In his NFL column last week, Gregg Easterbrook had a bit of fun-poking at the Royal Navy’s expense, based on a rather silly story in the Daily Mail which reported that Britain had many times more captains than combat ships and asked his readers for the “vessels-to-admirals ratio of the once-mighty Royal Navy”. He follows up this week:
Many readers, including Stephanie Cummings-White of Torqauy, England, suggested I should be asking instead for the admirals-to-vessels ratio, citing this 2008 story noting 41 admirals supervising 40 warships. Nathan Green of Hempstead, Long Island, suggested matters were worse, citing this 2013 story reporting the Royal Navy has “15 times more commanding officers than ships,” with 260 captains and 40 admirals for 19 warships.
The “15 times more” story, from the Daily Mail, lists as warships only “major surface combatants” — destroyers, frigates and the Queen’s lone remaining flattop, a light aircraft carrier scheduled to be retired in 2014. The major-surface-combatants definition excludes support vessels plus the Royal Navy’s strategic nuclear submarines, which bear far more destructive power than all the navies of the world combined during World War II. Paul Meka of Buffalo, N.Y., notes that in total, the Royal Navy has 79 commissioned ships, two vessels for each admiral. Yoni Appelbaum of Cambridge, Mass., compared this to the United States Navy, which has 331 admirals for 285 ships in commission, a worse H.M.S. Pinafore ratio than under the Union Jack.
A common mistake among those who’ve never served in the military is to assume that the appointment as commanding officer of a ship also means that officer is a captain by rank. And the reverse is also assumed to be true: that every captain commands a ship. Modern navies don’t work that way (and probably never did). The rank structure does not imply anything about the command structure other than indirectly. The army always has more brigadier generals than brigades, and not every brigade commander is a brigadier general (although it’s usually the case).
Every western military force in the modern era has more staff in non-combat roles than on the front lines, as they perform essential tasks in ensuring that the warfighters are properly trained, armed, equipped, fed, transported, housed, paid, and have appropriate levels of medical care while they’re doing the fighting (or training). The tail-to-teeth ratio of modern armies is much higher than ever before … and that’s the nature of modern military organizations. Demanding more “teeth” and less “tail” doesn’t mean you’ll get a more capable military — it means you’ll get a less capable one.
Certain armed forces (especially in the Middle East) have relatively huge inventories of weapons and a table of organization implying a much higher “teeth-to-tail” ratio than Western forces. Such armies are not likely to do well in actual combat (and historically have not done well), because they are too brittle and incapable of function after taking some combat losses. The troops run of out ammunition (or water) almost immediately after going into combat, because they don’t have sufficient administrative support to ensure that fresh supplies can be moved to where they’re needed. In many cases, they can’t even move into combat because they don’t have enough vehicles in a fit state of repair and lack the trained mechanical staff to fix anything more serious than flat tires.
Some non-Western navies have relatively large fleets … tied up at the dock almost all the time. They don’t go to sea very often and aren’t able to remain at sea for extended periods. They may have all the outward trappings of a modern navy, but it’s all show and no go. Ships need regular maintenance and ships’ crews need regular training. Sitting in harbour, polishing the brass and looking ship-shape won’t cut it.