Rank and Hierarchy

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Rank and Hierarchy. Armed forces are based on rank and hierarchy, formal structures of positions designed to ensure command, control, and support in the pursuit of the mission. This entry consists of four articles that explain very briefly the structure of ranks from top to bottom in each of the four major services:Rank and Hierarchy: ArmyRank and Hierarchy: NavyRank and Hierarchy: Air ForceRank and Hierarchy: Marine Corps
Rank and Hierarchy: Army Armies are hierarchical by design, both in terms of organizational elements and in terms of the individuals expected to perform specific functions at each echelon—privates and specialists; corporals and sergeants who lead squads (noncommissioned officers); warrant officers with particular technical abilities; lieutenants who head platoons and captains who command companies (company grade officers); majors and lieutenant colonels who head battalions or act as executive officers, and colonels who command brigades (field grade officers); and brigadier generals who head separate brigades or are assistant division commanders, major generals commanding divisions, lieutenant generals overseeing corps, and generals supervising armies (the executive level). The rank of General of the Armies was created by Congress for John J. Pershing in 1919 (Pershing accepted the title, but declined the fifth star) and posthumously for George Washington in 1978. Congress has bestowed the five‐star rank of General of the Army upon Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, and “Hap” Arnold (all in 1944), and Omar N. Bradley (in 1950).

Armies are functionally dependent upon chains of command, with appointed leaders at each organizational level. The chain of command is used for disseminating information and issuing directives downward, as well as to receive timely information and reports upward.

The need to identify leaders in the Continental army and distinguish their ranks was recognized by General Washington from his experience with the British army. In 1775, he ordered the use of stripes to designate rank for officers and noncommissioned officers. Since then, U.S. Army insignia have undergone numerous alterations, to include various types and numbers of epaulets to designate rank, as well as colors to designate a functional branch (e.g., artillery red, cavalry yellow, or infantry blue). In 1821, regulations prescribed a cloth stripe or chevron to be worn on the sleeve of the uniform, point upward, to designate noncommissioned officer rank. This method of identifying noncommissioned officers remains to this day for dress uniforms; for the field uniform, insignia are worn on the collar. Officers wear insignia of rank on the shoulder epaulets of the dress uniform and on the collar of the field uniform.

To attain rank and greater responsibility in the army's hierarchy, a sophisticated military education and selection process has been institutionalized. To attain a more senior position, defined standards of military training, skills, on‐the‐job performance, and formal schooling have to be met. Senior noncommissioned officers and officers compete for a limited number of higher‐level positions and are chosen by centralized selection boards. Particularly in the twentieth century, seniority has been only one of the many criteria for selection to the next higher rank.


Mark M. Boatner , Military Customs and Traditions, 1976.
William Gardner Bell , Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff, 1775–1991, 1992.
Lawrence P. Crocker , Army Officer's Guide, 46th ed. 1993.

James D. Blundell

Rank and Hierarchy: Navy U.S. Navy personnel are divided into commissioned line or staff officers, warrant officers, and enlisted ratings. Unrestricted line officers are eligible to assume command at sea or command of aircraft squadrons, fleets, and shore bases; restricted line officers are designated for engineering and other special duties. Staff officers (commissioned officers assigned to a commander's staff) may command designated shore facilities. Naval officers are selected for promotion by promotion boards composed of senior officers.

Officers are ranked as admiral (four stars); vice admiral (three stars); rear admiral (originally the admiral in command of the rear of the fleet) higher rank (two stars) and lower rank (one star); captain; commander; lieutenant commander; lieutenant; lieutenant junior grade; and ensign. The five‐star rank of fleet admiral was created in 1944 and bestowed on only four men: William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, and Chester Nimitz in 1944, and William F. Halsey in 1945. Until July 1862, when Congress established the ranks of rear admiral and commodore, the highest rank held by an American naval officer was that of captain. The status of commodore has changed over time, but is now considered a position, usually held by a captain, in command of a formation of ships.

