It was recently announced by the Royal Navy that the internationally respected position of Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) is to be discontinued. The new position is one rank lower (Commodore) and in an intelligent bit of branding, to be called Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training. So still FOST, basically.
The response to this across the twittersphere was classically resigned. “It doesn’t matter” and “it’s happened before and the sky didn’t fall in” being typical.
I wonder though. Does rank dilution matter or not?
To answer this, I’m going to start with a base assumption:
The more senior the person is in a position the more experience they have and, based on the selection requirements for higher rank, the more capable they will be.
Now, I will concede that this is quite an assumption, especially the second half. We have all seen junior officers who knock spots off their superiors. Conversely there have been 2*s over the years whose thick stripe has felt like a tailoring error (no disrespect). But on average, assuming a functioning promotion system and when reviewed across branches, ranks and years, this assumption must be true.
In which case, the only reason rank dilution wouldn’t matter was if the wrong level was set in the first place or had become wrong over time.
Looking at the table below, there are certainly a number of positions that fall into that second category. A 4* Second Sea Lord and Commander in Chief Fleet being two good examples. In fact, size and shape of the top of the pyramid feels about right just now but beneath that there has been significant rank dilution over the years. Here are some of the ones I can remember (since 1990) – I am sure there are many others:
|Fleet Commander||4*||3*||2012||Was Commander In Chief|
|Second Sea Lord||4*||3*||2005|
|Flag Officer Scotland||3*||2*||c. 1996|
|Commandant General Royal Marines||3*||2*||1998|
|Training establishment captains||Scale A Captain**||1* now 1st/2nd tour Captain||1998||Dartmouth, Raleigh, Collingwood, Sultan|
|Admiralty Interview Board||1*||Commander||u/k|
|Flag Officer Sea Training||2*||1*||2000||Now Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training|
|Flag Officer Flotillas||3 x 2*||1 x 1* and 2 x Captain||c. 1995||Devflot demoted to Captain ‘20|
|Aircraft carrier Captain||Scale A Captain||1st/2nd tour Captain||2020||Was always second sea command as a Captain|
|P2000 Captain||Senior Lt/Lt Cdr||Second tour Lt||c. 2000|
|Chief of Defence Staff||5*||4*||1997|
|Director Defence Medical Services||3*||2*||1990s|
|Director Plans||1* (per service)||Single 1*||2010s|
|CINC Naval Home Command||4*||N/A||Discontinued|
|Deputy Fleet Commander||3*||N/A||Discontinued|
|Flag Officer Submarines||3*||2*||There are quite a few in this category that have been either discontinued or double/treble hatted|
|Flag Officer Naval Aviation||2*||2*||There are quite a few in this category that have been either discontinued or double/treble hatted|
Other than having a job set at a certain level to optimise output, there are other factors that determine the rank of a position:
- Legacy (‘it’s always been that way’)
- To support the overall branch pyramid and structure
- To achieve parity with the other services
- To achieve parity/credibility with other navies
All of these are fluid and it is therefore right that the associated ranks are periodically reviewed.
The first problem is that this is rarely the driver for change. Instead, it is more usually a desire to save money, either to pay for something else or to ingratiate individuals or ‘the system’ to the MoD. It often happens prior to a defence review or to bolster an individual’s pitch for promotion.
The second problem is finding evidence that either of these have ever been successful. But, because the initiatives come from the top and are (outwardly) to save money, woe betide anyone who objects – hence the pavlovian insistence that it doesn’t really matter.
This isn’t supposed to be an inter-service dig, and I have no evidence to support it, but the Army does seem to lag when it comes to its own dilution resulting in some headline differences, the Commandant of Sandhurst still being a 2* whilst the head of Dartmouth is ‘just’ a Captain perhaps being the most obvious.
Inter service parity is important here especially as overall numbers shrink and competition for the key Joint jobs becomes ever more fierce. Falling in line with the Army’s use of the Brigadier was one of the reasons the Navy substantiated the rank of Commodore in 1997. Add the dilution going on just now to the 20year cycle that these things seem to follow then add a splash of “nothing is sacred right now” and I’ll put a small wager that Commodore will be abandoned again in the next few years. This will be badged as a way of saving money but in reality will just create chaos at Joint selection boards.
In sum, will the Navy be thanked for its current diluting (and culling) at the next Defence Review? I doubt it. Meanwhile, the axe continues to fall and everybody says it’s fine.
I’ll finish with a thought experiment. If one extrapolates the argument that rank dilution doesn’t really matter, why not have all frigates, destroyers and submarines commanded by Lieutenant Commanders?
Postscript. There is a different-but-linked debate to be had about the overall number of ranks (often reckoned to be too high). This is nicely captured in this Wavell Room article written in 2018.