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Deciphering the Military Rank Structure

What is the difference between a sergeant and a petty officer? In basic terms, none except that the Army, Air Force and Marines have sergeants and the Navy and Coat Guard have petty officers. That is nonetheless an oversimplification, but we will let it go for now.

What is the difference between Air Force, Army, and Marine Lieutenants and Navy or Coast Guard Lieutenants? This one is trickier. In the Air Force, Army and Marines, there are 2nd lieutenants, the O-1 pay grade, and 1st lieutenants, O-2 paygrade. But in the Navy and Coast Guard an O-1 is called an ensign and an O-2 is called a lieutenant, junior grade. A Navy or Coast Guard O-3 is called a lieutenant, upper grade.

What is the difference between an Air Force, Army and Marine captain, and a Navy or Coast Guard captain? In the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps, a captain is an O-3. As you saw above, an O-3 in the Navy is called a lieutenant. A Navy or Coast Guard captain is an O-6, which is called a colonel in the Air Force, Army or Marines, and that’s what I am—a retired US Air Force colonel, O-6, same as a Navy Captain. Here is a big caveat, this is for the US military. Many of the same ranks exist in the militaries in other countries and even mean essentially the same thing. Captain (both kinds) and colonel tend to be fairly common as are sergeants and petty officers. But this is not universal, in Britain’s Royal Air Force and in the Indian Air Force, as well as others around the world, I would be referred to as a Group Captain.

The chart below may help sort this out, as well as giving you an idea of how the ranks and pay grades relate to each other and what their rank insignia look like. Again, this is for the US.

And here are the US Space Force enlisted ranks, which differ from the other services in the lower ranks (officer ranks and insignia are the same as the US Air Force):


What is the difference between “enlisted” and “officer?” This question is not as simple as it looks. In simplest terms, the enlisted are the 82% of the US military who are not commissioned officers (per the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics). Enlisting only requires a high school diploma or GED, whereas generally (because there are exceptions) a military member must have a college degree and most commissioned officers will have completed the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program in college or will have graduated from one of the US federal military service academies (The US Military Academy at West Point, New York; the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland (which also graduates commissioned US Marine Corps officers); or the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado (which also graduates US Space Force Officers; and most other countries’ military’s have some equivalent to these). According to, “Enlisted service members are members of the U.S. military who meet specific requirements and agree to perform certain duties. Typically, enlisted personnel join the military at a younger age than officers, since those in the enlisted ranks are only required to hold a high school diploma or GED.


Enlisted personnel receive intensive and specific job training for a particular role, which many veterans leverage into civilian jobs after completing their contract with the armed forces.” (“Enlisted vs. Officer Ranks in the Military: A Complete Guide,”, Published Feb 22, 2021, updated Dec 1, 2021). The term “contract” is important. Enlisted serve for set enlistment periods at the end of which they may be able to entire into an addition term up to a certain point at which they can retire. Commissioned officers, other than meeting a service commitment of a certain length of time, generally in exchange for having been provided education and training by the government, can serve for as long as they like until they retire (and there are mandatory ages at which they must retire based upon the rank they attain) or unless they elect to resign their commissions. Service members can also be forcibly discharged as the result of misconduct.


Another other big difference, according to, is that commissioned officers “receive training in that field and provide supervisory support to the enlisted personnel who perform specific jobs for the organization.” In even more general terms, enlisted members are generally specialists who work for commissioned officers who are generalists. That said, while is a decent rule of thumb, it is also simplistic. There are commissioned officers who are specialists (medical and legal professionals for instance) but even they eventually move into purely supervisory positions as they gain rank. Also, as enlisted gain rank, they become non-commissioned officers who exercise supervisory and management duties, many of whom have college degrees—roughly 5.1% in the Air Force for instance ( (As an aside, many enlisted personnel do use the veterans benefits to obtain college degrees after they leave active service, so the percentage increases for veterans vs. active duty.) There are also Warrant officers, some of whom may be commissioned, and some of whom have a “warrant.” The distinction is a legal one—a commission allows an officer to exercise certain authorities that enlisted, and warrant officers are not legally permitted to perform. One of the most important of these is that commissioned officers can be commanders, though not all are, and being a commander gives an officer extensive authority over those under their command and the functions they perform. An end result of this is that officers and enlisted approach situations, problems, even people, differently.


One of the most obvious distinctions between enlisted and officers, however, is financial as the Fiscal Year 2022 US military pay chart below shows (this is the base pay per month and does not include additional non-taxable allowances and benefits that military members also receive).


Another way of looking at this which might be helpful, is comparing military pay grades to roughly equivalent civilian job titles:


“Common Civilian Phrases for Enlisted Rank

  • E-1: Apprentice, Employee, Team Member

  • E-2: Team Member, Support Personnel

  • E-3: Assistant, Aide

  • E-4: Assistant Team Lead, Assistant Trainer

  • E-5: Team Lead, Trainer

  • E-6: Assistant Manager, Assistant Instructor

  • E-7: Team Manager, Instructor

  • E-8: Supervisor Coordinator

  • E-9: Superintendent, Advisor, Chief

Common Civilian Phrases for Warrant Officer Rank

  • W-1: Technical Support

  • W-2: Technical Specialist

  • W-3: Facilitator, Project Manager

  • W-4: Technical Manager, Project Coordinator

  • W-5: Technical Expert, Consultant

Common Civilian Phrases for Officer Rank

  • O-1: Manager, Line Manager, General Manager

  • O-2: Experienced Manager

  • O-3: Administrator, Department Head

  • O-4: Executive Officer

  • O-5: Director of Operations

  • O-6: Program Director

  • O-7: Managing Director, Director

  • O-8: Chief Financial Officer, Vice President

  • O-9: Chief Operations Officer, Senior Vice President

  • O-10: Chief Executive Officer, President, Chairman

As you can see from the chart above, when the number of pay grade increases, so does the responsibility of the service-member.”

(“Understanding Military Rank,” Empire Resume,, June 17, 2021)

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