5 Things to Know About Military Ranks

By Sydney Johnson

Regardless of how much time a service member has spent in the military or which branch they’ve served in, each member of the military has a title known as their “rank.” This ranking system can be complicated, but that rank holds a lot of information, including how many people they oversee.

Here are five things you need to know about military ranks.

Military academy graduates bypass ranks

When someone first enlists in the military, they enter the military pay scale at the enlisted level. This means that they are placed on the enlisted pay scale with a designation between an E-1 through an E-9, with each level corresponding to a rank in their respective branch. However, those who enter the military from a military academy, such as West Point or the Naval Academy, bypass the enlisted scale and enter the officer scale as a second lieutenant (within the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force) or an ensign (within the Navy and Coast Guard) upon the completion of their studies.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Dennis Hoffman

The U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2020 graduated 86 Space Force Cadets commissioned into the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the military. These freshly minted service members entered the force as lieutenants.

Each branch has its own ranking system

Although the branches overlap in some respects, they do not share a ranking system. For example, admiral and ensign are exclusive ranks to the Navy and the Coast Guard. Similarly, major, colonel and general are all exclusive to the Army, Marines and Air Force. However, captain is a rank in all the military branches, but not the same level across branches. With that said, the Navy and the Coast Guard have near-identical ranking systems to one another, as do the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force, with much of the differences between branches in the enlisted ranks.

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Much like civilians, service members see income increases when they increase rank. If you are promoted from manager to director of an organization, you can expect a raise in your paycheck, and that’s how military ranks work as well. If a captain in the Army is promoted to major, they will have an increase in salary – as well as more responsibility within their job description.

The higher one’s rank, the more people they lead

Col. John Lesho gets his new rank pinned on by his family during a change of command ceremony in 2020. It is a common tradition for family and friends to pin a service member’s new rank on them during such events. | Photo credit DVIDS/Jamal D. Sutter

This is another similarity to civilian workforce. In the military, the higher your rank, the larger the team you lead. For instance, a sergeant in the Army typically leads a team a four, while a captain leads a company of three to five platoons, about 60-200 soldiers, total. However, while most civilian jobs require managers to lead their employees in the conference room, these higher-ranking military leaders are leading their units into the battlefield.

The highest ranks are reserved for wartime

So, what is the highest rank someone can hold in the military? The answer is two-fold. One, it depends on the branch. For the Army and Air Force, a five-star general is the highest (the Marines don’t have a five-star position), and for the Navy and Coast Guard, the highest is a five-star fleet admiral. All lead hundreds of thousands of service members. Two, these prestigious ranks are reserved only for wartime, so not everyone gets the opportunity to reach them.

These five-star ranks were established in 1944 when congress passed Public Law 482. This allowed U.S. military leaders to have equal ranks to that of their Allied Powers counterparts during World War II. The Army then promoted Generals George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. The Navy promoted Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester Nimitz and William F Halsey. Then when the Air Force became its own branch in 1947, General Arnold became the only five-star member of the branch. Finally, in 1950, Omar N. Bradley became the fifth and final Army five-star general.

However, the current, highest-ranking member of the U.S. Armed Forces is a six-star general – and is none other than America’s first president, George Washington. On July 4, 1976, a joint resolution was passed to posthumously promote Washington to the title of “General of the Armies of the United States,” effectively ensuring that no other member of the military can ever outrank him.

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