Oct 222020
Commissioned Officers vs. Enlisted Grades

In the previous table, ranks are divided into commissioned officers (CO) and enlisted grades. The former is appointed by a formal document issued by the head of state (the individual running government; Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2) discussed heads of state in detail). The generic word “officer” typically means “commissioned officers” even though it could refer to non-commissioned officers. COs are trained in management and leadership and often have college degrees, which are required at higher levels. If such education doesn’t exist in our world, we can decide that experience matters more. If they have little to no experience or practical knowledge of being in the field, they’ll have trouble understanding the life of the enlisted grades they command.

By contrast, enlisted grades means any rank that is not a commissioned officer (who also outrank them). These are the bulk of any military—the fighting men and women and those who support them, such as pilots, engineers, technicians, and more. They can be promoted to higher enlisted grades and sometimes become a non-commissioned officer (NCO).

An NCO hasn’t earned the commission yet, and is promoted from the enlisted grades due to experience and seniority (as opposed to being an officer from the start). They aren’t paid as well, are less educated and trained, and have fewer legal responsibilities. Despite this, they are considered crucial to the military for several reasons: they’re the most visible leaders (higher officers are seldom seen by most soldiers); and the senior NCOs are the main link between enlisted grades and COs. Because they rise through the ranks, they have practical experience as soldiers, as opposed to COs, who may have none. They outrank lower enlisted grades. An army sergeant is an example.

Commanding and Executive Officers

Commanding and executive officers have different positions that are quickly summarized here.

A commanding officer (CO) is responsible for planning strategy and tactical moves, finances, equipment, duties, discipline, punishment (within military law), and more. Available positions are limited, with seniority determining who is promoted into an empty spot. Any unit that’s expected to operate independently can have a CO but the term is generally reserved for major units like an army, regiment, and battalion; smaller units have a commander, who is an officer, but is not a “commanding officer” with the rank, pay, or responsibilities/duties of one; they are often referred to as a leader, not a commander, as in “platoon leader.” As an example, a platoon leader cannot administer judicial punishment, but a CO can.

An executive officer (XO) is responsible for running a military organization and reports to the CO. By running the day-to-day activities, the XO frees the CO to concentrate on his own tasks. The XO is typically second-on-command in navies, but in other branches, they may not be in command, only overseeing administrative functions. We can change this, of course. Companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades each usually have an XO.

Rank and Role

While the details of what roles a rank has can change from country to country, and in our imagined world, there are some high-level leadership positions we benefit from understanding. In other words, who leads a battalion? What’s a rear admiral do? What about a wing commander?

For each military branch, the ranks and roles are listed next. By necessity, these are generalizations due to variations on Earth. Use these wholesale or as a starting point for customization. In some cases, you’ll see the role repeated for two adjacent ranks, which suggests either rank could perform that role, or both individuals at once, with one subordinate to the other. Use your imagination.


Commissioned Officers
Field marshal or General of the army5-star rank, commands a sovereign power’s army, sometimes honorary or only used during wars
General4-star rank, commands an army, highest peacetime rank
Lieutenant general3-star rank, second-in-command (of an army corps)
Major general2-star rank, commands a division
Brigadier general1-star rank, commands a brigade
ColonelCommands a brigade
Lieutenant colonelCommands a battalion or regiment
MajorCommands a battalion
CaptainCommands a company, sometimes second-in-command of battalion, can be entry-level rank for those with advanced college degrees (doctor, lawyer, wizard?), highest rank that’s still in the field (as a fighter)
Lieutenant (aka, First)Commands a platoon, often second-in-command/deputy to a captain
Second LieutenantEntry-level rank for officers. College graduates can skip this rank, and even others are often in it less than a year
Officer cadetTrainee rank
Enlisted Grades
Warrant officer or sergeant majorWarrant officers are typically technical experts, pilots, military police, etc. Sergeant major is highest enlisted rank
SergeantCommands a squad or fireteam
CorporalCommands a squad
Private or gunner or trooperEntry rank of 4-6 months duration (rank can be skipped if given awards). Troopers are cavalry, while gunners operate artillery

Figure 7 Army Ranks



Commissioned Officers
Fleet Admiral5-star rank, reserved for wartime, commands multiple fleets
Admiral4-star rank, often the highest rank in peacetime. Commands a fleet
Vice Admiral3-star rank, commands the vanguard of a fleet
Rear Admiral2-star rank, the least experienced of three admirals (at the rear of a fleet)
Commodore1-star rank, commands more than one ship at a time (flotilla or squadron of ships that is part of a fleet), temporary rank (usually a captain)
CaptainCommands the largest ships, highest rank to command a ship
CommanderCommands smaller ships like a frigate
Lieutenant CommanderMay be the CO of smaller stations/ships, or XO of larger ones
LieutenantSenior-most junior officer rank, formally second-in-command of a ship (behind captain), multiple lieutenants on a ship used to be numbered by seniority as “first,” “second,” etc.
Lieutenant junior gradeMay require two years of service
EnsignCommands squadron or team. Entry-level rank for officers. Named for carrying the flag.
Officer cadetTrainee rank
Enlisted Grades
Warrant officer or chief petty officerRequires passing special exams and with high scores, plus enlistment time
Petty officerOften specialists
Leading seamanThe senior-most seaman
SeamanEntry rank

Figure 8 Navy Ranks


Commissioned Officers
Marshal of the air force5-star rank, typically ceremonial (like those from the royal family) if at all (it’s rare)
Air chief marshal4-star rank, commander of the air force, highest rank
Air marshal3-star rank, commander of a large formation/vanguard of fleet
Air vice-marshal2-star rank, commands large formation/rear of fleet
Air commodore1-star rank, commands multiple groups
Group captainCommands a group (aka wing)
Wing commanderCommands a wing or squadron
Squadron leaderCommands a squadron or flight, most junior of senior ranks
Flight lieutenantManages team of airmen/specialists/NCOs, can be second-in-command of squadron
Flying officerApplies to ground crew too
Pilot officerEntry-level rank for officers, can be skipped for those with training
Flight cadetTrainee rank
Enlisted Grades
Warrant officerWarrant officers are typically technical experts, pilots
SergeantCommands a squad
CorporalCommands a squad
AirmanEntry rank

Figure 9 Air Force Ranks


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