A Rank Issue

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:

Senior Command

Fleet Commander4*3*2012Was Commander In Chief
Second Sea Lord4*3*2005
Flag Officer Scotland3*2*c. 1996
Commandant General Royal Marines3*2*1998

Establishment Command

Training establishment captainsScale A Captain**1* now 1st/2nd tour Captain1998Dartmouth, Raleigh, Collingwood, Sultan
Admiralty Interview Board1*Commanderu/k
**Last (fourth) job as a Captain, pre-ordained in almost every case for 2. Predates 1* as a substantive rank (c.’97).

Waterfront Command

Flag Officer Sea Training2*1*2000Now Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training
Flag Officer Flotillas3 x 2*1 x 1* and 2 x Captainc. 1995Devflot demoted to Captain ‘20

Sea Command

Aircraft carrier CaptainScale A Captain 1st/2nd tour Captain2020Was always second sea command as a Captain
P2000 CaptainSenior Lt/Lt CdrSecond tour Ltc. 2000


Chief of Defence Staff5*4*1997
Director Defence Medical Services3*2*1990s
Director Plans1* (per service)Single 1*2010s


CINC Naval Home Command4*N/ADiscontinued
Deputy Fleet Commander3*N/ADiscontinued


Flag Officer Submarines3*2*There are quite a few in this category that have been either discontinued or double/treble hatted
Flag Officer Naval Aviation2*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.

Published by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant and partner at www.SPP.global, an international communications consultancy. He specialises in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

2 thoughts on “A Rank Issue

    1. Tim, there are so many examples, aren’t there? The resigned nature of ‘it doesn’t really matter’ or in some cases ‘it’s even better’ is what is confusing me. Bring back Capt Ds maybe? OK, maybe not… Hope you are well, Tom


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