British Armed Forces

A brief overview of the British Armed Forces

The British Armed Forces – or Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, as they’re also known – take total responsibility for the defence of the whole United Kingdom, as well as its overseas territories and its overseas Crown dependants.

The make-up of the British Armed Forces is: – The Royal Navy, incorporating the Royal Marines; the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Each of these has their own distinct areas of power and operation, which we’ll look at in more detail below.

The Commander-In-Chief of the British Armed Forces is always the current reigning British Monarch – presently HRH Queen Elizabeth II. In accordance with the UK Bill of Rights 1689, the UK Parliament must approve the continued existence of the British Army once every 5 years by passing an Armed Forces Act. No such Bill exists governing the Navy, Marines or Air Force; and so they do not require the passing of such an Act.

Although Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Armed Forces and its Commander-In-Chief, a long standing constitutional convention (exercised by Royal Prerogative Powers) divests overall control to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defence of the party in power. The current Prime Minister, whoever they may be, makes the key decisions on the use of the armed forces – they must however, have the backing of their Cabinet. The Monarch always retains the ultimate authority over the whole of the British Military, thus preventing their misuse or unconstitutional use at any given time by any reigning Prime Minister.

The British Armed Forces are a professional force with a combined total strength of 146,500 UK Regulars and Gurkhas, 36,430 Volunteer Reserves and 7,820 “Other Personnel” – numbers correct as of 1 January 2019. Taken into overall consideration, this gives the United Kingdom a total military strength of 190,750 “UK Service Personnel”. When considered as a percentage breakdown of the whole figures, UK Service Personnel consists of: 76.8% UK Regulars and Gurkhas, 19.1% Volunteer Reserves and 4.1% composed of Other Personnel. In addition, all ex-Regular personnel retain a “statutory liability for service” and are liable to be recalled (under Section 52 of the Reserve Forces Act (RFA) 1996) for duty during wartime, which is known as the Regular Reserve.

(Source of all statistics used here: )

The British Armed Forces have operating facilities worldwide in order to conduct defence and/or military operations worldwide. All of Britain’s permanent military installations are located on either British Overseas Territories or former colonies. The British Armed Forces also maintain and staff overseas garrisons at: Ascension Island, Bahrain, Belize, Bermuda, The Indian Ocean (British Territory), Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, The Falkland Isles, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya, Montserrat, Nepal, Qatar, Singapore and the United States of America.

The UK has the 6th or 7th largest defence spending budget in the world today. That means more is spent in Britain on its armed services than any of the major world powers like France, Germany, India or Japan. As a continued comparison, overall Britain spends less than China, Saudi Arabia or the United States of America. As of 2015 (The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015), the UK is committed to spending 2% of its annual GDP on defence and pledged an overall £178 billion investment programme in new equipment and facilities, to be spread over the forthcoming ten years.

A less well known aspect of the British Armed Forces is that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) maintains a number of civilian agencies who exist to support the British Armed Forces, and who play a vital role in supporting operations and, in certain circumstances, operate under military discipline and structure. Some key arms of this MOD service include:

  • Staffed by a total of 1,850 civilian personnel, and run entirely by the MOD, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary operates 12 ships. Their primary function is to support Royal Navy warships whilst at sea, however they can also augment the Royal Navy’s actual warfare capabilities in time of crisis.

The Ministry of Defence Police actually has a total of 2,700 police officers in its employ. They provide armed security and uniform policing to MOD property, as well as also performing investigative services and counter terrorism functions.

All arms of the British Armed Forces recruit primarily from within the United Kingdom, however all citizens from within the Commonwealth of Nations, and also from the Republic of Ireland, are equally eligible to join. The minimum recruitment age is 16 years – however actual service abroad will not start until after their 18th birthday in all instances. The maximum recruitment age varies, dependant on whether the application is for a regular or reserve role; and there are further variations in age limit for different corps/regiments. The normal length of military services within the UK Armed Forces is 22 years; with the minimum service required before resignation set at a total of 4 years.

Women have been integrated into the British Armed Forces since the early days of each of the Branches inception – indeed, the current Commander-In-Chief, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, served herself during wartime. Women’s roles have included flying fast jets, commanding warships or artillery batteries. However, they have historically remained excluded from primarily close combat units. This is beginning to change however, and in July 2016, it was announced that women would be allowed to serve in close combat, starting with the Royal Armoured Corps. In July 2017, the Secretary of Defence announced that women would be allowed to enlist in the RAF Regiment from September 2017, a year ahead of schedule. In 2018, women were allowed to apply for all roles in the British military, including within all special forces units.

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