The Army’s Officer Career Structure is Not Fit for Purpose

Main Image Credit Officer Cadets preparing to pass out as army officers at the Sovereign’s Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, August 2020. Courtesy of Defence Imagery/MOD News Licence

The British Army must strengthen how it incubates, retains and promotes a broader range of expertise.

The typical British Army posting lasts two years. The reason for this is straightforward. There are nine substantive ranks (if 2nd and 1st lieutenants are merged), which, combined with the tiers of professional military education, mean that each officer can have two jobs at each rank below that of general – one command and one staff position – before topping out within the maximum years of service. The army is unusual because whereas civilian organisations recruit specialists to fill specific positions, the army is almost exclusively fed from its base, and at the base there are a narrow range of specialisms available.

This structure produces expert combat commanders. A British infantry major, on taking up company command, will likely have led a platoon, functioned as a company second in command (gaining expertise as a planner), served as a military assistant or equivalent post to a senior officer to gain an understanding of the decisions made above them, and completed their first round of staff college. They will have focused on the tactical application of infantry for around a decade. This expertise, however, is generated at the expense of a wide range of other areas of expertise that the military needs but fails to prioritise or reward.

The same major, having spent 10 years refining their expertise in commanding infantry, will likely next find themselves a staff officer. In this capacity they might – for example – carry out staff work to support delivery of an armoured vehicle programme. And here things get messy. Delivery of an armoured vehicle into service takes 7–15 years. The new staff officer will have no background in procurement, have no personal relationships with the companies involved, and their education on the subject will have amounted to little more than some PowerPoint presentations.

In this situation the diligent officer will likely spend the best part of the first year in post trying to understand their environment, the people involved, why seemingly obvious solutions to challenges are in fact not solutions, and given that they are an infanteer, how armoured vehicles even work. For their second year in post, they are likely to become increasingly effective, only to then be moved on. This would not necessarily be too problematic if this same individual were brought back to the same procurement team as a lieutenant colonel later in their career. This, however, is almost never the case. Indeed, if they are destined for higher command, the post will have been used to give them an ‘understanding’ of procurement, rather than get the best outcome for the British Army. Furthermore, this same dynamic is replicated in more senior staff officer postings and even the general officers in charge of these programmes, so that senior personnel with no background in the area are suddenly asked to make decisions.

Officers who know they do not know enough and are in post to gain awareness before being promoted elsewhere are liable to indulge in some behaviours injurious to the success of the programmes they manage. First, their foremost concern is not to rock the boat, because they will not be in post long enough to be seen to resolve any problems that arise on their watch. Since the highly competitive reporting system for promotion relies on only two reports during their short appointment, problems that cannot be solved within the time they are in post will count against their career prospects. Second, knowing their own limitations, they will defer decisions upwards. Thus, the tradition of mission command – effectively practised during combat operations – where decision-making powers are pushed down to the lowest level, is reversed in non-combat roles. General officers therefore find themselves inundated with trivial material they must sign off, ensuring that they are too busy to have time to think and make careful judgements.

If this were a problem confined to procurement, the conclusion might be that the army career structure is fine and merely needs tinkering with in some particular silos. Alas, this is not the case. The recent Defence Command Paper encouraged the British Army to be more widely deployed, delivering training and capacity-building, and working upstream of conflicts to tackle threats at source. This relies on language skills, trusting relationships with partners and enough contextual understanding to avoid being deceived. Suffice to say, a two-year posting to a unit managing critical relationships is insufficient. It virtually guarantees that relationships will be shallow, impersonal and transactional, and that reporting from officers on the ground will endlessly speak of ‘progress’ without being sufficiently aware of the problems to be able to provide any meaningful measure of effect.

The answer to this specific problem is that junior and field grade officers at the coalface of partner force capacity-building need to be in post for four years and need to be empowered to spend longer in country. They need to interface with partners for long enough to have personal trusting relationships. Once those relationships are established, they can maintain them with very intermittent re-engagement. Over the course of their career, they should be encouraged and supported in maintaining those relationships even if they are no longer working on the country in question on a daily basis. The same applies to procurement positions and to some leadership positions where the tempo of decision-making has a longer time horizon than in brigade or divisional manoeuvre. It should also be noted that families value stability and that longer postings in many cases would likely boost retention of personnel and their expertise.

Making longer postings routinely possible will require a shift in culture. At present there are officers who ‘extend’ in post or remain within a rank band and pursue jobs within a narrower field. The tragedy is how often these officers say that they decided to do this once it was clear that their ‘career had stalled’, or that ‘they weren’t going to make the cut’ for promotion. For an organisation that boasts that its people are its greatest asset – which is undoubtedly true – it is remarkable how the organisation exploits a very narrow set of its people’s talents, to the exclusion of many others.

It is not the case that all military jobs should be four years long. Command positions within warfighting formations, chiefs of staff and other high-pressure jobs cannot be sustained for a prolonged period. Similarly, military assistants, adjutants and others are as much about exposing junior officers to the wider environment within which they must operate as they are about delivery. Moving more personnel through these posts is therefore a good thing. But for a range of tasks across the ranks, time in post is undoubtedly critical to effectiveness.

Recognising some of these challenges, the British Army established Programme CASTLE, which is tasked with adjusting the army career structure to improve talent management. It is encouraging that the director of Programme CASTLE – Brigadier James Cook – has been given an extended posting to see through the delivery. Nevertheless, CASTLE must overcome deep cultural conservatism across the army as an institution. Given repeated failures of army procurement to the point where the force is no longer able to conduct high-intensity armoured warfare, along with defeat in campaigns dependent on partner forces, the question must be asked whether a career structure that is undermining the institution’s ability to successfully deliver its core tasks is worth preserving.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Jack Watling

Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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