision authority, or just loosely involved) who may hold a higher rank has been limited.

Further, I would contend that only long service will give enough depth to see through the value of different combinations of capability (obviously conferring within your service, but at a recognised peer-to-peer level), and where the cut-off level is in the intended threat environment; and where the VFM compromises start (above that cut off).

Brian Black
Brian Black
February 21, 2012 12:14 pm

Part of that lack of interest probably comes from staff not having a clue about what they’re doing. ACC. I get the impression from some of the things I’ve read, of people just trying to ensure that nothing blows up in their face before they get their next ‘real’ posting.
Problems in procurement should have been obvious for a very long time; the way that defence reviews have been used for decades, to identify and resolve issues that should have been sorted or at least flagged by the individual project managers.

February 21, 2012 12:37 pm


Sadly you are probably right “impression from some of the things I’ve read, of people just trying to ensure that nothing blows up in their face before they get their next ‘real’ posting.”
– that’s the general civil service phenomenon
– Armed Forces are supposed to (and do) have the ‘can do’ attitude,
– but Procurement is at the confluence of the two, like the Amazon (black and blue coming together, and) nobody can predict exactly how the two will mix

February 21, 2012 12:58 pm

Rank inflation in Germany is afaik mostly about the volunteer (not professional) levels (many soldiers turn into professional soldiers after a 8 or 12 year volunteer service).

Rank inflation among professional soldiers seems to be an effect of downsizing the force more among new volunteers and conscripts than among the professional troops (meaning the remainder has to be employed ‘somehow’). Plus there’s the effect from multinational institutions and operations that you don’t want your officer lower-ranking than a foreign one just because the foreign one is from a country with rank inflation.

The most blatant rank inflation here that I know about is about pay and prestige. It’s awfullly difficult to get a semi-intelligent civilian to sign up for a 4 year service as enlisted man, so they offer them a quick entry into NCO status and pay with an 8 year commitment. As a result, we’ve got junior NCOs in non-leadership jobs that were occupied by enlisted (even conscripts) before.

There’s also a rank inflation among enlisted personnel; additional enlisted personnel ranks were added a log time ago and nowadays it’s really easy for 4 year volunteers to rise high in these enlisted ranks.
Back in WW2, the second enlisted rank signalled competence way higher than basic training and the third one signalled high performance or experience. Nowadays, you get those on a schedule within months.

The rank inflation would not be so bad if they had done something about attractiveness of service and better pay for the same old ranks. Furthermore, they lacked balls for balanced personnel cuts.

February 21, 2012 1:11 pm

RE “The rank inflation would not be so bad if they had done something about attractiveness of service and better pay for the same old ranks” this is what they had to do in Russia
– air force went fully pro, whereas the other branches of defence did not (not affordable) so everything was revamped, to create a structure not related to the other services (that also contain a pro element)

Is it like that (by stealth) in the RAF (‘officers only’) – do note, I am not criticising

February 21, 2012 1:14 pm


I know there’s some of that, I did not mean the entire of the ‘senior officer corps’, just that the media and public are unaware that there is far more than just machines and men to be IC of, there’s more to defence than just planes, ships and armour and the peple. I thought you knew that.

I would prefer to see lists on what they do, and maybe even what they accomplish, not just the numbers to wag a finger at and make a lot of noise.

February 21, 2012 4:30 pm

From a humble warfare officer’s perspective, the balance at the lower end is heavily skewed towards the engineering ranks, with an average of 2 sea jobs for a Lt Cdr ME or WE. The numbers of said officers ashore in MOD Abbey Wood is breathtaking. Logistics about right, Warfare again about right but that said the whole service is still pulling through the effects of the SDSR redundancies which should winnow out a lot of the shore-based chaff.

Desk Jockey
Desk Jockey
February 21, 2012 4:52 pm

The reason why so many of them are in Bristol is because a)There aren’t enough vessels for them to sail in and b)The MOD has pretty much slashed the numbers of civvy specialists that could have done it. If the RN wants its kit to turn up at the right specs, you need someone with the technical knowledge to check it. Everything else can be handled by the contractors.

On a wider note, every single MOD survey for the last 10 years has clocked very low confidence in the MOD and the military in the decision making skills of those at the top. The people who know, do not think much of them, must be a reason…

Personally, I think there are some individually very competent people there, but their ability to make good corporate decisions is completely lacking. This may indeed be a clue that there are too many, blocking any true ideas/leadership from flourishing.

