The phrase ‘Women in Defence’ can sometimes conjure up images of women in the Armed Forces doing things such as flying helicopters, administering first aid under fire, patrolling villages or something equally combative. However, there is more to defence than the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or the Army. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) is a crucial part of the Naval Service, enabling the Royal Navy to maintain its operations around the world by supplying fuel, ammunition and supplies. In addition to this, the RFA also transports Army and Royal Marine personnel and vehicles, supports training exercises, provides humanitarian and disaster relief, and undertakes anti-drug smuggling and anti-piracy operations.
Crucially however, the RFA is not military – the ships are owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) but are manned by civilian personnel employed by the MOD. This difference makes the RFA a rather interesting organisation to work for. To the untrained eye it seems an awful lot like the Royal Navy and in some respects it is. But it also most definitely has its own unique identity. The RFA currently employs just under 2000 personnel and is therefore much smaller than the Royal Navy. However, with no upper age limit to joining, the opportunities the RFA can offer are different to those of the Armed Forces. I joined the RFA as a 33-year-old, career changing asthmatic and I’ve not looked back. I’ve served with women of all ages and experiences and believe that many more women would enjoy the opportunities presented by a life at sea if they only knew it was an option.
There are no job roles that women are barred from within the RFA, from being in charge on the Bridge at sea, to lashing a helicopter on deck. The accommodation conditions on board ship are generally spacious and comfortable. Each crew member has their own cabin, complete with flat screen TV and a basic entertainment package provided by British Forces Broadcasting Service. Depending on the ship, they usually also have individual or shared ensuite bathroom facilities. Life as an RFA sailor can take you all over the world, but also allows you to be at home for significant periods of time. A typical appointment length in the RFA is four months long, followed by 21 days paid leave for each month served on board to look forward to. Plenty of time to catch up with friends and family or go travelling!
There are many specialisations within the RFA and rather like the military; you can apply to join either as an Officer or as a Rating. The trades/branches within the RFA are: Deck (Navigation/Warfare/Seamanship); Marine Engineering; Systems Engineering (Electrical); Communications Information Systems and Logistics. All branches apart from CIS and Logistics (direct entry Officers) offer Officer Entry as both a cadet under training and direct entry to qualified personnel, with similar pathways for Ratings. All specialisations offer opportunities for career progression through the Rating to Officer Scheme.
The RFA offers a different type of career in Defence; one that I believe may appeal to many people. It offers a uniformed career in the Naval Service whilst maintaining the status of being part of the Merchant Navy. I would urge you to spread the word about this small and unique organisation as it may well be the best career choice either you or your loved one makes!