Armed forces

HM Armed Forces and Everything You Need to Know

Members of the armed forces work all over the world in a range of roles. Some of them are fighting, while others are assisting in peacekeeping or humanitarian operations; or they might be doing all three depending on where they’re serving. The army, navy and air force need people behind the front line, too, in areas like training, driving, intelligence and digital information.

About the Armed Forces

Combat can and does form part of what the armed forces do, but their role is much broader than that. Front line personnel might be part of search and rescue teams after an earthquake, or they might assist with flood defences in UK towns and cities, for example; or they could be transporting food to regions hit by famine. You can also join the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as a civilian, with roles available in engineering, business admin and more.

What Can I Do?

There’s a lot to choose from. You could be in an operational role, such as infantry in the army, marine in the navy or pilot in the air force, all of which will involve taking part in dangerous combat operations anywhere in the world (as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian duties). 

Within each branch of the services, there is a range of other specialisms. You might be a cook on a submarine, for example, learning to prepare food in confined conditions and living under the sea for weeks at a time with the morale of your crew depending on how well you feed them. Or you might be a member of the RAF regiment, responsible for the security of airfields and aircraft wherever the RAF might be based. 

Alternatively, the MoD offers lots of civilian roles, where you’re not a member of the armed forces but work to support them. Find out more about MoD roles here.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are further opportunities in navigation, admin, publicity, weapons specialisms, transport, construction … even in creative areas such as music, which plays a big part in ceremonial occasions – another important aspect of the role of the armed forces in public life. Plus, where did all the people/horses marching Meghan and Harry to the altar come from? The armed forces. 

armed forces

Armed Forces Skills

Whatever branch of the services you join you’ll go through basic training, which is designed to prepare you for life in the forces and to equip you with the general skills you’ll need. That includes a certain level of literacy and numeracy as well as communication, ICT, physical fitness and teamworking skills. You’ll also learn about the structure, traditions, rules and regulations of the armed forces, which are an important part of the job as they help maintain order and discipline.

After basic training, the skills you develop will very much depend on the role you choose. Engineering or construction roles will demand problem-solving skills and a high degree of really specific technical knowledge, (have you seen how complicated a helicopter is?) to enable you to do the job, for example, but the training you’ll receive is amongst the best in the world. 

The same is true of roles throughout the services, as you might learn to train and work with sniffer dogs or military horses; how to jump out of a plane safely and be ready to fight when you land; how to build bridges, roads and ramps; how to navigate a plane travelling at twice the speed of sound; and how to behave in the officers’ mess (hint: well). 

Plus, any skill you can develop in the civilian world, you can develop in the armed forces. It’s helpful to think about what interests you, what you might enjoy as a career both in and out of the services (you won’t stay in forever) and what your strengths are: it will all help with your research. 


Routes into the armed forces vary depending on your age and the level you want to join at. In some cases, you’ll need qualifications, but if you don’t have any (or don’t have many), joining the forces can be a way to gain them – you can even get paid to go through university. The qualifications you need (or that you can get) include:

  • Apprenticeships
  • Vocational qualifications / A Levels
  • National Diplomas and Certificates
  • Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs)
  • Foundation Degrees (England and Wales only)
  • Bachelors Degrees

Work-based & work-related qualifications 

NVQ and BTEC programmes that you can gain in the services include:

  • Public services and health
  • Engineering
  • Telecommunications


There are relevant Apprenticeships at four levels:

Level Two (Intermediate) – equivalent to GCSEs / Standard Grades

Level Three (Advanced) – equivalent to A Levels / Highers

Level Four / Five (Higher) – equivalent to Foundation Degree / Advanced Highers

Level Six / Seven (Degree) – equivalent to Bachelor’s or master’s degree

Apprenticeships include:

  • Public services and health
  • Engineering
  • IT
  • Logistics
  • Construction
  • Catering
  • Marines
  • Air traffic control
  • Cybersecurity

A Levels, Highers and Bachelors Degrees 

If you want to join the forces as an officer, you’ll need A Levels / Scottish Highers or their equivalents. Most subjects are relevant, but might include: 

  • Maths
  • Physics
  • ICT
  • Languages

If you’re 14-16 you can also study at the specialist armed forces institution, Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College, to gain your A Levels. 

You don’t need a degree to join the services, but they can help you get one. Join the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme (DTUS) after Sixth Form (or equivalent), for example, and you’ll receive a £16,000 bursary to go to one of 11 UK unis, where you’ll take part in adventurous training and leadership education alongside your regular student life. You’ll have a guaranteed career once you graduate, too.

Programmes on offer are all technical ones, so you’ll need an aptitude for Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. The idea is to provide technically-savvy grads to the Army, Navy and Air Force. Most students join the scheme after studying at Welbeck, but you can also sign up at uni – see the various forces websites below for more info. 

Once you’re in the services, you’ll be able to gain more qualifications: almost all roles give you the option of going on to further degree or masters level study.

Life in the Armed Forces 

In some roles in the armed forces, you will be in high-risk situations where serious injury or loss of life is possible, so you need to be aware of this going in. On the other hand, not all roles involve combat and civilian roles for the MoD or at sites like GCHQ (the government’s listening station that monitors global communication for the security services) could be based in the UK in offices, labs and UK military bases. And yes, you could be a spy if you’re deemed to have the right abilities. 

Armed forces careers vary a great deal and a lot depends on what role you go for. You might be deployed on active service as an infantryman in the Army; help crew a Royal Navy ship on manoeuvres in the Pacific, or form part of the ground crew at an RAF base. 

Equally, you could be building walls, repairing equipment, handling admin, manning remote outposts, or taking part in adventurous training, which is basically going somewhere exciting and learning to function well as a team there. That can mean snow, sand or jungle. Whatever stage of your career you’re at, you’ll receive a salary. That’s right, the armed forces pay you to learn to ski. 

Life in the services is unlike anything else. You’ll learn to rely on the people you’re serving with, whatever your job and wherever you are until they come to feel like your family. You’ll live, train, work, perhaps even fight alongside them, so it’s a pretty close bond, as you’d expect. Along the way, you’ll gain confidence, discipline and professional skills that any employer will value. 

Armed Forces Employment

There are many roles open to you, but at the start of your career you might be in a job such as:

  • Airman (RAF)
  • Sailor (Royal Navy)
  • Combat infantryman (Army)
  • Lab technician (MoD)

1 – There were just over 192,000 military personnel employed by the UK armed forces as of the start of July 2018

2 – The budget for the services was £49 billion for 2018-19

3 – From 2019, women will be able to serve as regular soldiers in the British Army’s infantry

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