The British armed forces form a vital barrier and resilience to external threats, ensuring the safety of civilian lives across the breadth and width of the United Kingdom. The English Army was formed as a military force in the 17th century but it wasn’t until 1707, when the English and Scottish armies amalgamated into one operational entity of command. Today, the British armed forces protect the nation and its dependent territories non-stop. Highly trained individuals from across The Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are ready to be deployed anywhere around the world to meet a variety of challenges to protect civilians. This article will present a brief introduction into the British Armed forces and demystify some of their seemingly complex and multifaceted rankings.

Other Ranks

Within the British armed forces, there are two distinct tiers to ranking structure: Officers and Other ranks. At the top of the hierarchy sit the Officers, these are the individuals who hold the positions of authority, either bestowed upon them by the granting of a commission or a warrant.

In contrast the US rankings, the British armed forces do not use the term ‘Enlisted’ ranks. Instead ‘Other ranks’ is used to describe members of the armed forces who do not hold a commission, or a position of high command. The equivalent for the Royal Navy is ‘Ratings’. Within the Other ranks group, there are separate tiers of authority – Warrant Officer (WO) and Non-Commisioned Officers (NCO), which are discussed below. All ranks within the British armed forces are categorised using the NATO ranking code system from OR-1 (junior enlisted) to OR-9 (Senior NCO’s).

Non-Commissioned Officers

NCO’s are individuals who have gained a position of authority through promotion within the other ranks. NCO’s include all personnel which rank from corporals, sergeants and staff sergeants. There are different classes of NCO’s: from Junior NCO to Senior / Staff NCO. The Royal Navy equivalent to a NCO’s is a Petty Officer (PO), usually referred to as Senior Ratings.

Amongst military personnel and industry specialists, NCO’s are often referred to as the “backbone” of the nation’s armed forces. This is because they are the initial and most prominent line of leaders across the vast majority of military personnel. The role of an NCO is of great importance as they are the primary leaders who are responsible for carrying out and executing the mission and training of British armed forces personnel. Their training and education emphasises on leadership and management, as well as combat training. They are the link between other ranks and Commissioned Officers (CO).

Within the United Kingdom, NCOs are divided into two categories: Lance Corporals and Corporals. Sergeants, Staff Sergeants and RAF Flight Sergeant / Chief Technicians are also considered Senior NCO’s.

Commissioned Officer

In contrast to NCO’s, CO’s hold higher ranks within the British armed forces. They are high ranking officers who have derived their authority from a commission issued by the monarch. As a whole, CO’s received training which is intensely focused on general leadership and management, as well as receiving training related to their individual military speciality. Several countries around the world require their CO’s to have achieved a prerequisite degree, which isn’t the case within the UK, although a large percentage of British CO’s are university graduates.    

Within the UK, there are three ways in which an member of the armed forces can become an CO:

  1. Receiving commission into the CO grade after completing their military academy.
  2. Enlisting and serving within the junior ranks, allowing you to reach Senior NCO level (typically starting at Sergeant)
  3. Converting from other ranks to a CO – these individuals are only selected from the highest ranks of Senior NCO’s

Warrant Officer

WO’s within the British Armed forces officers have the highest rank of all officers in the NCO group. They are officers within the armed forces who have achieved their position by a warrant, as designated and signed by the Secretary of State for Defense. Although WO’s are often categorised and referred to as part of the NCO’s, they are in fact, members of a separate group.

Until the latter parts of the 1800s, only the Royal Navy acknowledged and operated the WO rank, until the Royal Marines, British Army promoted several Sergeant-Majors and other ranks to the WO position. Within the British army, the ranking for WO’s is divided into two classes – WO2 and WO1, the latter is more senior class of the two.

WO’s are indispensable members of the armed forces, they are viewed as technical experts. In today’s modern military landscape, WOs often play key roles within command teams across the armed forces – working with CO’s to provide diverse and synergetic leadership capabilities.

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