Operational officers in the armed forces lead the fighting arms. They direct and operate technically advanced fighting systems on land, at sea and in the air and command people in the front line of battle. The Army calls them combat officers, and the Royal Navy uses the term warfare officers.
Responsibilities cover the training, fitness, operational effectiveness and welfare of everyone in the unit, so they reach and maintain a high level of competence and readiness to fulfil their defence and peacekeeping purposes. The officer’s primary responsibility in operations – which are often dangerous, fast-moving and confused – is to command, lead and inspire service personnel.
Typical work activities
An operational or combat officer in the armed forces is first and foremost a leader who must lead and manage a team of fighting specialists, developing their skills to a very high level of competence and readiness. Typical activities include:
- taking responsibility for the welfare, morale and motivation of subordinates;
- communicating effectively with one’s unit, colleagues with other roles and responsibilities, and professional and community groups, both orally and in writing, through briefings, operational reports and presentations;
- taking responsibility for one’s own personal and professional development.
At base or on exercise:
- training and developing subordinates of all ranks and bringing them to a high state of operational readiness;
- training new recruits in basic skills;
- instructing personnel of other ranks and preparing them for promotion;
- assessing the effectiveness of training.
In battle and other operations:
- identifying objectives and assessing ways of achieving them;
- motivating and leading subordinates to achieve objectives, often in difficult and dangerous conditions;
- preparing or modifying operational strategies and plans;
- allocating equipment, manpower and resources effectively to achieve objectives;
- keeping ships, aircraft, vehicles, weapons and other equipment operational.
Salary and pay
- Graduates enter the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst , Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth or the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell as graduate officer cadets. The starting salary in all three armed services is £24,133.
- After successful completion of initial officer training, salaries increase to £29,000 – £32,061.
- The armed forces offers benefits such as an excellent pension scheme, private health and dental care as well as subsidised accommodation in some cases.
- When on operations, you will be working in a challenging environment where long hours and difficult conditions can be expected.
- Many officers work in the UK at bases and stations where security restrictions operate, but there are many opportunities for periods abroad or on board ship.
- Job rotation and relocation can be expected every two to three years. The extent of relocation, travel and family separation will depend upon the service and posting, but the support services as well as social and recreational facilities are good and annual leave and free time are seen as generous.
- Self-employment is not possible.
- Opportunities for women graduates in the armed forces are increasing, with most posts equally open to both men and women, but women are not recruited into direct combat roles. They do not serve in the Royal Marines Commando, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment, submarines, tanks, mine clearance or the infantry. However, they regularly operate in direct support of combat units, particularly given the nature of modern military deployments where the traditional ‘front line’ has given way to ‘areas of operation’.
- As an officer, you are given a high level of responsibility early in your career. The work is challenging and varied, but it also may be stressful, at times dangerous, and involve operating in adverse conditions.
Employers and Job Opportunities
There are only four employers within the armed forces, namely:
- the Royal Navy
- the Army
- Royal Air Force (RAF)
- Royal Marines
The armed services are an arm of the government, which currently defines their purpose as follows:
- to defend the United Kingdom and its interests;
- to assist in keeping the peace around the world;
- to deliver emergency humanitarian relief.
Much of the time, the armed forces achieve these aims through membership of alliances, particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) , but unilateral responsibilities may mean that they act alone and thus need to be equipped and trained for all aspects of modern warfare. Britain’s membership of the United Nations (UN) , and her permanent place at the Security Council, may also call for the use of armed force in defence of international security (as in Afghanistan) or in support of humanitarian and peacekeeping initiatives (as in Bosnia or after the Asian tsunami).
The services have an important diplomatic function in representing Britain overseas with goodwill visits and also in training – both in the UK and abroad – other countries’ armed forces. There is also action in support of the civil power (as in Northern Ireland).
Many opportunities exist for officers upon retirement from the armed forces because of the management and professional training and experience gained during their period of service.
All three armed forces recruit graduates as officers and provide initial officer training and continuation of technical and professional training. Graduates of any subject will be considered as officers for operational/combat roles since leadership qualities and suitability for service life are more important than degree subject. However, graduates in science or engineering are particularly welcome in operational or combat roles, especially flying, weapons and artillery, the armoured brigade and transport and logistics.
The acceptability of higher education qualifications other than a degree varies between forces, depending on both the subject studied and the specialist area the candidate wishes to follow. In general, all three forces will consider applicants for officer training with a minimum of 180 UCAS points.
GCSE maths and English language (A-C) are essential. A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed, neither is pre-entry experience, but some training with cadet forces, university service units (University Officer Training Corps (UOTC) , University Air Squadrons (UAS) or University Royal Navy Units (URNUs) ), or the Territorial Army (TA) can be helpful. You will be expected to demonstrate a range of qualities and aptitudes.
Candidates need to show evidence of the following:
- communication skills;
- the ability to identify situations, think clearly and act decisively under pressure;
- a commitment to take and exercise responsibility;
- leadership ability – all officers are expected to be leaders and managers;
- a good health record and high level of physical fitness with good sight and colour perception.
Generally speaking, you must be a UK, Commonwealth or Irish citizen and have been resident in the UK or Ireland for five years prior to entry to the armed forces, but some exceptions and restrictions apply.
Age limits also apply. All three services offer student bursaries or sponsorship, but amounts vary according to the subject you are studying and the needs of the service. University service units also pay students who join and attend training. Up-to-date information on bursaries, entry requirements, vacation training and familiarisation visits to service units is available from university liaison officers (ULOs), local armed forces careers offices and on the three armed forces websites. Your careers service can give you details of your nearest Army , Royal Navy or Royal Air Force (RAF) ULO.
If you are considering the Army, the Army ULO will conduct an initial interview and decide whether to recommend you for a familiarisation visit to the regiment or corps of your choice. If that goes well, the regiment or corps will support your application for the four-day army officer selection board (AOSB). The AOSB process consists of a series of individual and group tests of your physical, mental and intellectual abilities, along with in-depth interviews. Both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force follow a similar process.
The selection process varies for each service but can take up to a year, and high standards are required at the selection board and throughout basic training. A common problem at interviews is a lack of current affairs and service knowledge. It should be noted that the competition for certain job roles, e.g. pilot training, or for popular regiments, can be fierce.
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