Title inflation

A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer.

​Wing Commander Nikki Thomas​, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk​ ​on Friday​,

Wasn’t there a time when squadrons were led by Squadron Leaders and Wings led by Wing Commanders?

32 thoughts on “Title inflation”

  1. So Much for Subtlety

    The main purpose of Britain’s Armed Forces is to provide the right number of command billets for senior officers. So the Air Force has to give Squadrons to Wing Commanders.

    I do like that her proudest moment was buzzing some idiots who may or may not have been trying to set up a rocket. Not, you know, killing anyone or anything.

  2. A very long time ago, Tim. I’m pretty certain that by the end of WWII, bomber squadrons were led by Wing Commanders, certainly 617 and other pathfinder squadrons were. The V Force squadrons, any aircraft of which could carry a single bomb which would do to a city what it took the combined might of Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force a week to do barely 10 years earlier, were commanded by Wing Commanders.

  3. So Much for Subtlety

    Commanders of 617 Squadron:

    March 1943, Wing Commander G P Gibson
    August 1943, Wing Commander G W Holden
    September 1943 Squadron Leader H B Martin
    November 1943, Wing Commander G L Cheshire
    July 1944, Wing Commander J B Tait
    December 1944, Wing Commander J E Fauquier
    April 1945, Wing Commander J E Grindon
    June 1945, Wing Commander C Fothergill
    April 1946, Squadron Leader C K Saxelby
    May 1947, Wing Commander C D Milne (for goodwill visit to USA)
    July 1947, Squadron Leader C K Saxelby
    February 1948, Squadron Leader P G Brodie
    May 1950, Squadron Leader W H Thallon
    June 1952, Squadron Leader M J O’Bryen-Nichols
    Dec 1952, Squadron Leader D Roberts
    May 1954, Squadron Leader J A Ruck (Squadron disbanded December 1955)

    Interesting that it is the opposite of what you would expect – title inflation is more common in war.

    Apart from giving it to a senior officer to have a jolly in the US.

  4. Yes, the title Wing Commander did originally refer to the officer in command of 3-4 squadrons of aircraft but these days its most often used for anyone in command of an administrative sub-division of an RAF station, which may include operations wings (i.e. actual squadrons) but also an engineering and maintenance wing and/or an administration wing.

  5. So Much for Subtlety

    K.R. Lohse – “I’m pretty certain that by the end of WWII, bomber squadrons were led by Wing Commanders, certainly 617 and other pathfinder squadrons were.”

    The 1st Squadron held off rank inflation for a long time. I have just checked and it did not get its first Wing Commander commander until 1969. Has had no one less since 1970 except for a brief acting commander.

    “The V Force squadrons, any aircraft of which could carry a single bomb which would do to a city what it took the combined might of Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force a week to do barely 10 years earlier, were commanded by Wing Commanders.”

    The US Air Force seems to have even worse rank inflation. Except for one area – what used to be the Strategic Missile Command and is now called something properly euphemistic. The Americans are obvious embarrassed about the whole nuclear weapon thing. Take a unit like the 91st Missile Wing. Commanded by a Colonel. Which is fine. That makes him equivalent of Group Commander.

    Except he commands 150 Minuteman missiles. Which can carry three warheads. 150 warheads would destroy Russia and a good chunk of Western Europe too. Most US Wings are commanded by Colonels unless they are prime tenderloin in which case they get a Brigadier.

    The Russians gave these units to people with proper authority. Take the 28th Guards Red Banner Missile Division. It used to have 10 or 11 regiments armed with the SS-19. Each may, at full strength, have had 10 missiles. Until 2010 or so it was never commanded by less than a Major-General.

    So an American colonel gets to command 150 missiles. A Russian Major-General gets about 100.

  6. They could learn a little from Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, DFBCS, who seems happy to go by the description “web developer”.

  7. So Much for Subtlety

    JP – “They could learn a little from Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, DFBCS, who seems happy to go by the description “web developer”.”

    Planet-killer? Ender-of-Civilisations? Child-incinerator-in-chief?

    Some jobs need a little euphemism.

  8. Bloke in North Dorset

    “Admirals outnumber warships in Royal Navy, report shows “.

