I am having trouble finding a detailed breakdown of the chain of authority on a naval ship. I have been able to find fully detailed charts for Merchant and Cruise ships, but not so much for a naval combat ship. I'm sure it varies somewhat from nation to nation, but The most I can really find is that you have the CO (Captain), XO, then a handful of department heads with everyone else below them, and that's pretty much it. A warrant officer or high ranking enlisted (title and rank seems to vary) functions as the Captain's representative among the enlisted, but I'm still not quite sure how they fit in either.

What exactly is the hierarchy of authority on a naval combat ship besides just who's in command?

If an officer is over a department, do the enlisted in that department report to them or to the ranking enlisted (officer of the boat?)?


Are there restrictions/requirements for certain departments?

I know that Pilots have to be officers, but what are the requirements for engineers, medical officers, or gunners(or whatever the equivalent seems to be)?


I am referring to modern warships, Destroyers and Aircraft Carriers. I am actually writing a scifi novel some 400 years from now, but I am trying to imagine the appropriate evolution of military structure for the space navy.

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    $\begingroup$ To properly answer this question, it is also important to know what type od warship we are talking about, and in what era? A warship in the age of sail has a much different Table of Organization (ToE) than a WWI Battleship, or a nuclear submarine, or an Aircraft Carrier. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is not about worldbuilding. It's about history, or military. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ To the close voters, it has been decided a while back that just because the question would appear more applicable on another stack exchange site does not mean it needs to be closed. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, I'd consider this to be a very useful addition to our site. If it's difficult to find good breakdowns of this hierarchy outside of the site, then future worldbuilders will be able to draw on this for military structure guidance. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ This seems too broad. I am also at a loss why people think a sci-fi space-vessel or fleet would have an organization remotely like a sea-going navy. Don't get wedded to that old trope. Ignoring the broad hierarchy based structure, there's no advantage to such micro-modelling. 400 years of technology and social change and the nature of space travel would alter the utility of such detail to the point of rendering it pointless. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 21:58

3 Answers 3


My Qualifications: I was a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy, with two sea tours.


That anyone reading this is familiar with officer and enlisted ranks.

Ultimately, there is way too much information to share here, so this is an abridged version.

The Wardroom

The officers of the ship are collectively referred to as the wardroom, which doubles as the name of the space in which they collectively eat their meals. On a larger ship (i.e. an Aircraft Carrier) there may be more than one wardroom, or the CO might eat in his own space if he is a Captain.

For a warship (Frigate, Destroyer, Cruiser, Aircraft Carrier), the Commanding Officer (CO) is responsible for the ship and could be a Captain or Commander. The Executive Officer (XO) is the captain's primary assistant and is generally a Commander. A frigate may have a LCDR as XO, and an aircraft carrier will certainly have another Captain.

Departments and their heads

Departments depend on the ship. An amphibious ship has the Deck department (responsible for all well-deck and landing craft operations), while on a Frigate this is only a division. A cruiser has both a Weapons and Combat Systems department, while an amphibious ship only has one of them. A large nuclear powered ship like an aircraft carrier may have both an reactor officer and an engineering officer.

Here is a (not exhaustive!) list of potential departments:

