Why are Naval Officers careers so short ?

DefenceSynergia is pleased to publish a short essay on the subject of Armed Forced careers by one of its founding members, Lt Cdr Christopher Samuel RN (Retd). The author highlights a seeming anomaly in employment between those that served in the Armed Forces and society more widely. The article has a maritime focus but is applicable to all those who serve.
It would be interesting to understand what reasons MOD offers for perpetuating this disparity in career time span and retirement ages with civilian employment?

Why are Naval Officers careers so short ?

Background Join the Navy and become ‘Navy made’ is the slogan. What is not made clear is that a naval career is terminated at the age of fifty-five. At that point, the officer must leave, find another occupation that can support the family, lifestyle for the rest of life outside a cultural social supportive bubble that is the Armed Forces.

In wider society the purpose and activity of the Armed Forces is not widely appreciated, known, or understood. With the shrinking numbers it is unlikely that neighbours will personally know a naval officer or be able to become friends. The MOD is very reluctant to promote visits and contacts; there is a DCN restricting communication beyond the National Security issues covered by the Official Secrets Act that other government departments find adequate.

Very few people in the media, academia and amongst politicians have served and can therefore champion the issues. Currently there are MPs who have served in the Army but none from the maritime & air environments. A comparable situation exists in the media and even academics have insufficient time to become qualified academics after serving a 30-year naval ‘career’.

The person Joining an elite organisation like the Royal Navy offers considerable training, a growing variety of technical and environmental challenges, a stable ‘career’ with considerable variety, and assistance with family life is attractive at the time The culture of belonging to an organisation with a disciplined and regulated work structure the opportunity of advancement and varied travel experience outshines alternatives. There are also accommodation assistance and subsidies. Towards the age of late forty officers experience the concern that at 55 the MOD will terminate this first career with a pension and ejection from the social / camaraderie that each of us has enjoyed. There are resettlement courses and charities who help in choosing and making the next step of crossing into the realities of society outside the shelter of Service life. These while welcome rarely replicate what is being left. Leavers wonder why a national task that dynamic strategic implications for the UK have; clearly benefits its citizens and understand the external threats are bemused at the abrupt, perhaps brutal complete severance that comes following years of selfless service. Why is the retirement age so early; what about the loses of hard-won experience working on complex subjects in professional teams? Why can other professions offer careers up to 70 years, or at least the OAP age of sixty-seven but not the Armed Forces?

The MOD. Defence issues demand an extremely varied skill set to address threats in dynamic domains that are constantly changing. The nature of defence is reactive, but efforts must be made to anticipate what future capability might be required since the provision of platforms, weaponry, and training to operate efficiently takes a long time, experience, and resources. The MOD have equipment plans that extend to decades and it has limited constricting resources to complete its tasks. A recent PUS stated that MOD could not deliver without more resource.

The status quo seems to be far from ideal to address today’s world. The traditional ceilings on investment, workforce caused by structures and processes, some of which were introduced after WW2 are limiting the UK defence capability and ability to sustain their effort. The essential co-ordination with allies is reduced while the Government is curtailed in the realities of assistance the UK can offer to other countries in crises.

Perhaps a revision of the retirement age into line with other UK professions might produce more capable Armed Forces? The average length of Service is 30 years. Considerable time is taken up in skill and academic training much of which is not ‘on the job’. There are periods when the person is not available due to development. An example is maternity / parental leave that averages at 3 years.

An increase in career length improvements could include

  • Longer access to an experienced knowledgeable, content workforce that consider it still has contribution to make
  • Later payment of pensions out of the Defence budget.
  • Reduction in the need to recruit with possibly better quality.
  • Lower outlay on resettlement costs
  • Longer appointments leading to better expertise and relationships especially with defence industry
  • Avoidance of the upheaval experienced in finding a ‘second career’.
  • More time for the separate Services to understand each other and reduce the ‘interservice rivalry’ that is destructive in resource allocation.

Conclusion In a rapidly changing world environment the lack of changes made over the last 50 years in the MOD structures, national security and defence decision making processes, structures and terms and Conditions of Service have left the UK with less-than-ideal state. In one area, Terms & Conditions have remained little changed and possibly unexamined. One example is the retirement age of fifty-five. Upon examination there seem to be advantages of a concrete and wellbeing nature for both employed and employer in actioning a change that reflects UK society which the Armed Forces serve with distinction but are constrained.

Can the ‘defence of the realm’ be improved by examination of the delivery mechanisms and confirmation that they are ‘fit for purpose’. Or why are service personnel past their apparent usefulness much earlier than is normal in society?

Christopher Samuel Lt Cdr RN Ret.

February 2022.