This article is about the military use of the term rank. For other uses, see Rank Listings.

Military rank is a system of hierarchical relationships in armed forces or civil institutions organized along military lines. Usually, uniforms denote the bearer's rank by particular insignia affixed to the uniforms. Ranking systems have been known for most of military history to be advantageous for military operations, in particular with regards to logistics, command, and coordination; as time continued and military operations became larger and more complex, military ranks increased and ranking systems themselves became more complex.

Within modern armed forces, the use of ranks is almost universal. Communist states have sometimes abolished rank (e.g., the Soviet Russian Red Army 1918–1935, the Chinese People's Liberation Army 1965–1988, and the Albanian Army 1966–1991), only to re-establish them after encountering operational difficulties of command and control.

Modern ranks

Modern military services recognize three broad categories of personnel. These are codified in the Geneva Conventions, which distinguish officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men.

Apart from conscripted personnel one can distinguish:

Commissioned officers

Officers are distinguished from other military members by holding a commission (or Officer in Training); they are trained or training as leaders and hold command positions.

Officers are further separated into Four levels as with the Canadian Forces:

  • General, Flag, or Air Officers
  • Field or Senior Officers
  • Company Grade or Junior Officers
  • Subordinate Officer (Naval Cadet or Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces)

General, Flag, or Air Officers

Officers who typically command units or formations that are expected to operate independently for extended periods of time (brigades and larger, or flotillas or squadrons of ships), are referred to variously as General Officers (Army, Marines, and some Air Forces), Flag Officers (navy), or Air Officers (some Commonwealth air forces).

General Officer ranks typically include (from the top down) General, Lieutenant General, Major General, and Brigadier General, although there are many variations like Division General or (Air-, Ground-) Force General.

Flag Officer ranks, named after the traditional practice of showing the presence of such an officer with a flag on a ship and often land, typically include (from the top down) Admiral, Vice Admiral and Rear Admiral. In some navies, such as Canada's, the rank of Commodore is a flag rank.

In the United Kingdom and most other Commonwealth air forces, Air Officer ranks usually include Air Chief Marshal, Air Marshal, Air Vice-Marshal and Air Commodore. For some air forces, however, such as those of Canada, United States or most of the Air Forces in the Americas, army General Officer ranks are used.

In some forces there may be one or more superior ranks to the common examples, above, that are given distinguishing titles, such as Field Marshal or General of the Armies (many armies), Fleet Admiral (U.S. Navy), Marshal of the Royal Air Force, or other national air force. These ranks have often been discontinued, such as in Germany and Canada, or limited to wartime and/or honorific promotion, such as in the United Kingdom and the United States.

In various countries, particularly the United States, these may be referred to as "star ranks" for the number of stars worn on some rank insignia: typically one star for Brigadier General or equivalent with the addition of a star for each subsequent rank. In the United States five stars has been the maximum used in all services (excluding the Marines and Coast Guard which have only used four). (However, see General of the Armies of the United States for a theoretically "six-star" rank held by John J. Pershing and to which George Washington was posthumously promoted.)

Some titles are not genuine ranks, but either functions assumed by generals or honorific titles. For instance, in the French Army Général de corps d'armée is a function assumed by some Généraux de division, and Maréchal de France which is a distinction denoting the most superior military office, but one that has often neutered the practical command powers of those on whom it is conferred. In the United States Navy, a commodore currently is a senior captain commanding a squadron that is too small for a rear admiral to command, although that name has historically been used as a rank. The title (not rank) of Commodore can also indicate an officer who is senior to a ship's Captain (since only the ship's commander is addressed as Captain while underway). Marine Captains are referred to as Major to distinguish themselves while shipboard.

Field or Senior officers

Field officers, also called "field-grade officers" or "senior officers", are officers who typically command units that can be expected to operate independently for short periods of time (infantry battalions, cavalry or artillery regiments, warships, air squadrons). Field officers also commonly fill staff positions.

The term "field(-grade) officer" is primarily used by armies and Marines; air forces and navies generally prefer the term "senior officer." The two terms are not necessarily synonymous.

Typical army and Marine Field Officer ranks include Colonel (/ˈkɹ̩nl̩/), Lieutenant Colonel, Major and, in the British army, Captains holding an Adjutant's appointment. In many Commonwealth countries the field rank of Brigadier is used, although it fills the position held by Brigadier General in other countries.

Naval senior officer ranks include Captain (Navy) and Commander. In some countries, the more senior rank of commodore is also included. In others Lieutenant-Commanders, as equivalents to army Majors, are considered senior officers.

Commonwealth air force senior officer ranks include Group Captain, Wing Commander, and Squadron Leader, where such ranks are still used.

Company Grade or Junior Officers

The ranks of junior officers are the three or four lowest ranks of officers. Units under their command are generally not expected to operate independently for any significant length of time. Company grade officers also fill staff roles in some units. In some militaries, however, a captain may act as the permanent commanding officer of an independent company-sized unit, for example a signal or field engineer squadron, or a field artillery battery.