  • Operations: Almost certainly on every boat. Responsible for operating the Combat Information Center (including electronic warfare), communications with outside command, and the ship's schedule.
  • Combat Systems Department: Responsible for sensor systems and integrated computers for weapons system.
  • Weapons Department: Often merged into Combat Systems on smaller ships; on a larger ship Weapons handles ordinance as opposed to sensors.
  • Deck Department: Handles mooring lines, underway replenishment, and small boat operations. On small non-amphibious ships, this is merged into Operations.
  • Navigation Department: Only on an aircraft carrier, otherwise merged into Operations department.
  • Communications Department: Only on aircraft carriers (and maybe cruisers?). Responsible for communications equipment and cryptography.
  • Reactor Department: For a nuclear powered ship, this is responsible for the reactor.
  • Engineering Department: Responsible for the various engineering systems. On a submarine, this is merged into Reactor. On a carrier, they are separate; with Reactor in charge of anything that uses high pressure steam from the nuclear plant, and Engineering responsible for anything else. I'm not sure how it was on the old nuclear cruisers, they were all decommissioned before I joined.
  • Supply Department: Responsible for beans and bullets. Also miscellaneous things like haircuts, dip and Monster. Dip and Monster are extremely important in the modern Navy.
  • Admin Department: Only on a carrier since there are ~5k people on board.
  • Legal Department: Again, only on a carrier.
  • Medical Department: On a carrier or large amphibious ship. Doctors are officers these days; generally high ranking (LCDR and up).

Department heads vary in rank based on the size of the ship. On a carrier, many of the important department heads are Captains (Supply, Reactor, Engineering, etc). On a Frigate they are usually senior Lieutenants who will make LCDR while they are assigned as Department Head.

The air detachment, on any ship, is a nominally separate organization. For a smaller ship, a LCDR or CDR in charge of the air detachment will basically act as another department head. On a carrier, the ship's CO and the Air Wing CO are equals, both with commands of over a thousand and both subordinate to the Strike Group Admiral, who will also be on the carrier. However, the ship's CO has ultimate authority over discipline for any air unit embarked on his ship.


There are several important watchstanding billets on a ship underway.

  • Tactical Action Officer (TAO): Stationed in the Combat Information Center (CIC). Granted authority for weapons release. Usually only significant for 24/7 combat operations. In a combat situation, the CO will be in the CIC to take responsibility for weapons release. When there is a 24/7 risk of combat, the TAO is stationed. This is generally a department head, although a carrier has a lot of surplus Commanders and LCDRs to fill this role.

  • Officer of the Deck (OOD). Responsible for the bridge, navigation and carrying out the ship's normal plan of the day. During a combat operation, the XO goes to the bridge to supervise the OOD. On smaller ships, this is generally a LTjg; on larger a LT. In the case of the aircraft carrier, pilots need to qualify this watch to become a carrier CO eventually, so you will see lots of LCDR pilots doing this as well.

  • Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW). Responsible for the engineering plant while underway. Subordinate to the OOD, although in my experience the EOOW is often the higher ranking officer.

  • CIC Watch Officer (CICWO). Responsible for the Combat Information Center, particularly for keeping up communications with other ships. If the Admiral calls in the middle of the night, this is who he talks to (and this is who wakes up the CO). This is generally the watch that you qualify for before OOD, so this is usually a junior officer.

What does a warrant officer do?

Warrants are being phased out in the modern US Navy, but generally they are responsible for things that require more technical knowledge. Since these are formerly enlisted personnel, generally with greater than 20 years experience, they are one of the primary ways that institutional knowledge is passed along in the wardroom.

One or more warrant officers may be attached to a Reactor department to help ensure that long term maintenence best-practices are followed. Ships often have maintenance items done every 3 years or longer; its nice to have a warrant on board who has done it more than once.

Generally, warrants don't do much watchstanding (although EOOW may be an exception) and they are rarely department heads. That being said, a W-5 or W-5 might be a Communications Officer on a cruiser.

The Chief's Mess

In general, every division on the ship has a Chief. Every department has a Senior Chief, and the ship has a Master Chief (on a submarine, this is called Chief of the Boat). On a small ship, there may be 4 Departments and 12 divisions, and a senior chief may double as divisional and departmental chief. On a carrier there are hundreds of chiefs, not counting the air wing.

Generally, chiefs are responsible for discipline within their division, and first line supervision of their divisional enslisted. They are expected to be 'on call' for their division 24/7 and as such are not usually standing watch. Chiefs may perform watchstanding functions as CICWO or EOOW on certain ships; a lot of that depends on the CO's temperament and trust in the Chief's Mess. Generally, this would be Senior Chiefs with reduced divisional responsibilities doing this.

