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The Army, Navy and Air Force
The three main branches of the British armed forces are the British Army, the Royal Navy (RN), and the Royal Air Force (RAF). Traditionally, we think of the army as operating on land, the air force in the sky, and the navy on the seas. But with modernization of equipment and changing global politics, joint operations are becoming more and more common. All three branches, for instance, have both air and ground units, while special units like the Joint Rapid Reaction Force and the Joint Helicopter Command combine troops and resources from the different branches for more efficient operations.

The British Army is the largest branch of the British Defence Force, and is the major land component of NATO’s rapid reaction forces. The major branches are:

  • Combat Infantry (foot soldiers)
  • Cavalry (formerly soldiers on horses, now in tanks and armored vehicles; includes the Royal Armoured Corps)
  • Royal Artillery
  • Royal Engineers
  • Royal Signals (communications)
  • Royal Intelligence Corps
  • Army Air Corps (which originally gave rise to the elite special operations force, the Special Air Service or SAS, though the SAS is now considered part of the Infantry). The Air Corps handles combat missions, as well as Observation & Reconnaissance, and light transport of troops and equipment.
Service divisions include, among others, the Royal Logistics Corps and the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Royal Navy ensures the security of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. It also helps support foreign policy, and provides assistance to merchant ships. The RN fleet has both a submarine flotilla, including nuclear-powered submarines, and a surface flotilla, including frigates and destroyers. The RN’s three “Invincible” class aircraft carriers are each capable of carrying eight Sea Harrier jets and twelve Sea King helicopters, as well as other aircraft from the RAF and Army Air Corps. The air branch of the RN is the Fleet Air Arm, which is in charge of aviation operations on the carriers. The Royal Marines, also under RN command, are trained and equipped for land operations, and are deployed around the world on various missions.

The Royal Air Force was reorganized in April 2000 to meet the needs of the changing world order, with more emphasis on rapid reaction and joint forces cooperation. The RAF is divided into two commands: the Personnel and Training Command (responsible for recruitment, training and job-related issues), and the Strike Command (which contains the operational units). The Strike Command consists of three groups:

  • No. 1 Group: Responsible for all “frontline” attack aircraft
  • No. 2 Group: Responsible for frontline support aircraft (including transport, air-to-air refueling, and information collection)
  • No. 3 Group: responsible for the Joint Force Harrier squadrons, maritime patrol, and Search and Rescue. This group is currently commanded by a naval officer, instead of an RAF officer.

Officers and NCOs
There are two main types of leadership positions in the armed forces: officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers). These categories do not merely represent higher or lower ranks, but typically very different career paths (which we will look at more closely in Unit 3). In broad terms, the difference in job functions between officers and NCOs might be described like this: officers are in charge of organization and strategy, and NCOs are responsible for the implementation of that organization or strategy. The following chart shows the different ranks, and their general equivalents between the three main branches of the British armed forces (higher ranks are listed first):

Officer Ranks:
  • Army Navy Air Force
  • Field Marshal Admiral of the Fleet Marshal of the Royal Air Force
  • General Admiral Air Chief Marshal
  • Lieutenant-General Vice-Admiral Air Marshal
  • Major-General Rear-Admiral Air Vice Marshal
  • Brigadier Commodore Air Commodore
  • Colonel Captain Group Captain
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Commander Wing Commander
  • Major Lieutenant-Commander Squadron Leader
  • Captain Lieutenant Flight-Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant Sub-Lieutenant Flying Officer
  • Second Lieutenant Midshipman Pilot Officer
Non-Commissioned Ranks:
  • Army Navy Air Force
  • Warrant Officer 1 & 2 Warrant Officer Warrant Officer
  • Staff/Colour Sergeant Chief Petty Officer Flight Sergeant
  • Sergeant Petty Officer Sergeant
  • Corporal Leading Rate Corporal
  • Lance Corporal Able Rate Senior Aircraftman/woman
  • Private Ordinary Rate Leading Aircraftman/woman
    The rank of corporal is considered the lowest true non-commissioned officer; ranks below corporal, as a whole, are generally referred to as troops, enlisted members, etc. Technically speaking, the even the lowest ranking officer is superior in rank to the highest ranking NCO. But you won’t often see a Midshipman shouting orders at a Chief Petty Officer.

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