    That’s a great sound bite from 2008, and I’m guessing is still true, but it is misleading. There are a large number of roles that need to be filled by very senior military people. For example the Naval Attache in Washington DC needs to be very senior, as does the Army and Air force equivalents. Ditto senior roles as Nato planners and even in MOD.

    We really couldn’t be giving these jobs to 25 year-old Sub Lieutenants or even 50 year-old Sub Lieutenants. These jobs need to be done by people hove demonstrated abilities to command at all levels so as to earn respect of not only other Navies but also politicians.

    I have a very good friend who was a Fighter Controller in the RAF. He finished his career as a Wing Commander in MOD flying a desk. His role was to represent UK and the RAF at in international discussions on the use of airspace. He was regularly at Nato summits and even had to work with the Russians and Chinese. This sort of role calls someone of a senior rank just to be listened to.

  9. So Much for Subtlety

    Bloke in North Dorset – “These jobs need to be done by people hove demonstrated abilities to command at all levels so as to earn respect of not only other Navies but also politicians. ”

    Parkinson’s law at work. The less the Navy actually does, the fewer ships it has, the more pointless international jollies they conspire to go on and so justify the need for ever more high ranking officers.

    It is the same logic that makes the FCO such a fan of the EU. Lots of jobs for the boyos.

    What is in it for the rest of us remains an open question.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset,

    It was interesting to compare US and UK behaviour out in Basra. As a rule of thumb, the UK pushed internal decisions down as far as they could, with much of our working contacts down at Cpl/Sgt level: decisions only ran up the ranks when necessary, and usually directly (“we’ll need Major J’s top cover, let’s go warn him now”)

    Even the small US liaison group ran a strict hierarchy: we were only allowed to speak to the lieutenant (they were all officers), the Lt briefed the major, the major briefed the colonel, and *everything* went up and down that hierarchy. (We never did figure out what the major did except act as a rebro station to insulate the colonel from the hoi polloi)

    As far as rank inflation goes… SMFS’s grumbling aside, if you’re working with the US, you’re stuck with their obsession with hierarchy. UK forces are – in my experience at least – prepared to be much more sensible in these matters, but if – for example – you send a lieutenant-commander to a meeting full of US captains (Navy not Army) then instead of providing RN input to force policies for CTF158, they’ll be ignored or told to get the refreshments and take the minutes. (The French sent a 1* and full staff… for their single patrol boat)

    In the UK you can get listened to provided you’re knowledgeable (even as a civilian), in the US rank rules all. It’s infuriating, but for as long as we’re working alongside the US it’s the rules the senior players have laid down.

  11. Am I right in thinking though that most captains of RD vessel s aren’t of Captain rank but are more likely to be Cdr or even Lt Cdr?

  12. In the UK you can get listened to provided you’re knowledgeable (even as a civilian), in the US rank rules all.

    Funny, that’s the prime difference between the UK and French oil industries. In the UK, you have subject matter experts. So a piping engineer will be listened to by project managers on the subject of piping.

    In France, the manager is supposed to know everything and everyone listens to him, even if he is a blithering buffoon. He’ll even overule his subject matter experts, and they’ll just sit there and take it.

  13. There are a large number of roles that need to be filled by very senior military people.

    Well, maybe. SMFS has opened up a wide breach in that theory, and although for some roles what you say is true for others the role itself is probably very much open to question, let alone the rank required to fulfill it.

    Incidentally, a friend of mine found himself as a very senior advisor to UK government on special forces matters and was a lowly Major. By virtue of his considerably combat record plus the DSO, he eventually got listened to. Rank tends to hide more than it assures.

  14. Bloke in North Dorset

    @SMFS and @RC

    I didn’t defend those positions, just pointing out we have them and so they need filling, hence more Admirals than ships.

    @Jason

    Nothing changed since my time in the Army if the 70s and 80s.

  15. “Am I right in thinking though that most captains of RD vessel s aren’t of Captain rank but are more likely to be Cdr or even Lt Cdr?”

    ‘Captain’ is a courtesy title for Commanders. But there is also, of course, a rank of ‘Captain’.

  16. For the classic title inflation, consider large US financial companies (banks, merchant banks, etc). The one I work for has about 450 ‘Vice-Presidents’. Which one takes over when the President gets shot is anyone’s guess.

