The Defence Review and the Military High Command: Do changes in personnel numbers suggest that the armed forces are capable of modernising themselves?


In December 2017, General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the General Staff (CGS) exchanged ‘Letters to the Editor’ in The Times with Frank Ledwidge, one of our King’s Department of War Studies colleagues.[1] At issue was the size of the senior officer corps compared to the rest of the armed forces.

Contestation surrounding the number of generals, admirals, and air marshals in the UK’s armed forces is not new. During 2009 and 2010, Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman highlighted the post-Cold War upward trend in the relative proportion of senior officers, arguing that this seemed counter-intuitive for an organisation seeking to manage its resources more efficiently.[2] This thesis was subsequently echoed by the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, during the three-way leadership debate prior to the 2010 General Election. In response, the subsequent Coalition government’s first Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, pledged to cut senior officer numbers by 20 per cent. General Carter’s recent letter to The Times suggests this initiative has succeeded to the extent that the number of brigadiers and generals under his command had fallen by nearly 40 per cent.

The financial challenge before defence

Since the exchange of letters in The Times, CGS and the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, have made a series of speeches setting out the case for increasing the UK defence budget.[3] As a consequence, the Defence element has now been detached from the government’s ongoing National Security Capability Review and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now embarking on the ‘Modernizing Defence Programme’. In parallel, rumours about the potential scale of the financial challenges currently confronting the MoD have steadily leaked out since 2017 suggesting several scenarios involving future cuts to the armed forces. More tangible insights into the scale of the funding challenge confronting the MoD are provided in headline finding of the National Audit Office report on the MoD’s 2017-2027 Equipment Plan, namely that:

The Equipment Plan is not affordable. After assuming that the £6 billion of contingency funds set aside in the Plan to supplement budgets will be utilised, the Department is facing a minimum affordability gap of £4.9 billion. There is an additional affordability gap of £15.9 billion if all identified financial risks of cost growth materialise and the Department does not achieve any of the savings assumed in the Plan. Overall, the potential affordability gap is £20.8 billion.[4]

While many are now campaigning for additional resources to be allocated to defence,[5] the issue of whether the MoD is spending its budget efficiently remains open to debate. In particular, the MoD’s most recent personnel statistics raise questions regarding its drive towards greater efficiency.

Firstly, as the Table 1 below shows, there has been an increase in the proportion of officers compared to other ranks over recent years, with cuts in the numbers of other ranks occurring at more than three times the rate of their officer counterparts.

Table 1 – UK Regular Forces

1 April 2012 1 April 2017 % change
Officers 30704 28991 -6%
Other Ranks 149100 120375 -19%
UK Regular Forces 179804 149366 -17%

Source: Ministry of Defence, ‘UK armed forces monthly service personnel statistics: October 2017’, Table 11a, accessed 7 February 2018.

Second, it is clear that the pledge to reduce the numbers of generals and their equivalents by 20 per cent has not been achieved (see Table 2).

Table 2 – UK Officer numbers by rank  

1 April 2012 1 April 2017 % change
OF-9 General or equivalent 10 8 -20%
OF- 8 Lieutenant-General or equivalent 25 26 4%
OF-7 Major General or equivalent 101 94 -17%
OF-6 Brigadier or equivalent 330 303 -8%
Total for the General Rank (OF-6 – OF-9) 466 431 -8%
OF-5 or Colonel or equivalent 1143 1069 -6%
OF-4 or Lieutenant-Colonel or equivalent 3920 3681 -6%
OF-3 or Major or equivalent 9051 8181 -10%
OF-2 or Captain or equivalent 12032 9169 -24%
OF-1/OF(0) or Lieutenant/Sub-Lieutenant or equivalent 4092 4460 9%

Source: Ministry of Defence, ‘UK armed forces monthly service personnel statistics: October 2017’, Table 11a, accessed 7 February 2018.

Third, given General Carter’s claim to have reduced the number of senior officers under his command by nearly 40 per cent it would suggest that the other Top Level Budget Holders are responsible for the overall rise in the proportion of general officer ranks across the UK armed forces. This raises questions about the criteria employed by the other services and elements of defence in creating their respective organisational structures.

Fourth, CGS’s language in his letter was also interesting. In the armed forces of other countries, the Brigadier-General rank and its equivalent is a general officer rank. In the British Army, the title has long been Brigadier as a means of separating this 1* rank out from the overall numbers of generals thus implying the overall number of British generals is smaller compared to their foreign counterparts.

Fifth, a further point of note is that the British Army is at variance with many of its European and US counterparts in terms of ranks and roles. In contrast to the British Army, in many European countries and the US the situation is that brigades are commanded by colonels and not brigadiers, whilst at a more junior level infantry companies, tank squadrons and so forth are commanded by captains rather than majors. The observation here is important because in pyramidic military structures, as each post is enhanced those below it are also enhanced. So a full General has a number of Lieutenant-Generals working to him/her and so forth. The Royal Air Force now follows the Army’s example with flights being commanded by Squadron Leaders, squadrons commanded by Wing Commanders and Groups commanded by Air Vice-Marshals.

So why does this matter? The answer is that the MoD confronts acute financial challenges and rank inflation results in higher personnel costs, which can only be offset either through reductions in overall personnel numbers or cuts to other elements of the defence budget such as equipment.

So, how might the MoD respond to these developments? Our main observations and recommendations are that:

  1. The MoD needs to recognise that rank inflation is both a cost but also an opportunity for modernisation. With such an experienced officer cohort the potential for modernization, at least in theory, is quite significant.


  1. The MoD should consider moving away from the metric of personnel numbers to one of overall cost. Such an approach might incentivise the various military commands to consider altering their staffing base towards a flatter, more worker orientated focus.


  1. The MoD might also consider reviewing the potential merits of adopting the European/US model of having captains command infantry companies and their equivalents, and colonels and their equivalent commanding brigades.


  1. Given the pyramidic nature of the armed forces, the relative apexes of commands could be reduced as means of reducing the overall cost of personnel. For example, given the overall personnel reduction in the UK’s armed forces since the end of the Cold War, the question of whether the single-service Chiefs still need to be full Generals, Admirals and Air Chief Marshals might usefully be addressed, if only to confirm a continued utility in an era of austerity.


Image: Troops trooping the colour, July 2007, via wikimedia commons

* For Prof Dorman’s previous interpretation of this issue see Andrew M Dorman, ‘Rank nonsense’, Parliamentary Brief, vol.12, no.8, April 2010, pp.15-6.

[1] ‘Letters to the Editor’, Dr Frank Ledwidge and General Sir Nick Carter, The Times, 29 December 2017, p.30.

[2] Paul N Cornish and Andrew M Dorman, ‘National defence in the age of austerity’, International Affairs, vol.85, no.4, July 2009, pp.733-53.; Andrew M Dorman, ‘Rank nonsense’, Parliamentary Brief, vol.12, no.8, April 2010, pp.15-6.

[3] General Sir Nicholas Carter, ‘Dynamic Security threats and the British Army’, speech made at RUSI, 22 January 2018, accessed 7 February 2018; Gavin Williamson, ‘Modernising Defence Programme’, Hansard, 25 January 2018.

[4] In bold in original. National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027’, HC.717, session 2017-18, (London: TSO, 2018), p.6, accessed 7 February 2018.

[5] See questions and answer to Gavin Williamson, ‘Modernising Defence Programme’, Hansard, 25 January 2018.

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