Typical army company officer ranks include Captain and various grades of Lieutenant. Typical naval junior officer ranks include grades of Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant and/or Sub-Lieutenant/Ensign. Commonwealth (excluding Canada) air force Junior Officer ranks usually include Flight Lieutenant, Flying Officer, and Pilot Officer.

"The [U.S.] commissioned officer corps is divided into 10 pay grades (O-1 through O-10). Officers in pay grades O-1 through O-3 are considered company grade officers. In the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, these pay grades correspond to the ranks of second lieutenant (O-1), first lieutenant (O-2), and captain (O-3), and in the Navy, ensign, lieutenant junior grade, and lieutenant. Officers in the next three pay grades (O-4 through O-6) are considered field grade officers. In the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, these pay grades correspond to the ranks of major (O-4), lieutenant colonel (O-5), and colonel (O-6), and in the Navy, lieutenant commander, commander, and captain. The highest four pay grades are reserved for general officers in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, and flag officers in the Navy. The ranks associated with each pay grade are as follows: in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, brigadier general (O-7), major general (O-8), lieutenant general (O-9), and general (O-10); in the Navy, rear admiral-lower half, rear admiral-upper half, vice admiral, and admiral."

Subordinate Officer

Are Officers in Training in the Canadian Armed Forces either Naval Cadet for Naval Training or Officer Cadet for Army or Air Force Training

Warrant Officers

Warrant officers (as receiving authority by virtue of a warrant) are a hybrid rank treated slightly differently in each country and/or service. WOs may either be effectively senior non-commissioned officers or an entirely separate grade between commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officers, usually held by specialist personnel.

In the United States, Warrant Officers are appointed by warrant then commissioned by the President of the United States at the rank of Chief Warrant Officer.

Enlisted personnel

Enlisted personnel are personnel below commissioned rank and make up the vast majority of military personnel. They are known by different names in other countries, such as Other Ranks (ORs) in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries, and Non-commissioned members (NCMs) in Canada.

Non-Commissioned Officers

Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are enlisted personnel, under the command of an officer, granted delegated authority to supervise other military members or assigned significant administrative responsibilities. In U.S. Army parlance: "NCOs are the backbone of the Army!" They are responsible for the care and direct control of junior military members, often functioning in the smaller field units as Executive Officers.

Even the most senior NCO officially ranks beneath the most junior commissioned officer or warrant officer. However, most senior NCOs have more experience, possibly including combat, than junior officers. In some organizations, senior NCOs may have formal responsibility and informal respect beyond that of junior officers, but less than that of warrant officers. Many warrant officers come from the ranks of mid-career NCOs. In some countries warrant ranks replace senior enlisted ranks.

NCO ranks typically include a varying number of grades of Sergeant and Corporal (Air Force, Army and Marines), or Chief Petty Officer and Petty Officer (Navy and Coast Guard). In many navies the term rate is used to designate specialty, while rank denotes paygrade.

Other enlisted ranks

Personnel with no command authority usually bear titles such as Private, Airman/Aircraftman, Guard and Seaman (Seaman Recruit in the United States Navy and Coast Guard). In the United States Marine Corps individuals of all ranks regardless of command status may be referred to as "Marine". In some countries and services, personnel in different branches have different titles. These may have a variety of grades, but these usually only reflect variations in pay, not increased authority. These may or may not technically be ranks, depending on the country and/or service.


Appointment refers to the instrument by virtue of which the person exercises his or her authority. Officers are appointed by a Royal Commission in most monarchies or a Presidential Commission in many other countries. In the Commonwealth, Warrant Officers hold a Royal or Presidential Warrant. In the United States, officers are commissioned by the United States Senate after nomination by the President. Most officers are approved en bloc by voice vote, but flag officers are usually required to appear before the Armed Services Committee and answer questions to the satisfaction of its members, prior to a vote on their commission.

NCOs are appointed by an instrument of appointment, a written document, often a certificate, usually from the service head. Entry into service is often referred to as enlistment throughout the English speaking world, even in countries where soldiers do not technically enlist.

Sometimes personnel serve in an appointment which is higher than their actual rank. For instance, commodore used to be an appointment of captain in the Royal Navy and lance corporal used to be an appointment of private in the British Army.

Size of command

Example of Unit Size and Nomenclature (U.S. Marine Corps)

To get a sense of the practical meaning of these ranks—and thus to be able to compare them across the different armed services, different nations, and the variations of titles and insignia—an understanding of the relative levels and sizes of each command will be helpful. The ranking and command system used by U.S. Marine ground forces can serve as a template for this purpose. It should be remembered that different countries will often use their own systems which won't match that of the U.S. Marines. In fact, the U.S. Army assigns a different rank to command the same type of unit as the Marines.

Under this system, starting from the bottom and working up, a Corporal leads a Fireteam consisting of three other Marines. A Sergeant leads a Squad consisting of three Fireteams. As a result, a full squad numbers 13 individuals. Squads usually have numbered designations, e.g. 1st Squad.