  17. SMfS is on the right track. The Telegraph is giddy that a woman will be a wing commander. Because she is a woman. The main purpose of Britain’s Armed Forces is to provide a socially balanced environment.

    Next year’s headline: “Cross-dressing admiral gets his/her own ship.”

    The Telegraph is telegraphing that they are more interested in gender balance than the defense of their country.

  18. @SMfS

    “her proudest moment was buzzing some idiots”

    There was something like this in an RAF recruitment advert. They blow up a rocket launch site and the computer operator at base has a screen saying “0 casualties”.

    So perhaps it’s part of the training 🙂

  19. During the Falklands the command structure of our ‘joint’ unit was:
    Navy: Lt Cdr
    RAF: Wing Cdr
    Army: WO1

  20. Rob makes a good point about the American banks. Strangely, Exxon does the opposite: most guys there with serious authority are called superintendents. Very few are called manager.

  21. I get regular calls from investment bankers trying to flog me (well, my company actually) things. I’ve seen:

    Vice-Presidents
    Senior VPs
    Junior VPs
    Executive VPs
    Associate VPs

    A colleague of similar level to me became a Product Sales Director. I congratulated him on his promotion, but he told me it was just a change in job title. No one in London would meet him unless he was at least a “Director”.

    My job title still just says “Actuary”.

  22. Because there’s much more to any warfare, especially modern warfare, than simply the ‘teeth’.
    The RAF has to do a lot more than simply provide pilots. The engineering, logistical, intelligence/targetting, planning, control and other support tail of the beast gets longer and longer.
    To be fair, it’s what makes a proper military able to function organically and different from an armed mob.
    “Flight”, “Squadron” and “Wing” are all administrative divisions on RAF bases (ie Operations Wing, Engineering Wing, Administration Wing, all commanded by Wing Commanders; various sub-units of these being Squadrons (eg Supply Squadron) led by Squadron Leaders, comprised of Flights (led by Flight Lieutenants or occasionally more junior Officers (Flying Officer, Pilot Officer).

    The station itself would then be commanded by a Group Captain.

    This is instead of various tiers of Departments or Directorates or Accounts or whatever you’d have outside.

    You therefore have a bunch of Squadron Leaders who’ll never fly planes – because that’s not their function (if we have to stick a Squadron Leader Supplier into a plane and tell him to shout ‘tally-ho, follow me, chaps’, we’re probably in a lot of trouble …)

    The RAF slot the operational Squadrons in as organic entities into the structure, usually as Wings within the base itself (thus you’d have a couple of fighter squadrons and then five Wing Commanders answering to the Station Commander.

    All of which ends up, in accordance with the best British traditions, with a “squadron” having multiple meanings. A squadron (first sense) of planes (and yes, you can have a number of similar-function squadrons (1st sense) making up a Wing (1st sense) is the same as an administrative Wing (second sense), and will have squadrons (second sense) as subdivisions within it (eg Ops Squadron, A-Flight (1st sense) being a squadron (second sense), B-Flight (1st sense) being another squadron (2nd sense), and so on…)

    If it was too easy to understand, it’d be dashed un-British, what?

  23. Yes, banks (at least in the English-speaking world; I claim no knowledge of others) are rife with title-inflation; anyone not welcoming visitors at the door is a Vice President of some sort. One charming oddity was that at one time, the Bank Act in Canada prescribed that a bank must have a “Chief Accountant” who was responsible for all accounting, financial reporting, internal control and treasury operation; in short, the CFO.
    A colleague held this position at one of the smaller ‘B-Banks’ (subsidiaries of foreign banks who escaped the wide ownership requirements to be an ‘A-bank’), and was always amused that his business card, which in most companies of similar scale would describe him as something like “Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer” simply said “Chief Accountant.” Not least, it meant that he was listened to (and spoken to) only by those who knew what was going on, and flew beneath the radar for everyone else., who assumed him to be a mid-level (or lower) functionary.
    This was true through the 80s, but this requirement was dropped in one of the periodic updates to the Bank Act.

  24. “Chief Accountant”

    In the old days we had the regulatory role of Appointed Actuary. Everyone in a life insurer knew who he was (it was always a he) and his word was the law. Hence Equitable Life (Roy Ranson).