Junior Enlisted

The bulk of the crew are the junior enlisted and petty officers (E-1 - E-6). These guys do the bulk of the work. Important positions for petty officers within divisions include the divisional Leading Petty Officer (LPO) and workcenter supervisors. Workcenters are responsible for maintenance of certain shipboard components; the number of workcenters per division can vary widely based on how much equipment they own.

Junior enlisted stand the bulk of the watches. They man the radars and comms equipment in the CIC; take logs on operating combat systems and engineering equipment, update the navigation plot in both the CIC and on the bridge, stand lookout, and steer the ship (under the direction of the OOD).

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ Doctors being officers goes back quite a long way. My father was a Surgeon Commander in the Royal Navy during WWII. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ What is Dip and Monster? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung chewing tobacco and energy drinks. Marines are a separate byt equal command structure like the air det. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung - dip = snuff or chewing tobacco. Monster is the energy drink. Harrumph! Back in my day, in the Dark Ages (1980), we survived on Coke and coffee. But lemme tell you, it was rough - REALLY rough! Waves taller'n the mast top - unrepping in a full hurricane - giant squid grabbing little frigates and dragging 'em down to Davy Jones locker..! And that ain't no sh*t! :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:46

Note that the details of national navies differ. This is a sketch based on the Royal Navy because you might was well imitate the best, everyone else did.

I am actually writing a scifi novel some 400 years from now, but I am trying to imagine the appropriate evolution of military structure for the space navy.

Navies tend to lag well behind the society they're protecting. They maintained a strict, brutal social order for centuries, only becoming liberal by the necessities of technology and the need to crew their ships with willing, skilled people.

Navies in the Age of Sail, about 1500 to 1860, remained pretty much the same because the technology and tactics remained pretty much the same. Large sailing ships of war required large crews to manage their increasing number of sails and broadside muzzle-loading guns. So long as you had a core of competent seaman to show the new folks the ropes (literally), the crew could be trained on the ship.

Naval society reflected social society. Officers were generally men from the upper class. Everyone else was from the lower classes. They did not mingle. The slightest disrespect by the crew was met with lashing and other corporal punishment. Some particularly skilled crew were sufficiently valued to be considered petty officers: the bosun, master gunner, and carpenter for example. While never socially equal to the commissioned officers, they were at least given some autonomy, respect for their opinion (when asked for) and better quarters. There remained a clear distinction between wardroom officers would eat together, and everyone else. Even a boy midshipman would be treated with more respect than an adult able seaman.

And then technology happened. The launch of HMS Warrior made steam propulsion, iron armor, and rifled, breech-loading guns mandatory. Suddenly skilled engineers were needed to maintain the machinery. The more powerful guns and longer ranges needed skilled gunners. These skilled workers were from the growing middle-class and needed to be attracted from well paying jobs and convinced to remain in the navy. As a result, the class barriers and officer/crew barriers began to break down. This only accelerated with the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Oil fired steam turbines, radio equipment, electrical generators, and long range gunnery became the norm. More technically savy crew was necessary, and increasingly the traditional officer training was not covering the new technology. The petty officers gained more respect and authority, begrudgingly.

The introduction of naval aviation compounded the issue. Naval pilots were officers, and suddenly there were a lot of them. They were young, they advanced in rank quickly, and they went through a different training program.

The expansion of navies during both World Wars promoted a flood of freshly trained and reserve officers, as well as civilian crew. This further rankled the social order of officers who went through the traditional peacetime academy. Previously looked upon with disdain, reservists were now placed in positions of command by necessity.

All this, the mechanics, gunners, pilots, reserve officers... these people did not grow up with the traditions of the navy and the sea, and increasingly jostled for better treatment.

Technology and expansion make navies more liberal, but only begrudgingly. A space navy would have undergone a transition as the officers and traditions of the water navy give way to the needs of being IN SPAAACE. It's hard to predict what would stay and what would go, but here's some thoughts.

