The MSF Military Pocket Guide: Military Ranks

Rank in the US Military determines a lot of factors, from pay grade to housing. Rank varies by branch of service but most of the foundation work is the same. In this edition of the MSF Pocket Guide, let’s break down ranks and why it matters to everyone. 

Enlisted versus Officers

While rank and insignia is different by branch, there is one key similarity– enlisted and officers. 

Enlisted service members make up the majority of the uniformed services. Being “enlisted” simply means that a service member went to a form of basic training and normally starts at E-1 or E-2. Enlisted typically sign a 3 or 4 year contract with the option to re enlist  to continue service at the end of the contract. Enlisted are given a specific task based on the speciality job training received and complete the hands-on work. 

Typically, E-1 to E-4 is considered junior enlisted, E-5 and above is senior enlisted. E-7 and above are usually in leadership positions and serve as a bridge to commissioned officers, called Non-Commissioned Officers. An Army sergeant, an Air Force staff sergeant and a Marine corporal are considered NCO ranks. The Navy NCO equivalent, petty officer, is achieved at the rank of petty officer third class.

To join as a commissioned officer, you typically must have a four-year college degree and complete an officer program. Potential candidates compete for promotion to continue their career. Most officers are managers who plan and direct operations, while others are professionals like doctors and lawyers. Officers receive commission at the level of O-1 and are paid more than enlisted. 

There is also a rank category called warrant officers. Starting at W-1, these service members are specialized in skilled positions that often require specialists with command authority and leadership skills.  Commissioned warrant officers (CW2-CW5) are direct representatives of the President of the United States. They derive their authority from the same source as commissioned officers but remain specialists, in contrast to commissioned officers, who are generalists. The only branch of service that does not have Warrant Officers is the Air Force. Across all the branches CW5’s are few, earning them the nickname “unicorns” for their mythical status.

Another interesting fact about rank is related to generals. 5-star general ranks across branches (including Fleet Admiral for the Navy and Coast Guard) is reserved for wartime. There has never been a five-star General rank in the Marine Corps, though such a rank could theoretically be created at any time by an act of Congress.

Differences in Rank Across Branches

Enlisted and officers are different in each branch. They go by different names is the biggest difference, for example an E-2 in the Army (Private First Class) is not the same as it is in the Navy (Seaman Apprentice) and an O-2 in the Airforce, Marines and Army (First Lieutenant) is different than an O-2 in the Navy (Lieutenant Junior Grade).

The Department of Defense has a comprehensive chart of ranks and their insignias for you to view. You can view the Space Force ranks and insignia on their website.

Customs, Courtesies, and Traditions

The saluting, standing at attention, and how one addresses the other is all a part of customs, courtesies, and traditions. When it comes to rank, service members have to uphold different customs and courtesies when addressing leaders and subordinates. 

A custom is a time-honored practice. Customs include positive actions or things you avoid. Some military customs are established by regulation, and service members can be punished for disregarding them, even possibly land in jail. Others are unwritten, but obeyed just the same. These are a just a few:

  • Never criticize your service or your leaders in public.
  • Never go over the heads of superiors — don’t jump the chain of command.
  • Never turn and walk away to avoid giving the hand salute.
  • Never run indoors or pretend you don’t hear (while driving, for example) to avoid participating in reveille or retreat (raising or lowering of the U.S. flag).
  • Never appear in uniform while under the influence of alcohol.

Courtesy among members of the Armed Forces is vital to maintain discipline. In summary, courtesy is the same thing as good manners. Courteous behavior provides a basis for developing good communication and relationships with others. However, military courtesy is not a one-way street. Enlisted personnel are expected to be courteous to officers, and officers are expected to return the courtesy. Mutual respect is a vital part of military courtesy. 

The salute isn’t simply an honor exchanged; it’s a privileged gesture of respect and trust among military members. The salute is not only regulation, but is also recognition of each other’s commitment in arms. The salute is widely misunderstood outside the military. Many civilians see it as a sign of servility, when in reality it is all about the respect and recognition of one’s profession in the US Military and their commitment to serve the Constitution.

How does rank relate to benefits and pay?

Enlisted, officers, and warrant officers receive different levels of base pay and are broken into roughly the same categories across the different branches. The Department of Defense has outlined pay grades as follows: E-1 to E-9, O-1 to O-10, CW-1 to CW-5. The pay levels are broken down further in each level and usually goes up the chain by time in service and individual rank. For example, an E-5 with 6 years of service would receive an estimated $3,200 per month, and an O-1 with 2 years or less would receive roughly $3,300 per month (as of 2021). We have more information on this in another MSF Military Pocket Guide.

What about allowances?

Allowances are an important element of military pay. Allowances are monies provided for specific needs, such as food or housing.  Typically allowances are nontaxable and often comprise a significant portion of the member’s total pay.
Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) is compensation for service members in order to find and fund comfortable housing. BAH is given to active duty service members only. The amount of BAH one receives is based upon paygrade, whether or not the service member has dependents, and the location of the duty station. We dive deeper into BAH in a previous MSF Military Pocket Guide.

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