  25. So Much for Subtlety

    Andy Cooke – “Because there’s much more to any warfare, especially modern warfare, than simply the ‘teeth’.”

    That is interesting but it does not explain why Squadrons are commanded by Wing Commanders.

    Let’s look at it from the other end and do a quick comparison. The RAF is commanded by the Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford. He sits on the Air Defence Board which has too many civilians but also the Deputy Commander Capability / Air Member for Personnel, the Deputy Commander Operations, the Chief of Materiel (Air) / Air Member for Materiel and the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff. All the above are Air Marshalls except for the Assistant Chief who is a Vice-Air Marshall.

    Under then come the Air Commands. Britain has one. The Chief of Staff commands it. He has two Deputies – Air Marshalls both. One commands two Groups, the other is in charge of Training. The 1st Group contains planes that shoot at people. The 2nd Group contains all the support planes like re-fuelers. Number One Group is commanded by an Air Vice Marshall and has five bases under its command. Those bases are commanded by Group Commanders. They have fifteen Squadrons between them. But not all of them are fighter squadrons.

    They have about 115 Typhoons between them. And some unknown number of Tornadoes are still flying.

    The Israeli Air Force is commanded by a Major-General – so the equivalent of an Air Vice-Marshall. Major commands like their AA, are commanded by Brigadiers – the equivalent of an Air Commodore (do we still have those?). The IAF flies 83 F-15s, 343 F-16s and about 150 helicopters.

    It is obvious that Israel is a serious military. They are not top heavy with brass. Yet they seem to get on with the Americans perfectly fine. And I expect people take them seriously. Yet they manage to fly something like three times as many planes as we do – better ones too. And fight with them. Often.

    A sensible plan would be to remove at least two layers of management from the RAF. The bases ought to report directly to the Chief of Staff.

  26. My first wife, the good one, was a bank branch manager. In those days, 30 years ago, the joke was that banks gave titles instead of raises.

  27. SMFS,

    Well it does explain why aircraft squadrons (which are wings in the base structure) are commanded by Wing Commanders.
    (One Wing Commander having about 4 or 5 Sqn Ldrs under him/her (SEngO, SL Ops, SL A, SL b, SL C.
    The Senior Engineering Officer (SEngO), a Squadron Leader, would have multiple Junior Officers running the Flights (Rects Flt, A Flt, B Flt, etc).)

    Your ‘looking down’ point is, however, very valid. As the RAF has shrunk, layers should have been jettisoned.

    The old Commands (Bomber, Balloon, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Training, Flying Training, Far East, Transport) used to be headed up by Air Marshals or Air Chief Marshals.

    Under those, we had the Groups (For example, 11 Gp covering the South East of London, famously led by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park during the Battle of Britain (not a Group Captain).

    But the operational commands merged into Strike Command, the support ones into Logistics Command and administrative ones into Personnel and Training Command (coincidentally following the standard RAF Station structure). Then PTC and Logs Cmd merged to become Support Command and functions sloughed off towards purple organisations. Then all remaining Commands merged to become Air Command.

    The Groups merged together as well (famously, they didn’t want to lose either 11Gp (Battle of Britain fame) or 18 Gp (Battle of the Atlantic) and they became 11/18 Gp (or ‘vulgar fraction Group’) for a while. Now they’re down to 2 Groups.

    The top-level structure could do with a lot of rationalisation now. As you say, the stations could easily report directly to the CoS.

  28. “We really couldn’t be giving these jobs to 25 year-old Sub Lieutenants or even 50 year-old Sub Lieutenants.”

    And that’s another one. I’ll bet there’s loads more Sub Lieutenants than there are subs.

  29. The Americans don’t have Brigadiers and Commodores, but have Brigadier-Generals and Rear Admirals, as the ranks didn’t sound grand enough for the people who held them. (“Rear Admiral” is thus two different ranks (one star and two star) that are sometimes distinguished by adding “of the lower half” (one star) or “of the upper half” (two star).

    I have a friend who is co-head of the Australian asset management arm of a mid sized American bank. He and his partner made a decree when they took over the business that there would be no job titles. This confuses the hell out of their British and (particularly) American colleagues.

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