The navy retains the traditional warrant officer structure. The former warrant officer or W‐1 has been eliminated, and all warrant officers in the 1990s were commissioned as chief warrant officers in grades W‐2, W‐3, and W‐4. They are former enlisted personnel selected for their professional ability and demonstrated qualities of leadership, loyalty, and devotion to duty. Warrant officers are specialists in certain areas such as aviation, communications, supply, seamanship, and engineering. Enlisted personnel are rated from seaman recruit, seaman apprentice, and seaman, to petty officer third, second, first class, through chief petty officer, senior chief petty officer, to master chief petty officer. In addition to being rated, they are given training at navy service schools to qualify them for various specialty ratings in deck, weapons/ordnance, electronics, and precision equipment, or administrative and clerical categories. Advancement is determined by time in grade and by competitive examinations.


Leland P. Lovette , Naval Customs: Traditions and Usage, 1939.
Bluejackets Manual, 1990.
Naval Education and Training Command , Basic Military Requirements, April 1992.

Barbara Brooks Tomblin

Rank and Hierarchy: Air Force The U.S. Air Force retained much of its army heritage of rank and hierarchy since it was part of the U.S. Army until 1947. There were four grades of general officer: brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general; three field grades: major, lieutenant colonel (squadron commander), and colonel (wings commander); and three company grades: second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain. All pilots are commissioned officers. However, because of the nature of its technical specialties and missions, the distinction between officer and enlisted personnel in the air force is less pronounced than in the other services. Over time, the air force has adjusted rank and hierarchy to fit its own needs.

The enlisted grades maintained the traditional army enlisted ranks of private through master sergeant. In the early 1950s, the air force created an enlisted grade structure that was a compromise between the position of supervisor and technician. These new grades of airman basic and airman third, second, first class, and senior airman, corresponded to apprentice technicians whose promotion was based on increasing skill in their specialty, and to a lesser extent on military bearing.

The noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the grades of staff, technical, and master sergeant were expected to be experts in their specialty and front‐line supervisors. In 1958, two new grades of senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant were added to the enlisted rank structure. These “supergrades” allowed the other NCO grades to remain focused on technical expertise.

Unlike the other branches of the armed forces, the air force phased out its warrant officer ranks in the early 1960s, arguing that these ranks duplicated both the duties of officers and the supervisory positions of the noncommissioned officer corps. In actuality, the warrant grades significantly cut into the congressional quotas for officers, were far too specialized, and suffered from the stigma of simply not fitting into the air force's rapidly expanding technological environment.


Mark R. Grandstaff , ‘Neither Fish Nor Fowl’: The Demise of the United States Air Force's Warrant Officer Program, Airpower History, 42 (Spring 1995), pp. 40–51.
Mark R. Grandstaff , Foundation of the Force: Air Force Enlisted Personnel Policy, 1907–1956, 1997.

Mark R. Grandstaff

Rank and Hierarchy: Marine Corps While officially part of the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, as a ground force, has an organization and rank structure similar to that of the U.S. Army. General officer ranks include: general—held only by the commandant and the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; lieutenant general—held by those selected to hold particular “type” or specially designated commands; major general—in command of either a Marine Expeditionary Force or division; and brigadier general—held normally by commanders of installations, or brigades.

Colonels in the Marine Corps command regiments, function as chiefs of staff, or hold other key billets. Lieutenant colonels usually command battalions or squadrons. Majors normally serve as battalion executive officers. Captains generally lead companies, while lieutenants are often platoon commanders. Besides these commissioned officers there are warrant officers, promoted to officer rank due to their technical or administrative expertise.

The top enlisted rank is sergeant major of the Marine Corps, who advises and assists the commandant in all matters pertaining to enlisted Marines. Sergeant majors normally will be found at all levels in the Fleet Marine Force and other administrative and technical positions. Other staff noncommissioned officer ranks range downward from first or master sergeant to gunnery sergeant and staff sergeant. Due to the low officer‐to‐enlisted ratio, staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) are considered to be the “backbone” of the Marine Corps.

Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) include sergeants and corporals, who act as squad leaders, section heads, and instructors. Junior enlisted grades include lance corporal, private first class, and private.


A Brief History of U.S. Marine Corps Officer Procurement, 1958.
Bernard C. Nalty, et al. , United States Marine Corps Ranks and Grades, 1776–1969, 1970.

Leo J. Daugherty III