What are Military Ranks?

Military ranks exist in many different armies.
Military ranks exist in many different armies.

What Are Military Ranks?

Military ranks determine who tells what to whom, and who has authority over who and responsibility for what. This hierarchy of authority is universal with slight variations of names and insignia from country to country and from one military branch to another. Security agencies like the police have adopted this ranking system. The highest-ranking officer in most countries is the President, Prime Minister, King, or Queen mostly with the title Commander in Chief. Other armies have superior ranks like Field Marshal. Countries generally adopted ranking system of their colonial or occupational masters.

History of the Military Ranking System

Ranking structure within militaries traces back to medieval armies where the basic army unit commanded by a captain was the company. As military operations widened, the need for more ranks increased and armies became complex. Americans inherited the ranking system from the British who had adopted the same from the Romans. Between 17th and 18th centuries, both colonel and captain were similar ranks though with time, colonels led more regiments while captains led companies. In early militaries, including the US under George Washington, different ranks wore different uniforms. Armies adopted insignias to differentiate ranks as enemies could single out and eliminate commanding officers by looking at their uniforms. With advanced technology and different military needs, countries adopted varieties of ranks. Different badges / insignias differentiated ranks in history including symbols of feathers, railroads, belts, stripes, ribbons, courts of arms, eagles, an oak leave and bars among others and have been worn on hats, shoulder boards, chest, waist, wrists, and arms for easier recognition.

Examples of Military Ranks

The Geneva Convention codified ranks into three main categories; commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and enlisted men (Other Ranks). Commissioned officers hold command and leadership positions and are subdivided into four levels;

  • Generals, Flag, or air officers
  • Field or senior Officers
  • Company grade or junior officers
  • Officer cadets or naval cadets.

Generals, flag and air officers command brigades, flotillas, and squadrons that operate for extended periods of time. Generals include General, Lieutenant General, Major General, and Brigadier General. Naval flag officers include Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, Commodore (Canada). Air officers in some countries include Air Chief Marshal, Air Marshal, Air Vice Marshal, and Air Commodore. Lieutenants generally deputize their superiors, however, this is seemingly contradictory because a Lieutenant General deputizes the General, both ranking higher than Major Generalwhile on the lower ranks, a Major seniors a Lieutenant.An Admiral commands a fleet of ships, Vice Admiral commands detached vans of ships within the admiral’s fleet. Rear Admiral commands a detached van of rear ships. Brigadier General commands a brigade defined as a mixed unit from several regiments. Field officers command units that may operate independently for short periods of time like infantries, battalions, warships, and air squadrons. Field officers include Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, and Lieutenant plus Wing Commander and Squadron Leader in some air forces.

A Major is an experienced tactical expert, a staff officer and usually trains troops whereas a Captain is the head of a basic military unit of strength, a company or a ship for Navy. Company grade or junior officers comprise lowest ranking officers led smallest units like Captain and Lieutenant of a signal or field artillery battery or Flight Lieutenant, Pilot Officer, and Flying Officer in some air forces. Officer cadets, naval cadets or student officers are officers undergoing training, usually a four-year undergraduate military-related degree, during which, they possess no authority over any rank, but after which, they become commissioned officers. Warrant officers are a hybrid rank of senior NCOs appointed by virtue of experience and leadership. Other enlisted personnel NCOs like sergeants and corporals with experiencemay exercise delegated authority from commissioned officers to supervise other ranks or undertake some administrative task. Sergeants are staff officers with experience of commanding a squad as corporals. Enlisted officers or other ranks (OR) makes up the majority in the military including the lowest ranks.

Other Military Ranks

Personnel may hold temporary ranks during times of war and revert to their normal ranks thereafter. Military officers maintain their highest ranks after an honorable discharge, sometimes adding the word “retired,” while war veterans maintain their uniform and highest ranks.

Importance of Military Ranks

Rankings are important in military coordination, command, and logistics. Interestingly, when the Soviet Army (1918-1935), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (1965-1988), and the Albanian Army (1966-1991) abolished the military ranking systems, they faced operational problems; command and control became chaotic that they had to re-introduce ranking. Ranks ease decision-making and flow of information within militaries, therefore enabling them to know who does what, where and how.


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