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Armed forces officers are responsible for defending the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories, and for supporting international peacekeeping and humanitarian work.
The armed forces offer graduates good starting salaries and high levels of responsibility.

What does an armed forces officer do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Armed forces officers work in the service of their country to defend its people and they also support international peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts across the globe.

In the UK, officers are employed by the Ministry of Defence in the Army, Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Following initial cadet training and further training within their specialist field, officers are given considerable responsibility and can be posted at military locations at home or abroad.

Armed forces careers can be highly rewarding. The skills, experiences and achievements officers gain are unique to the sector and open up a range of opportunities within and beyond military service.

Responsibilities vary widely across the various job roles within each branch but typical activities include:

  • planning manoeuvres, assigning duties and communicating effectively with other staff
  • commanding, training and leading subordinate personnel
  • monitoring the welfare and progress of new recruits
  • operating and maintaining warfare systems, equipment and vehicles
  • taking on specialist duties and skills such as engineering, air traffic control, training and administration
  • producing briefings, reports and presentations
  • distributing equipment, resources and manpower

Choosing to work within the armed forces is as much a lifestyle choice as a career move. It is highly demanding, requiring dedication and a consistently high level of mental and physical fitness. Officers face dangerous and sometimes life threatening situations under immense pressure. They shoulder heavy responsibility not just for their own lives but for the lives of their subordinates as well.

Armed forces officers may work irregular hours and they may have to spend long periods of time away from their families. Travel is a major part of the role; officers can be posted at locations around the globe. While on duty they have the opportunity to experience a wide range of interesting countries and cultures.

Salaries in the British armed forces vary widely across employers and ranks. Details can be found on the British Army Website.

Typical employers of armed forces officers 

  • British Army
  • Royal Air Force
  • Royal Navy
  • Royal Marines

All four forces work in the service of the government and in association with global bodies like the United Nations for peacekeeping and humanitarian causes.

Qualifications and training required

There are routes into becoming an armed forces officer for both graduates and school leavers.

If you are a graduate, a degree in any subject will allow you to enrol as an officer in the armed forces. Science, engineering and technology graduates are often particularly welcome because of the specialist knowledge they can bring to technological roles throughout the forces. However, recruiters tend to place more importance on the candidate’s leadership capabilities and suitability to a life in service than on their degree subject .

Pre-entry experience and postgraduate qualifications can be beneficial but are not essential. Time spent in school or university cadet corps can help your application but does not guarantee you a place.

Graduates start off as cadet officers posted for training at their relevant barracks: Sandhurst (Army), Dartmouth (Navy) or Cranwell (RAF).

Competition for places can be fierce. You are required to take part in several days of interviews and tests. These test you both physically and mentally, and include a medical assessment.

  • You will be tested on your ability to think calmly and logically under pressure.
  • You will be expected to have some knowledge of past and present military operations as well as a basic grasp of the ethical debates surrounding warfare.
  • With some exceptions (such as the Royal Medical Corps) you must be below 26 years of age.
  • You must have strong vision and colour perception.

Cadets train for just under a year before they become officers. Once they have finished their course, they undertake further training in their chosen specialist field and they are then posted to a corps, squadron or ship.

To find out about how you can get into this career via a school leaver route (eg an apprenticeship or school leaver programme) see the armed forces section of TARGETcareers, our website aimed at school leavers.

Key skills for armed forces officers

  • Ability to communicate concisely and clearly to subordinates and superiors alike, both orally and in written work
  • Ability to work calmly and decisively in dangerous, high pressure situations
  • Excellent leadership and teamwork skills
  • High level of physical fitness (near perfect vision and colour perception is often required for pilots and drivers)
  • Determination, self-motivation and discipline
  • A demonstrable commitment to the forces and loyalty to your country

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