Military ranking can be hard to understand. What's the difference between a private and a sergeant? What does each letter and number combination mean? And can you tell what someone's rank is simply by identifying the symbol on their uniform? Adding to the confusion is the fact that each branch has its own unique insignia.
Whether you're interested in enlisting in the armed forces or are simply a curious civilian, here's everything you need to know about military ranks. We've also included a handy chart for reference. Let's dive in!
What are Military Ranks?
In short, military ranks are used in all branches of the United States armed forces as a way to determine responsibility roles and pay grades. These ranks differ between each branch and can also identify the difference between enlisted or warrant officers.
Military ranking can be closely related to how corporate environments use job titles such as executives, managers, and staff. However, the armed forces use a precise system that can be broken down into three simple categories with the letters E, W, and O.
What do the E, W, and O Symbols mean?
In short, the “E” stands for enlisted officers, while the “W” stands for warrant officers, and the “O” stands for commissioned officers. Let's break each of these down so we can better understand them.
- “E” for Enlisted: Military personnel with the “E” ranking are responsible for completing missions and carrying out orders that are issued by officers.
- “W” for Warrant Officers: Those with a “W” are personnel who have moved up to an officer position and often have a specialized skill within the military. Additionally, warrant officers are subordinate to O-class officers.
- “O” for Officers (commissioned): An “O” ranking is the highest one can attain in the military. To obtain this classification, an officer has to be approved by Congress.
With each of these letters, personnel are then given a numerical ranking. For instance, an E-1 ranking is entry-level and used for new recruits. An E-5 position is largely recognized as a Sergeant, though it's given the name of Petty Officer Second Class within the Navy and Coast Guard.
What is the Highest Ranking Within the Military?
An O-10 ranking is the highest position available in the military and is usually designated to five-star generals. No one currently holds this rank in the U.S. military.
In fact, only nine Americans have ever held the rank of a five-star general. According to the Arlington National Cemetery's website, the last to hold this position was Omar N. Bradley. General Bradley was awarded the position in September 1950. He passed in 1981 and while the rank still exists, no one else has held this position since his passing.
Similarities and Differences Between Branches
The letter and numerical system helps to maintain consistent responsibilities and pay grades throughout each branch of the military. However, each branch can also assign its own names and symbols to each rank, resulting in slight variations.
In general, the Army and Marine Corps have similar ranking systems while the Navy and Coast Guard tend to mirror each other. The Air Force also tends to have similar ranks and insignia to the Army and Marine Corps.
The newest branch of the military, the U.S. Space Force, also has a slightly different ranking system. However, it seems to share similarities with the Army, Marines, and Air Force.
Lastly, the Navy and Coast Guard organize their enlisted ranks in a rating system. While they maintain a similar pay grade structure, this system is slightly different than how the other branches of the military operate.
Military Ranking Chart
Below is a simple and easy-to-follow ranking chart used in the military. Each rank is displayed on the individual's uniform as symbols like strips, stars, bars, and chevrons. By observing a service member's symbol and using this chart, you may be able to understand where that person ranks within the military.
The first column represents the Army, with the Marines second and the Air Force third. Next is the Navy and the last column represents the Coast Guard.
While military ranking symbols and systems might be confusing to civilians, our armed forces use this precise system to understand responsibilities and pay grades within the military. While the exact name of the position can vary between branches, each rank consists of a letter and number combination that remains consistent. To learn more or to find out more information about our armed forces, you can visit the U.S. Department of Defense website.
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