February 21, 2012 5:20 pm

@ ACC ‘Is it like that (by stealth) in the RAF (‘officers only’) – do note, I am not criticising’

I’m not quite sure what you mean.

February 21, 2012 7:12 pm

Hi Topman,

What I meant is that it (RAF) is technical “trade” and not only that, beyond technical skills the specifics to acquire, by training with the equipment, come at a high price (expenditure around the individual).

Where you have a conscripted force, and can take the pick from the best universities, the time to train “on the job” for the specifics is still short, and you end up with a much lower part of the manning being conscripts (than in the army/ navy).

So pay scales, to attract what you need from the labour market, in an all-professional force:
– is it done through “grades”, ie. rank
– is it done through unique job descriptions, and a top-up according to such grading…on top of rank

How is it actually done?

February 21, 2012 7:46 pm

@ ACC same as it is in the two other services. The need to attract from a labour force is done through appealing to it on many fronts, pay being one.

On a more specialised basis such as Dentists and Legal Experts it’s through an accelerated pay increase linked to rank. A lot of jobs such as the above tend to be ‘rank ranged’ this meaning in a certain post you can be promoted without having to move. For example in a dental section it wouldn’t matter if the 2 dentists for the unit were both sqn ldrs or both flt lts. On the Auxiliary side it’s more of a top up system similar to the TA, but is less common due to the very small nature of the RAuxAF compared to the TA.

Is this the sort of thing you meant?

February 21, 2012 8:04 pm

Hi Topman, yes it was.

Just that the medical example applies across the services, whereas I was thinking of the more specialist trades (fighter pilot is an extreme example, because of the flying or simulator hours – and the cost of them -that go with it, so let’s leave that one aside)

But the general idea is to map on to the rank scale?

February 21, 2012 8:22 pm

‘whereas I was thinking of the more specialist trades ‘

I see you mentioned pilot and opted to leave it out. What others did you have in mind?

‘But the general idea is to map on to the rank scale?’


February 21, 2012 8:40 pm

Hi Topman,

You have the guys who maintain the engines (an exact equivalent trade with the civvy street), but then you start to work up to the integrated weapon systems that have no direct comparison, and even within the service there are the complex ones and the ones that are simply loaded onto the pylons.

Not to mention mission control (air traffic controllers are well paid, though, and have a much more boring job)

February 21, 2012 8:51 pm


‘You have the guys who maintain the engines (an exact equivalent trade with the civvy street)’

Not really on the face of it you’re right, but without getting into the differnces too deep they are quite big. Even making a comparison is hard, but roughly in civvy street you twice as much for aircraft work. Although it’s very difficult to make the comparison. Broadly equivilant is a better way of looking at it.

I suppose we are getting into pay comparisons now. We are generally compared to paramedics and fireman etc for purposes of the X factor.

One of the reasons why it’s so had to compare, is the narrow banding in the forces. There are only 2 bands; higher and lower at each rank and it’s tri service and this has to cover literally 100+ trades in the forces.

February 21, 2012 9:19 pm

This ” narrow banding in the forces. There are only 2 bands; higher and lower at each rank and it’s tri service” is where I “sort of” started
– I know it is problem, but I don’t know the solution

February 21, 2012 9:29 pm

I’m not so sure it, it serves it’s purpose. Another system was in place for each service before 2000, when the current system came into place.

What problem specifically were you thinking of?

February 21, 2012 9:41 pm

Not sure it is a good idea to make someone a major or colonel, just to pay the going “wage”
– e.g. the Australian navy is missing a third of their engineering strength just because there has been a prolonged commodities boom

“Luckily” we don’t have that problem? But what about specialisms? Nuclear safety, within the navy specifically, has a third of the vacancies unfilled; why? Anything to be done about it? Could CASD turn into continuously at port, just for that reason, with some slip-up?

February 21, 2012 9:54 pm

Well this is more retention, that’s being attempted to be solved (at the moment) through bonuses to stay on. These are pinch point trades. I think the people you talk are on 50k bonus for 5 years service, amoungst others. Some pilots are on 100k extra for 5 years. Sometimes it doesn’t work. It can just give money to those that would have stayed anyway (dead moeny in affect) and money isn’t always this issue. It’s interesting to see the affect of them.

It’s not always money either it can be a whole range of issues; posting locations, training accomadation/housing, time away from home, the ‘wife factor’, promotions etc.

Sir Humphrey
February 23, 2012 2:35 pm