Military ranks explained
By Luke Sprague
August 25, 2014
A large number of you out there expressed an interest in understanding military rank, so as a veteran I decided to write a post covering this issue. Today, I am going to explain the ins and outs of the US military’s rank structure. Please note this post does not include information on civilians serving in the military or information on pay grade. To oversimplify, there are two basic rank structures within the US military: enlisted and officer.
The enlisted person signs a contract “enlisting” for a specified term of years, called an “enlistment” or “re-enlistment.” Enlisted personnel gain rank with time in service, supervisory experience, education, additional training, and selection via promotion boards. The vast majority of people in the US military are enlisted. Enlisted personnel run the US military’s daily operations and hold positions as varied from aircraft maintenance to building bridges. The roles enlisted people fill are as widely varied as the civilian world.
Their more experienced enlisted peers, known as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), then in turn supervise them. The NCO is a trained professional who supervises the daily operations of a work group that can vary in size from nine to hundreds of people. You may have heard terms like “chief,” “top,” or “gunny,” to describe these people. These terms may be familiar, in other words, these are not necessarily the correct or proper terms to call these people, but in within the military unit it may be acceptable depending on the person.
It is important to point out that the US military maintains a “strong” NCO corps (corps meaning large group of people) as opposed to a “weak” NCO corps. A weaker NCO corps means that the officer corps retains the majority of the power with a nation’s military and as such, the NCO corps has less power and prominence.
An example of a military with a weak NCO corps would be the Iraqi Army during Gulf War 1 when Saddam’s government disempowered their NCOs. This balance of power between NCOs and officers shifts at times within a military. For example, during the American Revolution, I argue that the US Army Officer Corps was disproportionately stronger than the NCO corps. As a rule, a military with a strong NCO corps performs substantially better than a military with a weak NCO corps.
So, how do officers fit into this picture? Officers receive commissions (a written document) signed by the Secretary of Defense on behalf of the President of the United States. This “commission” grants the officer with his or her rank and the authority over enlisted personnel. The concept of a commission harkens back to medieval times when a lord knighted a particular soldier for his skill on the battlefield, recognizing their abilities and then empowering him to lead others in his name. Hence, the shiny officers rank indicating the armor of a medieval knight—long since gone. The officer receives their military authority thru a document whereas a NCO receives their authority thru experience and time in in service. It may be interesting to note that generally, the NCOs of the US military train young commissioned officers, in essence training their future bosses.
The role of the US military officer is to receive the orders from the civilian government (the President) and then ensure NCOs carry them out. Ideally, officers provide leadership and direction. The generals below the President take his orders give them to their officer subordinates, who in turn write the orders for the NCOs and enlisted personnel to make it happen. The two forms of leadership, officer and NCO, overlie one another, in particular at the lowest officer ranks and senior NCOs. This is deliberate and has advantages in battle, but can present issues when junior officers bump into strong senior NCOs.
Though the officer “ranks” the NCO and may command the same unit the NCO runs, the chain of command holds the officer responsible for the overall success or failure of any given mission. Therefore, it is in the best interest for the officer to have a healthy relationship with that senior NCO. A sample of ranks within the officer corps include: ensign, lieutenant, captain, major, commander, colonel. Officers are correctly addressed by lower ranking personnel by “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or their rank, whereas NCOs are correctly addressed by lower ranking personnel by “Corporal,” “Sergeant,” “Petty Officer,” “Gunnery Sergeant,” “First Sergeant,” or “Sergeant Major.”
As a sidebar, the President may “direct” commission doctors, medical specialists, and lawyers to a junior officer rank (lieutenant or captain) as the need arises. This is in recognition of their professional degree prior to military service and officers in these positions do not command other military personnel. My father received his commission in this way during the Vietnam War see the picture below.
There are two other types of officer—Warrant and General. Warrant Officers, receive a “warrant” to practice their specific profession within military service. To confuse matters further, the military now calls a warrant a commission. A warrant provides warrant officer rank and higher pay. The warrant officer out ranks all enlisted personnel, but is subordinate to a commissioned officer. In other words, the junior commissioned officer commands, even though the warrant may have decades of experience. However, a warrant officer can be given assumption of command orders should the situation arise. Warrants are found in technical specialties including aviation (flying warrants), communications security, medical, or special operations to list a few. The President commissions warrants for their technical specialty, not necessarily for their leadership role.
General / Flag officers (hereafter General Officers) are a separate class of officer within the US military who outrank all of the other officers hereto listed. The President of the United States selects general officers and then they often appear at hearings for public confirmation in the US Senate. These officers make up less than 1 percent of the officer corps and they undergo a special selection process. A general commands the highest levels of the US military. In the case of the US Army, this means the command of a division (10,000 people). All lower ranking personnel salute a general officer’s vehicle when its license plate indicates that it is carrying a general / flag officer.
In summary, there are basically four types of rank within US military, in order from lowest to highest they are enlisted, warrant, commissioned, and general. Within each of these types of rank, each branch of military service Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard have their own unique rank structure as you can see from the images above. I am interested in what people think about my definition of the roles of officers and NCOs in the US military.
Luke Sprague is an author, veteran, and military historian at HistoryMint. He commanded a detachment of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). To find out more about services he offers click here.