Command, lead and inspire your troops on the front line of battle as an operational officer

Operational officers in the armed forces lead the fighting arms. In this role you'll direct and operate technically advanced fighting systems on land, at sea and in the air and command people on the front line of battle. You will be known as a combat officer, flight operations officer or warfare officer in the:

Your responsibilities cover the training, fitness, operational effectiveness and welfare of everyone in the unit, so that they reach and maintain a high level of competence and readiness to fulfil their defence and peacekeeping purposes.

Your primary responsibility in operations, which is often dangerous, fast-moving and chaotic, is to command, lead and inspire service personnel.

Responsibilities

An operational or combat officer in the armed forces is primarily a leader, so you must command and manage a team of fighting specialists, developing their skills to a high level of competence and readiness.

Generally duties include:

  • taking responsibility for the welfare, morale and motivation of subordinates;
  • communicating effectively with your unit, as well as with other colleagues and professional and community groups, both orally and in writing, through briefings, operational reports and presentations;
  • taking responsibility for your own personal and professional development.

At base or on exercise:

  • training and developing subordinates of all ranks and bringing them up to a high standard 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, personnel and resources effectively to achieve objectives;
  • keeping ships, aircraft, vehicles, weapons and other equipment operational.

Salary

  • The starting salary for graduate officer cadets in all three armed services (Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell) is £25,727.
  • After successful completion of initial officer training (IOT), salaries increase to £30,923 across all armed forces.
  • Salaries are rank-related, and you should expect to earn more while progressing through various ranks and seniorities.

Income data from the The Ministry of Defence 'Pay16 The Armed Forces Pay Model'. Figures are intended as a guide only.

The armed forces also offer benefits such as an excellent pension scheme, private health and dental care and subsidised accommodation in some cases.

Working hours

When on operations, you will be working in a challenging environment where long hours and difficult conditions are to be expected.

What to expect

  • Many officers work in the UK at bases and stations where security restrictions operate, but there are opportunities for periods abroad or on board ship.
  • Expect to rotate jobs and relocate every two to three years. The extent of relocation, travel and family separation will depend on the service and posting, but support services, as well as social and recreational facilities, are good and annual leave and free time entitlement are generous.
  • Self-employment is not possible.
  • Opportunities for female graduates in the armed forces are increasing with most posts, including direct combat roles, equally open to both men and women. However, roles in the Royal Marines are only open to men.
  • As an officer, you will be given a high level of responsibility early in your career. The work is challenging and varied. At times it can be stressful, dangerous and involve operating in adverse conditions.

Qualifications

All three armed forces recruit graduates as officers and provide initial officer training and a continuation of technical and professional training.

Graduates of any subject will be considered as officers for operational or combat roles as leadership qualities and the 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 you wish to follow. In general, all three forces will consider applicants for officer training with a minimum of 180 UCAS points.

GCSEs, or Scottish Standard Grades, in maths and English language (grades A to C) are essential. For some roles, you may need a GCSE (or equivalent) in a science or foreign language.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed, nor is pre-entry experience, but some training can be helpful with the:

Generally, 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.

You can get up-to-date information on bursaries, entry requirements, vacation training and familiarisation visits to service units 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 ULOs for the:

  • Army;
  • RAF;
  • Royal Navy.

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 army officer selection board (AOSB). The AOSB process consists of a 24-hour briefing and a three-and-a-half day series of individual and group tests of your physical, mental and intellectual abilities, along with in-depth interviews. Both the Royal Navy and the RAF 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.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • communication skills;
  • the ability to identify situations, think clearly and act decisively under pressure;
  • a commitment to take and exercise responsibility;
  • leadership ability as all officers are expected to be leaders and managers;
  • a good health record and a high-level of physical fitness with good eyesight and colour perception.

Employers

There are four employers within the armed forces, namely:

  • Army;
  • RAF;
  • Royal Marines;
  • Royal Navy.

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 its 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 the training of 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.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

All three armed services provide initial officer training followed by specialist professional or technical training.

If you are successful at the Army selection board, you will go on to the officer training course, which lasts for 44 weeks and includes physical training, military training and exercises, adventurous training and participation in a range of sporting activities at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Academically, you will be taught about:

  • army organisation;
  • current affairs;
  • defence issues;
  • management skills.

A similar pathway is followed by the:

  • RAF;
  • Royal Navy.

Graduate recruit officers enter the RAF or the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, respectively. Training in these services lasts for 30 weeks.

Officers of the Royal Marines train alongside all other recruits to the Marines. Before receiving a commission, you must successfully complete both commando and young officer training.

You will attend further training courses where your knowledge and skills are extended. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a feature of a forces career.

The modern officer career structure has three stages to cover the variety of challenges met in an army career: education, training and CPD. Each of these involves short residential courses, employment training, distance learning and the acquisition of new skills.

Some officers, after several years' experience, will be selected to attend extended command and staff training courses at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, part of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham, in preparation for senior and top management appointments.

Career prospects

After initial officer training with the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth or the RAF, you are posted to your chosen regiment or corps, to a ship, or to a squadron or station where you will undertake specialist command training before assuming your first command.

Your first command in the Army will be as a platoon or troop commander, responsible for a unit of up to 30 staff and their equipment. This might be four armoured fighting vehicles, or tanks, together with their associated weapons and systems.

If you are trained for ship-based duties responsibility will be similar in the Royal Navy. When on flying duties in any of the three forces, your responsibility will be less for staff and more for the highly complex and expensive piece of equipment. With promotion, your responsibilities will increase, in terms of both numbers of personnel and quantities of equipment.

The normal route for career officers in all three forces is to achieve the command of a unit by the age of 40. You may, therefore, be selected for a sequence of command and staff courses and further professional courses, which may include postgraduate study at the College of Management and Technology, a college of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, or other universities or colleges, depending on your specialist area.

Further promotion is usually to increasingly senior staff posts with increased responsibility and may lead to a command and staff training course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College as preparation for a senior command or managerial appointment. Such appointments are not limited to roles within one's own service but may be joint service posts or involve secondment to international bodies such as:

  • NATO;
  • UN.