We can't afford 5-star service: Frederick Bonnart argues that Britain's armed forces are far too top heavy with top brass (CORRECTED)

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BATTLE is now joined in the budget war. In a spirited attack, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Chief of Air Staff, accused ministers of a disreputable campaign to discredit the armed services, a blow which his withdrawal under the Treasury counterattack will not efface. But he leaves untouched a number of important comparisons and one fundamental.

Certainly, the services have made a good defence for keeping a fairly large number of admirals, generals and air marshals. The proportion of general officers (equivalent naval and air ranks included) has risen sharply over the years in inverse ratio to the numbers of ships, divisions and aircraft, but this is justified by the far greater effectiveness of modern weapons and equipment, their much higher sophistication and the consequent need for considerably more back-up.

Whereas in the Second World War, 800 to 1,000 bombers would be sent to take on a major target, modern precision weapons with their far greater fire power could launch an attack with about 10 Tornadoes. Then, in defence on the ground, an infantry battalion would have been expected to hold, on average, one kilometre of the line; today, its highly mobile modern equivalent would be covering anything from 10 to 30kms, or more. A modern frigate, with its surface-to-surface air precision missiles considerably outguns a Second World War battleship equipped with nine 16-inch guns.

Even more telling is the requirement for technological back-up, both in supply and development, and the knowledge and skills of its users. Formerly, the elementary human requirement at the base, both for production, supply and ultimately for battle, was found mainly in moral qualities - courage, teamwork, loyalty. Today's weapons and equipment need individuals who, on top of these qualities, must also have highly developed abilities, often acquired only after many years of general education and specialised training. The equipment must continually be maintained, repaired, replaced or changed. The case for an adequate planning, controlling and directing element - that is what the general officers do - is therefore completely valid.

The question remains, however, how much, how big and how many? That has not been adequately answered and here comparisons are valuable. The one made recently between the British forces and the Israeli defence forces produced a very unfavourable result for the British, but that may not be justified, as the conditions of the two are not quite comparable. However, it would be useful to look at what some other Nato allies achieve in this respect.

The United States armed forces have a total of 1,010 general officers (all services) of whom 506 are 1-star (brigadiers or equivalent), 346 are 2-star (major generals, etc), 122 are 3-star (lieutenant-generals, etc) and 36 are 4-star (full generals or admirals). These control today 1.6 million personnel, 443 naval combat vessels and 28 fighter wings.

Spartan as always, the German armed forces, with their present 420,000 personnel, due to reduce to 370,000 by the end of 1994, have a total of 207 generals and admirals of whom 128 are 1-star, 53 are 2-star, 23 are 3- star and three are 4-star. A much smaller ally, the Netherlands, has 63 generals and admirals for its 60,000 strong forces, with only the most senior, the chief of defence staff, at 4-star rank. In the Belgian forces, even the King, their nominal commander- in-chief, only holds the rank of a lieutenant- general.

Against this the British armed forces seem luxuriously staffed. After the Ministry of Defence proposals, Options for Change, the ceiling for total uniformed manpower is set at 241,500. They will man and service 112 naval combat vessels, 80 combat battalions, and 567 aircraft (excluding training aircraft) and all their back-up. For this we have 546 admirals, generals and air marshals.

Even more striking are these officers' ranks, which break down into 365 at 1-star, 128 at 2-star, 34 at 3-star and 19 at 4-star. In addition - and the only one in all the armed forces of developed countries - the British chief of defence staff is automatically promoted on appointment to 5-star, that is admiral of the fleet, field marshal or marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Clearly, comparisons of rank and manpower ratios do not give a complete picture, but they are a rough guide. This means that while the Americans have one general or admiral per 1,584 personnel, and the Germans one for 2,029, the British services have one per 442. Even more discrepant is the comparative weight of ranks if all stars are added up and shown against total manpower. The United States then have 936 personnel per star, the Germans 1,333 while the British have a mere 300.

So what's in a star? People may ask, and it is certainly true that reward should be given for competence and ability. In the international posts of Nato's military structure, British officers are considered to be of very high quality.

Rank would therefore seem to be a good method for distinguishing quality. But when one considers that the average annual salary for a British 3-star officer is pounds 90,909 a year, a 4-star - pounds 126,610, and a field marshal - more than pounds 150,000, one may conclude that this distinction is somewhat expensive. Moreover, the hierarchical principle applies, so that each 4-star requires at least two 3-stars below him, and so on down the scale. The more senior the general, the bigger the private office with its military assistants, executive officers, personal assistants, secretaries, clerks, drivers, and so on.

It is true that statistics do not tell the whole story and, particularly in the armed services, a large number of unique factors apply - courage, cohesiveness, corporate morale have to be at a peak for their very special duties. It is also true that the British forces are an outstandingly efficient and pliable (excepting occasional outbursts) instrument for carrying out the will of the country. All this demands very high standards of leadership and organisational capability.

But the training and experience, and often the competence, of a 2-star officer is no less than that of a 4-star. It is therefore for consideration whether many of the tasks in the British services cannot be carried out in peacetime by those in lower ranks. For a start, the anachronistic ranks of field marshal and equivalent should be held in abeyance until an emergency such as a major war could justify them. Reducing the chief of defence staff to 4-star would then result in a chain reaction downwards which would bring considerable savings.

They may like to quote Kipling's 'Oh, it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that . . .', but there is, after all, nothing to prevent such capable officers from being promoted to higher ranks 'when the guns begin to shoot'.

The author is editor of the independent magazine 'Nato's Sixteen Nations', which is based in Brussels.


In Frederick Bonnart's article (11 November) on the armed services, the salaries of senior ranks were incorrect, based on erroneous information supplied by the Ministry of Defence. The MoD tells us that the figures should have been as follows: 3-star - pounds 64,959, 4-star - pounds 90,312, 5-star - pounds 112,289.

(Photographs omitted)