A Lieutenant commands a Platoon, which can consist of three or four Squads. In Marine infantry units, Rifle Platoons usually consist of three Rifle Squads of 13 men each, with a Navy Corpsman, the Platoon Commander, and a Platoon Sergeant (a Staff Sergeant who serves as Executive Officer). A Weapons Platoon replaces the three squads with a 60 mm mortar section, an assault section, and a medium machine gun section. An infantry Platoon can number from 42 to 55 individuals, depending on the service. Platoons are usually numbered (e.g. 1st Platoon) or named after their primary function (e.g. Service Platoon).

A Captain commands a Company, usually consisting of four Platoons (three Rifle Platoons and one Weapons Platoon). His command post can include a Gunnery Sergeant and as many as seven others. So a Company can comprise from roughly 175 to 225 individuals. Equivalent units also commanded by Captains are Batteries and Detachments. In English speaking countries, a Company (or troop in the Cavalry or Armor, and Battery in the Artillery) is usually designated by a letter, e.g. A Company. In non-English speaking countries, they are usually numbered.

A Lieutenant Colonel commands a Battalion or a Squadron, often consisting of four Companies or Sections plus the various members of his command post. A battalion is around 500-1500 men and usually consists of between two and six companies.

A Colonel commands a Regiment or Group, often consisting of four Battalions (for an Infantry unit) or five to six Air Groups (for a Wing). Battalions and Regiments are usually numbered, either as a separate Battalion or as part of a Regimental structure, e.g. 1/1 Marines in the Marine Corps or 1-501st Infantry in the US Army.

In these latter, abstractions cease to be helpful and it becomes necessary to turn to an actual unit. The 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division of the I Marine Expeditionary Force consists of three infantry companies, one weapons company, and one headquarters and service company. Above that, the 1st Marine Regiment (First Marines) consists of four such Battalions and one headquarters company. Marine Air Control Group 18 of 1st Marine Air Wing of the III Marine Expeditionary Force consists of four squadrons, one battery, and one detachment, a mix of different-sized units under a regimental equivalent-sized unit.

The next level has traditionally been a Brigade, commanded by a Brigadier General, and containing two or more Regiments. But this structure is considered obsolete today. At the present time, in the U.S. Army, a Brigade is roughly equal to or a little larger than a Regiment, consisting of three to seven battalions. Strength typically ranges from 1,500 to 3,500 personnel. In the U.S. Marines, Brigades are only formed for certain missions. In size and nature they are larger and more varied collections of Battalions than is common for a Regiment, fitting them for their traditional role as the smallest formation able to operate independently on a battlefield without external logistical tactical support. Brigades are usually numbered, e.g. 2nd Brigade.

The level above Regiment and Brigade is the Division, commanded by a Major General and consisting of from 10,000 to 20,000 persons. The 1st Marine Division, for example, is made up of four Marine Regiments (of the type described above), one Assault Amphibian Battalion, one Reconnaissance Battalion, two Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalions, one Combat Engineer Battalion, one Tank Battalion, and one Headquarters Battalion—totalling more than 19,000 Marines. (Within the Headquarters Battalion are one Headquarters Company, one Service Company, one Military Police Company, one Communications Company, and one Truck Company.) An equivalent elsewhere within the same Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) might be a MEF Logistics Group (MLG) - which is not a regimental-sized unit (as the word "group" implies), but rather a large support unit consisting of several battalions of support personnel. Divisions are normally numbered, but can be named after a function or personage.

Considering such a variety of units, the command sizes for any given rank will vary widely. Not all units are as troop intensive as infantry forces need to be. Tank and Artillery crews, for example, involve far fewer personnel. Numbers also differ for non-combat units such as quartermasters, cooks, and hospital staff. Beyond this, in any real situation, not all units will be at full strength and there will be various attachments and detachments of assorted specialists woven throughout the system.

The 1st Marine Division is part of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, which also includes the 3rd Marine Air Wing, 1st Service Support Group, 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, three Marine Expeditionary Units (featuring helicopter groups), and a Battalion-sized Marine Air Ground Task Force. In the U.S. Marine Corps there are three Marine Expeditionary Forces.

In the U.S. Army, the level above Division is called a Corps instead of an Expeditionary Force. It is commanded by a Lieutenant General. In many armies, a Corps numbers around 60,000, usually divided into three divisions. Corps (and similar organizations) are normally designated with roman numerals and their nationality when operating in a Combined (international) force, e.g. V (US) Corps, VIII (ROK) Corps, II MEF, I Canadian Corps.

During World War II, due to the large scale of combat, multiple Corps were combined into Armies commanded in theory by a General (four stars), but often by a Lieutenant General (three stars), and comprising as many as 240,000 troops. Armies are numbered by spelled-out numerals or functional titles, using their nationality in Combined forces, e.g. Eighth (US) Army, Third (ROK) Army, British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).

These were in their turn formed into Army Groups, these being the largest field organization handled by a single commander in modern warfare. Army Groups included between 400,000 and 1,500,000 troops. Army Groups received Arabic numeral designations and national designations when Combined, e.g. 12 (BR) Army Group.

These examples illustrate a standard that holds true all over the world and throughout history: rank generally implies size of command in a nested system of ranks and commands. The specific size of a command for any given rank will, however, depend on the task the unit performs, the nature of weapons used, and the strategies of warfare.

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