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Per my current understanding, a fairly typical military organization will have the ranks outlined in the Wikipedia page on comparative military ranks.

The only problem is that, at most, this system works for forces of 1-10 million personnel, before one starts having too many individuals reporting to the next higher rank (e.g., in a force of 10 million personnel, if a three-star general corresponded to a corps, four star general to a field army, five star general to an army group, one would still have ten five star flag officers reporting to the head of state, not including medical corps, etc.).

It has been said that one could just continue expanding upwards; e.g., for every three additional divisions (2-star generals) add a corps (3-star general) and so forth, but the ultimate problem of having too many 5-star generals would still exist. This is not taking into account the officers from the specialized corps e.g., the medical, logistics, engineering, etc.

Now, certain ranks like Generalissimo and Grand Marshal can certainly be added, but I am not familiar with their etymology nor their role in military organization. I am wondering what the officer ranks would look like for an organization with tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people and/or droids. Would six-star ranks or above exist, and what would they be called? What would their units be called?

I am also wondering whether fundamental doctrinal shifts would happen in military organization at that level. Organizing so many troops is certainly not a trivial task, and the Napoleonic reforms indicate that having a larger, more professional force would inherently require a reshuffling of the military hierarchy and organization.

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    $\begingroup$ I dont see the point? If you create another platoon, you just add another group of first lieutenants and all the ranks below. This reports to a captain or whatever. Too many platoons per captain? Add another captain! Too many captains reporting to a Colonel? Add another colonel! Too many reporting to a General? Add another general! The highest top is going to be broad-strokes managerial anyway, so having one special general appointed to a certain theatre and having them report to one highest general would work fine. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan the only problem is that if you keep on expanding laterally like you mentioned, you will keep on increasing the number of flag officers at the top; and given the existing ranks, at some point in time you'll have too many of the highest (e.g., five-star ranks) reporting to one individual (the head of state) to be able to effectively manage a force. I'm wondering what the ranks and/or doctrine for bridging that gap would be. $\endgroup$
    – dreamforge
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ I think you may be overcomplicating things. For example in America and Australia one guy is essentially responsible for an entire continent, regardless of how many people are in the military at that point. Because that amount doesnt matter to what they manage. They are more general in their duties, they dont get to hear what private conscriptovitch has to complain about or tell him where to dig a trench. They lead by where to spend money and overall planning of potential wars, after which their subordinates fill in with increasing exactness what to do. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ The point I’m trying to make: even in the worst case you have one dude coordinating for a single continent, and if the world united because bored aliens wanted a bloody reality show and keep invading with increasingly challenging but survivable soldiers you’d have one person who all those continental generals report to. You could at worst then expand that to solar, sector and galactic command structures maybe? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ There is no physical law preventing your vast horde from having additional ranks as needed, and call them whatever you wish. In fact, your horde should be organized by function and effectiveness (that's how you win), not focused on historical structures (that's how you lose). If Colonel A needs 2000 subordinates to do their specific operational job, while Colonel B need only 600 to do their completely different job, then that's what dictates the structure. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 1:28

8 Answers 8

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Break up Commands by region

The DoD is a true marvel of globe spanning bureaucracy, and the method that they adopted decades ago to deal with millions of personnel spread across the world is the creation of Unified Combatant Commands Unified Combatant Commands break the whole world out into distinct areas of responsibility with their own chains of command and coordination with at least two service branches. This allows for the United States to effectively manage multiple wars at a time and to work closely with their allies. There is no reason why a combatant command system could not scale up to the tens of millions of personnel.

If you had hundreds of millions of personnel as you stated; then the solution is simply further partitioning and have the commanding officers for each combatant command report up to a joint chiefs of staff sort of organization, which would be able to manage thousands of personnel beneath it (the flag officers) then chiefs of staff would then report to the head of state.

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Playing it straight

The military ranks of one country do not correspond one-to-one with the military ranks of other countries. If you take the finest subdivisions of each NATO rank as present in one or more NATO countries or in the Russian army (which is supposedly well-known world-wide by now), you will easily get a dozen or more additional ranks.

For example, top to bottom:

  • The highest NATO rank is OF-10, corresponding to general of the army in the USA. Fortunately, English already has a name for an even higher rank, which would be OF-11: field marshal. (The United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Other Small Countries will have to adjust its terminology.) That's one.

  • For NATO rank OF-9, corresponding to a four-star general in the US Army, the Turkish army has two ranks, orgeneral (from ordu-general, army-general) and genelkurmay başkanı (chief of the general staff). That's two.

  • For the NATO rank OF-5, corresponding to a colonel in the US Army, the Portuguese army has two ranks, coronel and coronel-tirocinado (graduated colonel, a colonel who has completed the training for general rank). That's three.

  • For the NATO rank OF-2, corresponding to a captain in the US Army, the Italian army has two ranks, capitano and primo capitano. That's four.

    • In fact, thinking about it, there would be nothing irrational of splitting all officer ranks in two, like for lietenants. You could have brigadier and first brigadier, colonel and first colonel, major and first major, captain and first captain.
  • For the NATO rank OF-1, corresponding to a first and second lieutenant in the US Army, the Russian (and old Warsaw pact) rank system has three ranks: under-liutenant, (plain) lieutenant, and lieutenant-major. That's five.

  • Lots of NATO armies have officer-candidate ranks below OF-1; you could use the English words ensign and cornet (which are not currently Army ranks, but everybody knows that they denote some kind of junior officers) for such additional ranks. That's seven.

  • The US Army has lots of ranks of sergeants, for a total of five regular ranks crowding NATO OR-8 and OR-9. That's three more, for a total of ten.

    • And the US Marine Corps has the rank of gunnery sergeant, which has such a nice ring to it.
  • The French and Italian armies have lots of ranks of corporals; for example, in the Italian army, the NATO rank OR-4, what the US Army calls a corporal, is split into caporale maggiore, caporale maggiore scelto, caporale maggiore capo, caporale maggiore capo scelto, and caporale maggiore qualifica speciale. Let's say we pick two, call them corporal-major and first corporal. That's two more, for a total of twelve.

So that overall we reach the following table of ranks:

  • General officers (6 ranks): field marshal, general of the army (or chief general), general, liutenant general, major general, brigadier general.

    • And we could of course have an imperial marshal above the field marshal...
  • Field officers (4 ranks): first colonel, colonel, lieutenat-colonel, major.

    • And we could easily add a first major.
  • Subordinate officers (7 ranks): first captain, captain, lieutenant-major, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, ensign, cornet.

  • Other ranks:

    • Adjutants: as many as you wish; not counted in the grand total. Adjutant, first adjutant, chief adjutant...

    • Sergeants (8 ranks): command sergeant major, sergeant major, first sergeant, master sergeant, gunnery sergeant, sergeant first class, staff sergeant, sergeant.

    • Corporals (4 ranks): first chief corporal, chief corporal, first corporal, corporal.

That's a total of 17 officer ranks and 12 other ranks above private. Considering only officer ranks, and assuming a low fan-out of 6, 17 officer ranks are enough for an army of 17 trillion men.

But why not be creative?

Why cannot the story, just for example, re-use the feudal ranks for officers?

  • General officers: megaduke, grand duke, archduke, duke, marquess.

    • Yes I know, megaduke is a position (the admiral of the fleet in the Eastern Roman Empire) not a rank, but the name is too good to omit.
  • Field officers: magnate, earl, count palatine, count, viscount.

  • Subordinate officers: lord, grand baron, baron, baronet.

That's 14 ranks. And one can squeeze a landgrave and a margrave somewhere...

On the other hand

The Roman army made do with a very flat rank structure:

  • General officers: legates and prefects.

  • Field officers: military tribunes.

  • Subordinate officers / other ranks: centurions (corresponding to our captains, lieutenants and sergeants) and decans (corresponding to our corporals).

The general idea was that in the same unit, large or small, people knew who their superior was, and soldiers in the same rank were ordered by seniority; and between different units it didn't really matter, as it was anyway silly to rank a specific centurion from legion A above or below a specific centurion from legion B.

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    $\begingroup$ AlexP I nominate you for Gunnery Megaduke. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for megaduke $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ above Megaduke is Marmaduke $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with adding lots of intermediate ranks is that, if they take up the positions the normal ones used to, then the familiar-named ranks are further apart and lose their familiar meanings. Maybe a second lieutenant commands a platoon of a few dozen, but under this system a "captain" might be leading a battalion- or brigade-sized force of a thousand or more, which would certainly confuse readers. ...Or maybe I'm overestimating how jarring that would be to most people. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ @parasoup: The size of the units commanded by officers of various ranks is historically determined, that is, it is specific to a given historical period. The unit sizes we consider "natural" -- platoons of about 25, companies of about 100, battalions of about 500, divisions of about 10,000 -- are specific to the (already gone) period of time when large infantry armies shot muskets or rifles at opposing infantry armies. Anyway, there is nothing which prevents us from inventing corresponding units names; e.g. history buffs know of maniples and vexillations, even if not so sure of their sizes. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 2:21
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You say that the mundane systems work for 1-10 million people, and you are looking for a fictional system "with tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people and/or droids".

You only need to create 3 more levels of the hierarchy. You are only expanding it by one or two orders of magnitude.

If you look at the Wikipedia page on military organisation, each unit is 2-8 times bigger than the unit beneath it.

The biggest unit listed is "Combatant Command or equivalent region theater". Say four of them would form a superunit, four of them would form a supersuperunit, and four of those ones would form a supersupersuperunit. Now you're at a unit 64 times bigger than the "Combatant Command or equivalent region theater".

Point is you don't need to create a plethora of new titles, probably just three. What the names should be is up to you and depends on the vibes of your story. I suggest Gangster, Clown, and Billy.

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the ultimate problem of having too many 5-star generals would still exist

That's NOT a problem.

Why? Because you only add higher ranks when you need them. (EDIT: why doesn't the US military have any 5-star officers? Because we don't need them.)

Thus, when you need a 5-, 6- and 7-star officers, add them, and go about your business.

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Break up the heads of state.

Just for some alternative thinking... Suppose you have a military consisting of 100 million people (well above the current combined total of all militaries in the world). United Nations are truly united, and they have one military. To make it more complicated, let's just assume they are all still stuck on earth.

I feel like it would be reasonable to actually divide the military up by region anyway, with each having top generals that report to the civilian head of the region, and the heads of region then report to the Supreme Ruler. Thus you cap how large "the military" is and instead have, say, dozens of militaries.

This probably makes sense anyway, because the Army of the North-Eastern Hemisphere probably doesn't need to bother itself with matters in the region of the South-Western Hemisphere. They don't need a general with rank to command both of them at the same time. (In emergencies sufficient to require crossover, the general in the impacted region would simply be given temporary command of "borrowed troops" from another region.)

Interstellar? Even better. Each planet has their own army. You don't need a general that's in charge of Mars + Earth (much less Earth + Ceti Alpha V). The galaxy is divided into regions, run by non-military officials, reported to by system leaders, who are non-military, reported to by planetary leaders, who are non-military, reported to by territorial leaders, who are non-military, reported to, finally, by actual generals, who run reasonably sized regional militaries.

Even in a massive intergalactic conflict, I think this should hold up. At the "really massive" level of planning, you have bureaucrats. They make such broad strokes that calling them "generals" would be less accurate anyway. So we keep the military trimmed down to "generals who handle regional conflicts" and anything above that is actually part of the bureaucracy, rather than the military.

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By definition, this would be a fictional army, and that means you need your own fictional answer. But there is a point I want to make, which is (in my opinion) a worldbuilding answer. Think of the words captain and lieutenant.

  • A captain is not just an army and navy rank, it describes the commander of a civilian vessel, or the leader of a sports team, or even a 'captain of industry.' Perhaps the best description is leader of the unit.
  • A lieutenant is not just an army and rank. You get the lieutenants of a gang boss and lieutenant governors. Perhaps the best description is deputy unit leader. Note also the ranks lieutenant colonel and lieutenant general ...

But the army and navy ranks are not the same. What happened?

There used to be a time when (some) armies did consist of regiments, each led by a colonel, and regiments did consist of companies, each led by a captain. The colonels and captains had deputies (lieutenant colonels and lieutenants, respectively).

The navy had ships commanded by a captain, with a number of lieutenants. (First lieutenant, second lieutenant, third lieutenant, and so on, up to half a dozen.)

Armies got bigger and the army decided to insert an intermediate level of command, the battalion, and the rank structure shifted a bit. Lieutenant colonel became the rank of a battalion leader, not just a deputy regiment leader. They also inserted a brigade, division, and corps between the regiment and the army, also with a more differentiated rank structure (brigadiers, major generals, ...).

Navies and their ships got bigger and the navy decided to keep the rank of captain for the commanding officer of capital ships, but they inserted additional ranks below the captain, above and below the lieutenant. Hence commanders, lieutenant commanders, lieutenants junior grade, ensigns.

What does that mean?

You could either keep the ranks at the top (general ranks with one to five 'stars') and insert something with a new name in between. Or you insert new ranks at the top.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of half-star generals $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ @NoName, there could even be 1.5-star generals. Or Deputy Senior Lieutenant Generals -- junior senior junior senior officers. (If you laugh at that, think of the Master Chief Petty Officer -- senior senior junior senior enlisted men. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:01
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If there is one thing I can't stand about real or fictional situations, it is illogic.

In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Sacrifice of Angels" a Federation and allied fleet of 600 space warships fought a Dominion Fleet of 1,200 space warships in an important battle in the war. And you might think that 600 ships vs 1,200 is a very impressive space battle.

Our Milky Way Galaxy has a galactic disc about 100,000 light years in diameter and about 1,000 light years thick. Suppose that the United Federation of Planets occupies a cylinder 1,000 light years "high" and with a radius of 500 light years & diameter of 1,000 light years. Such a cylinder would have a volume of 785,398,163.40 cubic light years. With 0.004 stars per cubic light year, there would be about 3,141,592.654 stars in that volume.

If one star out of 10, or 100, or 1,000 in that volume has an advanced industrialized planet which joined the Federation, there would be 314,159, or 31,415, or 3,141 advanced Federation member planets. If each such planet could build ten space battleships per year, and train crews for them, the Federation could add, 3,141,592, or 314,159, or 31,415 space battleships to its fleet every year.

If the Federation was 1,000 light years in diameter, it would appear as a tiny circle one per cent of the diameter of the galactic disc in a map showing the entire galactic disc. Of course the space maps seen in various Star Trek productions show the Federation and the Dominion several times that large, implying that they should have even larger fleets of warships than calculated above.

But suppose that the Federation and the Dominion could find only 600 and 1,200 ships for this important battle in the war. The Federation fleet with 600 ships would still have more ships than the British and German fleets at the Battle of Jutland combined. And if you look up the organization of the two battle fleets at Jutland, each had several admirals commanding various units of ships in the battle.

But in "Sacrifice of Angels" the 600 ships are commanded by Benjamin Sisko - captain Bejamin Sisko!

I found that highly illogical and hard to believe.

When I was a child I read a book, probably a Disney book, with a lot of stories, and one was the mostly true story of Old Abe the war eagle (1861-1881), the bald eagle mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteers in the US Civil War.

I remember that the story briefly described the organization of the Union Army. About a hundred men were in an infantry company and each infantry regiment had ten companies and so about a thousand men when it was mustered in - but not when it was mustered out.

Several regiments made up a brigade, and several brigades made up a division, and several divisions made up an army corps, and several corps made up a field army. And I was really impressed by the thought of such vast numbers of men, wondering where they could find enough soldiers for the Rebel army with so many men in one Union field army.

And it is a good idea for writers to sometimes let themselves be impressed by the vast numbers that may be involved in their stories.

Decades later, I learned about the general ranks in the Union army. There were only two, brigadier general and major general. Except that Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the United Stars Army from 1841 to November 1, 1861, was a major general from 1841 and a brevet lieutenant general from March 29, 1847. A brevet rank was a sort of an honorary rank, to greatly oversimplify. And Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general from March 9, 1894 to March 6, 1869, had the full ranks of Lieutenant general from March 4, 1864 and general from July 25 1866.

So from November I, 1861 to March 4, 1864, the commanding general of the US Army had the rank of major general.

Thus brigades were commanded by colonels or brigadier generals, divisions were commanded by brigadier generals or major generals, corps were commanded by major generals, field armies were commanded by major generals, and the entire Union army was commanded by a major general more often than by a lieutenant general.

The Union army also had territorial commands. A number of districts were often grouped to form a department (which often had a field army attached) and a number of departments were grouped to form a military division. There were times during the war when a general had several field armies under their command while being their self under the command of the commanding general of the Union Army.

For example, for several months Major General Henry W. Halleck had several field armies under his command while being under the command of Major General George McClellan, the commander of the Union army. At that time officers with the rank of major general commanded five separate levels from divisions to the entire Union army.

I consider that highly illogical.

And it seems to me that if an army has five levels of command above a brigadier general's level of command, the officers at the top level should be five grades higher than a brigadier general.

In the 20th century military units were often much larger than during the US Civil War.

A division is a large military unit or formation, usually consisting of between 6,000 and 25,000 soldiers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_(military)

The size of a corps varies greatly, but two to five divisions and anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 are the numbers stated by the US Department of Defense.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corps

A field army (or numbered army or simply army) is a military formation in many armed forces, composed of two or more corps. It may be subordinate to an army group. Air armies are the equivalent formations in air forces, and fleets in navies. A field army is composed of 80,000 to 300,000 soldiers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_army

An army group is a military organization consisting of several field armies, which is self-sufficient for indefinite periods. It is usually responsible for a particular geographic area. An army group is the largest field organization handled by a single commander – usually a full general or field marshal – and it generally includes between 400,000 and 1,000,000 soldiers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army_group

The question says:

I am wondering what the officer ranks would look like for an organization with tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people and/or droids. Would six-star ranks or above exist, and what would they be called? What would their units be called?

So if you are imagining an army with between ten million (10,000,000) )and one billion (1,000,000,000) human and/or robot soldiers, then you may need several more levels of command officers.

An army of ten million might be ten times as large as an army group of one million soldiers and might be content with a five star equivalent rank in command of army groups reporting directly to a six star equivalent rank commanding the entire army. Or it might possibly have one or two intermediate organizations, bumping the commander of the entire army up to a seven or eight star general equivalent.

An army of one billion might be 2,500 times as numerous as an army group of 400,000 thousand men, and so it might have space for many intermediate levels of command and many ranks of generals.

for example, if army groups have 400,000 soldiers, and if all higher organizations contain two of the lower level of organization, the level above an army group will, have 800,000 soldiers, the next level above that will have 1,600,000, the next level 3,200,000, the next ne level 6,400,000, the next level 12,800,000, the next level will have 25,600,000, the next level 51,200,000 and so on.

But if levels above army groups are organized in groups of ten smaller units, the level about an army group will have 4,000,000 soldiers, the next higher level will have 40,000,000, the next higher level will have 400,000,000 soldiers, and two and a half of them will will be beneath the commander of the entire army. So the commander of the entire army would be equivalent to "merely" a nine star general.

The US army has four general ranks, brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general. Since many World War II allies had a rank above general, field marshal, the rank of five star general (and admiral) was created for the very top US officers in World War II and hasn't been created again. The rank was General of the Army or Admiral of the Navy.

Thee is some uncertainty whether the special ranks created for General Pershing, Admiral Dewey, and the special posthumous rank of George Washington, should be counted as four star ranks, five star ranks, or six star ranks.

So possibly you might want to use field marshal as the equivalent of a five star general and commander of an army group.

Then you might want to create a rank of second level field Marshall for the next higher position, and third order field marshal for the position above that, and so on.

Or you might want to revive the medieval rank of constable, which was above a medieval marshal, as the rank above a field marshal and equivalent to a six star general. And maybe a constable to the second power could be equivalent to a seven star general, a constable to the third power could be equivalent to an eight star general, and so on.

Or maybe you could call an army group a squad of armies, commanded by a second lieutenant of generals, and the group above a platoon of armies commanded by a lieutenant of generals, and the group above a company of armies commanded by a captain of generals, and the group above a battalion of armies commanded by a lieutenant colonel of generals, and the group above a regiment of armies, commanded by a colonel of armies, and the group above a brigade of armies commanded by a brigadier general of generals, and the group above a division of armies commanded by a major general of generals, and the group above a corps of armies commanded by a lieutenant general of of generals, and the group above a an army of of armies, commanded by a general of generals.

If your vast army of at least tens of millions of soldiers is designed to conquer a lot of territory and people, it will need special units to govern conquered territory. And they should not be organized like fighting units, but should have a different type of organization suited to policing conquered territories and people. And if you have many millions of soldiers as such military police in occupied and/or conquered territory, they will have many levels of units and many levels of ranks.

I hope that I have given some good suggestions about the names of very large military units and the ranks of officers commanding them.

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You're making the common mistake of believing that rank is equal to position/authority. While there's normally a relationship, it isn't absolutely necessary. Here, for instance, is a real-world example from the United States (as of February, 2023):

  • Chief of Staff of the Army: GEN William C. McConville (OF-9, 4 star). Highest ranking officer in the US Army.
  • Commanding General, US Army Europe and Africa: GEN Darryl A. Williams (OF-9, 4 star)

Williams reports to McConville in the chain of command, although the two have the same rank. They're not going to be demanding that one salute the other (I would assume), but there's a clear hierarchy independent of the rank that each possesses.

Similarly, if you go back to World War 2, at the time of Operation Overlord, you had this command structure:

  1. Marshall was still a 4-star general as US Army Chief of Staff, and was the superior of
  2. Eisenhower, who was the 4-star general Supreme Allied Commander, who was the superior of
  3. Montgomery in command of the ground forces (full general, equivalent to 4-star), and
  4. Ramsay in command of naval forces (full admiral, equivalent to 4-star).

So here is an example of three layers in the chain of command, where all officers have the same rank (probably to annoyance of Montgomery, whose ego was large enough to have its own gravitational field).

While Marshall was later promoted to 5-star rank when the US decided to implement that, this was still a situation where it was position that determined authority, not the stuff pinned/sewn on the epaulets and sleeves and the fancy hats.

The other thing to bear in mind with your fictional military is that when you reach those levels these are people who have made their careers in their chosen profession, have likely known each other for years, and are more akin to a management team than strictly hierarchical organization. They know the difference between rank and authority, so they don't necessarily need even more fancy hardware and titles to be able to function effectively.

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