Officers still mess together

If any tradition will remain, it will be the tradition of the wardroom. Officers will eat meals together separate from the crew, even if it's only a notional special table in the galley. This will likely include petty and warrant officers.

The captain may also retain the privilege of having their own mess, again even if this is a better-than-average galley meal brought to their quarters. The captain will likely still maintain the tradition of inviting their officers and crew to eat with them to get to know them in a less-formal setting.

Is your spaceship a submarine or a battleship?

Small ships tend to be more liberal than large ones. A large, roomy ship with 1000+ men on board has plenty of space and opportunity to form stratified societies. The crew and officers are more specialized and disassociated from the life and death of the ship. It's easy to forget that your job six decks down is attached to the job of being a fighting ship. It's easy for officers to be more concerned about spit and polish than maintaining fighting efficiency.

In contrast, it's hard for officers to maintain a haughty detachment when you're 50 men stacked on top of each other in a submarine. Everyone knows that one mistake and everyone drowns 200 meters below the ocean. Every job is critical, even maintaining the toilet.

Rank fault lines

If you choose to keep rank as social stratification, the fault lines are commissioned officers, petty officers, and the rest of the crew. Commissioned officers will have gone through some sort of special academy to bring them all together early on, and the needs of command will tend to separate them from the people they're commanding. Petty officers have gone through a different training regimen, or come up through the crew by merit, and have their own social strata. The rest of the crew who are just doing what their told will be in their own strata.

Or you can go the Star Trek Federation egalitarian route. While rank commands respect, it does not indicate social nor moral superiority. Rank is more a practical and organizational thing. Particularly on Deep Space Nine, officers and crew freely intermingle socially and to get the job done... though even still the officers tend to hang out with the officers.

Recommended Reading

  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. Despite being fiction, it's some of the best depictions of life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I refer to it as "Jane Austin on a boat".
  • At War At Sea by Ronald Spector. This covers the social upheavals of the US Navy in the 20th Century.
  • One of Our Submarines by Edward Young Commander, DSO, DSC, RNVR. This is an extremely well written autobiography of one of the first Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officers to captain a submarine in WWII. It shows the day-to-day issues of a fresh officer in tight quarters.
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    $\begingroup$ I am imagining that the ships will have a bit of a cross between submarines and large surface ships. The space aspect of it and design of the ship will bare more towards the submarine, but the grander size and more pronounced separation between decks will probably separate the officers and enlisted much more. Imagine a submarine the size of a cruiser, but instead of horizontally stacked decks they are rings rotating within an armor sheath. I do have an idea of how military record will transition into society, but I am more concerned about the actual goings on within the ship. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for British Brass. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Coincidentally, HERE is an image of a submarine concept that actually looks very similar to how I imagine the spaceships minus the conning tower and with a larger aft section for fusion rockets rather than propellers. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ Internal would be almost nothing like a submarine. The decks would be several rotating rings under the armor shell of the ship, with roughly the back 3rd of the ship as null-G reactor and propulsion space. The nose of the ship would be forward weapons and communications. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ As a rule, commissioned and petty officers do not eat in the same mess. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:24
  • "I know that Pilots have to be officers":

    Aircraft pilots are officers by courtesy and tradition, not by any kind of necessity; historically, many nations had (some still have) aircraft pilots with NCO rank.


On a ship, as in any military organization, functional subordination is much more important than rank order; for example, the seaman who is steering the ship will take direct orders from the officer who is conning the ship, no matter how many ranks separate them.

Most usually, weapons operated by specialist ratings. (BTW, this is most important on a modern ship: a person's rating is often much more important than their rank.) There are exceptions, for example related to nuclear weapons.


Let's look at the typical organization of a U.S. aircraft carrier, as given in "Module 4 -- Typical ship organization" of the Ready-for-Sea Modular Course & Handbook published by the United States Naval Reserve Intelligence Program, 1999.

The first thing to note is that there is a dual hierarchy, with a "seafaring" side and and "airfaring" side. The carrier's captain does not have authority over the aviators, and the air wing commander does not have authority over seamen.

  • The "seafaring" side is headed by the Captain:

    When fully manned, an aircraft carrier is home to as many as 5,000 personnel—the size of a small city. Thinking of a carrier as a city is a useful way to understand its organization. At the top and comparable to a city’s mayor is the ship’s Commanding Officer (CO), who is ultimately responsible for the entire ship and the accomplishment of its assigned mission. Next in line and acting as city manager is the Executive Officer (XO). From the XO on down, the ship’s individual functions are handled by the ship’s company via different departments. These departments are in turn divided into divisions, each specialized in an area of the ship’s operation and mission.

    The carrier battlegroup’s primary mission is power projection to targets ashore and at sea. The central element of the carrier’s offensive punch is its embarked air wing (CVW). The typical carrier air wing normally consists of nine squadrons, each with individual missions, which join the carrier while it is deployed.

    The typical departments are Administration, Air, Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance, Chaplain, Communications, Deck, Dental, Engineering, Maintenance Management, Medical, Navigation, Operations, Safety, Supply, Training, and Weapons. "Each department is further subdivided into divisions with personnel manning these divisions assigned to 'Watches,' 'Sections,' or both."

    "The Air Department gives direct support to the embarked air wing, [handling] launching and landing aircraft, fueling, moving, and controlling fixed and variable wing aircraft."

  • The "airfaring" side is headed by the Air Wing Commander (CAG).

    The CAG is directly responsible for the operational readiness and tactical performance of the air wing. He is responsible for the coordination and supervision of all activities of the embarked squadrons and detachments, and for the material readiness, communications, and intelligence functions of the air wing. The CAG does not fall directly under the carrier’s commanding officer. Rather, he is a co-commanding officer. Both the carrier CO and CAG report to the composite warfare commander under the CWC concept discussed earlier.

    The embarked aircraft squadrons retain their corporate identity and basic organization, but each squadron also supplies specific personnel, such as ship mess cooks, stewards, and laundry, to various departments listed above.

    The embarked air wing has a set of officers outside the component squadrons; those are: the Air Wing Commander (CAG), the Deputy Air Wing Commander, the Operations Officer, the USW Operations Officer, the Air Intelligence Officer, the Maintenance Officer, the Weapons Officer, the Landing Signal Officers (2), the Flight Surgeon, and the Carrier Air Wing Intelligence Team.

  • $\begingroup$ So would that mean that Aircraft Engineers are under a different chain of authority than the Engineering department of the ship? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle: Yes, of course. The ship's Engineering Dept. "maintains the ship’s power plants providing steam for propulsion and aircraft launch catapults [...], all life support systems, fresh water, heating, air conditioning, ventilation, hot water, electrical power, telephone service, and maintains the ship’s sewage system." Aircraft maintenance is the responsibility of the individual squadrons, with a the Air Wing Maintenance Officer coordinating and ensuring availability of spare parts etc. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ As an opinion then, in a scifi space fleet that primarily used drone fighters instead of piloted fighters, do you think the fighter engineers still report under the CAG equivalent? Or would that revert back to the ship's engineering department. Movies and books tend to make it seem like there is only one engineering department for everything, so not much to draw off of. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon: AFAIK, marines are always under their own commanding officers. Which makes sense -- marines are embarked infantry; they are not seamen; they are basically passengers on the ship; their relationship with the ship is ephemeral. And why would they ride on a carrier instead of one of the numerous landing ships? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ For marines, it depends on the setup you're using. For example, the Royal Marines, aside from being infantry, had a tradition of also being naval gunners. Major Francis Harvey won the Victoria Cross at Jutland while serving on HMS Lion, for which he was gun commander and saved the ship. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 17:51

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