Military Orientation - Officer Rank Structure (Lesson 3 of 3)
The final piece of the military hierarchy consists of the officer ranks. Officers in pay grades O-1 to O-10 are considered commissioned officers, meaning they hold a commission from the head of state in which their authority is grounded. Commissioned officers usually come from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) found in universities, but may also receive commissions from the service academies, Officer Candidate School, or by direct commission, generally reserved for specialty occupations, like doctors. Most of this piece will focus on the commissioned officer rank structure.
A lesser-known classification of officer is found within the Warrant Officer Corps, created for the U.S. Army in 1918. All branches except the Air Force and Space Force have Warrant Officers (the Coast Guard only has three grades for Warrant Officers), who are considered neither commissioned or non-commissioned. Most Army Warrant Officers are pilots, but they work in other specialty areas, too.
U.S. Army Warrant Officer Insignia
Bottom Rank: Warrant Officer one, Warrant Officer Corps Insignia, Chief Warrant Officer 2
Top Rank: Chief Warrant Officer 3, Chief Warrant Officer 5 (highest), Chief Warrant Officer 4
Army Warrant Officers max out at Chief Warrant Officer 5, an extremely rare rank achieved only by the most elite Warrant Officers, and generally afforded the level of courtesy and reverence afforded to full Colonels. I am proud that one of my brothers achieved that rank during his illustrious career in Army Aviation. Another had the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 2 before separation from service. Warrant Officers are considered technical experts and hold rank higher than all enlisted ranks, but below the ranks of commissioned officers. They are most likely to be found in Combat Aviation Brigades or within the units of the Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM).
Officers in these grades hold a commission from the President and operate in either advisory or command positions in nearly all instances. Commissioned officers lead the chain of command and, if successful, possess moral authority to go along with the legal authority guaranteed by their commissions.
COMPANY GRADE OFFICERS
Second Lieutenant (O-1)
The most junior rank of commissioned officer. Except for directly commissioned specialists, all officers start at this rank, and with few exceptions, hold it for no more than two years before promotion. Much of the time in grade at this rank is spent in training for newly commissioned officers, including attendance at branch-specific training. For instance, I held this rank for 11 months before I reached my first “real” assignment, doing duty at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then Fort Huachuca, Arizona, for certification at a Military Intelligence Officer. Officers in this rank, especially if assigned to a line unit, may serve as platoon leaders or in staff capacities, normally at Battalion level and as the assistant to a Captain. These are apprentices with a lot to learn about the world from their NCOs and senior officers. Patience for honest mistakes is generally afforded to Second Lieutenants (also known as “Butter Bars”).
then-Second Lieutenant Seth Keshel, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 2008
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Second Lieutenant
Navy and Coast Guard – Ensign
First Lieutenant (O-2)
Generally reached within two years of service, and with few exceptions absent legal trouble or fitness issues for the officer in question. Most lieutenants, during peak operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan, had combat experience before leaving this rank behind. Considered to be more experienced and should make fewer green “rookie” mistakes. Commonly assigned in same capacity as Second Lieutenants but may be assigned as Executive Officer of a company or, in a pinch, primary staff at Battalion level. My entire tour in Afghanistan was served at this rank, with alternating roles between primary and assistance intelligence officer of my Task Force.
then-First Lieutenant Seth Keshel, Fort Hood, Texas, 2011
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – First Lieutenant
Navy and Coast Guard – Lieutenant Junior Grade
Army officers during the high operational tempo period in the post-9/11 conflicts were on a rapid promotion track, generally reaching the rank of Captain at three years of service, ahead of other branches. Captains are expected to have it together and become tactical or planning experts, especially after attending their branch-specific Captains Career Course. Captain is the most senior rank of those ranks considered company grade.
At this rank, assignments begin to diversify. Captains lead staff elements at Battalion level and serve as assistants at higher echelons. They may depart from their standard branch path and specialize in a language or skill, usually taking themselves out of the running for the chance of becoming a General in the future by doing so. Most notably, the most recognizable position for a Captain in history is that of Company Commander. For great insight into the life of a Captain commanding a company, watch the series Band of Brothers as Easy Company of the 1/501st Parachute Infantry Regiment fights its way through Europe.
I made this rank shortly after returning from deployment in 2011, attended Military Intelligence Captains Career Course at Fort Huachuca, and served as a Battalion-level S2 (primary intelligence officer) and Brigade Assistant S2 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, before leaving active duty in 2013.
Captain Seth Keshel, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, 2013
then-Captain Richard Winters, WWII
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Captain
Navy and Coast Guard – Lieutenant
FIELD GRADE OFFICERS
Officers, should they choose a long career in service, generally obtain the gold oak leaves of a Major around a decade after commissioning, enter the ranks of field grade officers. Most officers who make it this far make the military a career. Major is a thankless rank filled with excruciating work stuck in the middle of higher and lower ranks and putting out fires for both.
Majors don’t typically command units as they did in earlier times, and generally serve in staff positions. At Battalion level, Majors serve as Executive Officers or Operations Officers (S3), and continue in staff capacities at all echelons, with many assignments available for instructor or training officer positions. My father considered this the most grueling officer rank in terms of hard, thankless work.
then-Major Robert Strayer, portrayal in Band of Brothers
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Major
Navy and Coast Guard – Lieutenant Commander
Lieutenant Colonel (O-5)
Lieutenant Colonels are typically associated with command of Battalions, units comprised of multiple companies and potentially 1,000 soldiers. Officers typically achieve this rank after about 15 years of commissioned service, and promotion beyond it is rare. These officers must hold a high level of tactical skill and overall competency to lead a lot of officers and undertake even more responsibility. They, like all officers, serve in high staff positions in brigades and above. My father retired at this rank in 1988.
Lieutenant Colonel Donald Keshel
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Lieutenant Colonel
Navy and Coast Guard – Commander
Officership generally becomes political at this rank, achieved at 20 or more years of commissioned service. Colonels may hold prestigious positions at various military installations, such as Garrison Commander, but are more typically known as Brigade Commanders. The modern Army is built around rapidly deployable Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), so command of one of those is a prestigious thing and a major factor in achieving promotion to General Officer Status. Colonels are seasons warriors tasked with leading several thousand troops into combat and occupying large combat areas and delivering victory.
Colonel Robert Sink, portrayal in Band of Brothers
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Colonel
Navy and Coast Guard – Captain
Brigadier General (O-7), Major General (O-8), Lieutenant General (O-9), General (O-10)
Once obtained solely on merit and achievement, many new Generals obtain such status to fill diversity quotas and fulfill political agendas. Command assignments normally begin at two stars, with Major Generals commanding Divisions (multiple Brigades). Lieutenant Generals may command Corps (multiple Divisions), while four-star Generals command the highest echelons of the Army or joint endeavors with other services and nations. These are the top executives of the Army and parallel CEOs of the most prominent companies in their leadership responsibilities.
Brigadier General Blaine Holt, U.S. Air Force
Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain
then-Lieutenant General George S. Patton
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force – Brigadier General, Major General, Lieutenant General, General
Navy and Coast Guard – Rear Admiral Lower Half, Rear Admiral Upper Half, Vice Admiral, Admiral
Seth - You stopped at Four Star. What about Five Star? Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower?