I am creating my own Sci-Fi military that has its own unique rank structure, however I am trying to make it comparable to real world, modern military forces. I am also combining all branches into a single force, so obviously the overlap is going to skew things a bit.

That said, I'm having trouble finding info on how an individual's rank actually affects what they have authority over (other than anyone with a lower rank). The most I am really finding on my own is requirements to captain a ship.

Main points:

1) Is their a way to identify and create tiers of responsibilities that would be common among at least a few modern militaries?

2) If yes, what would those logical tiers be?

3) Are there any resources that cover this topic?

Anyone that could make this more clear or even direct me to a resource that can explain in more detail would be greatly appreciated. A few examples of things I am trying to find out are:

  • Is there a certain rank you have to be to head a fire team?
    • Or fighter squadron?
  • Do you have to have a minimum rank to be a deck chief (Officer of the Deck)?
    • Or do you get a new rank for becoming deck chief?
  • Is it all up to the CO's whim?

Not limiting to US military either as many of the changes in structure I have made are directly to reflect some differences in military forces internationally. I am also interested in any comparisons between forces that might consider positions to have a different level of importance.

Edit: Rolled backed some changes made and tried to more clearly state intent. Clarified that by 'deck chief' I mean 'Officer of the Deck'.

Edit: Added main points.

  • $\begingroup$ USA based example: Yes. For example, you have to be an officer to be a pilot in 99% of the cases. The only exception is for helicopters, where a special class of noncommisioned officers were created. I think it was some sort of tech sergeant. A Squadron commander is likely to be a Lt Colonel. I have never heard of a Squadron Commander being a Major or lower. Not too knowledgeable on the Navy, but I believe they have strict requirements on the rank to ship. Combat promotions always exist, but I believe most positions require a rank. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2017 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ If, as you say, this organisation has "its own unique rank structure" then you can structure it however you want. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Apr 24, 2017 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @user2259716 The term you are looking for regarding non-commissioned pilots is Warrant Officers. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Apr 24, 2017 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how defining a military rank structure is off-topic. I can potentially see too broad but the topic is definitely fine. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Apr 24, 2017 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ Xachary, I made some edits, they are somewhat substantial but I think it makes the question a better fit for the format of the site. If the question now violates your intent or doesn't address the question you were trying to ask please feel free to roll back the changes. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Apr 24, 2017 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


For modern armies, the basic ranks, understood by everybody, are as follows (shamelessly copied from Wikipedia):

Typical units         Typical numbers   Typical commander
----------------      ---------------   -------------------------------
fireteam              3–4               corporal
squad or section      8–12              sergeant
platoon               15–30             lieutenant
company               80–150            captain or major
battalion or cohort   300–800           lieutenant colonel
regiment or brigade   2,000–4,000       colonel or brigadier general
division or legion    10,000–15,000     major general
corps                 20,000–40,000     lieutenant general
field army            80,000+           general
army group            2+ field armies   field marshal or five-star general
region/theater        4+ army groups    six-star rank or head of state

From the level of battalion onwards units tend to have their own specialized administrative and support personnel, composed of enlisted men and non-commissioned officers; from the level of regiment onwards units tend to have a general staff, populated with officers, NCOs and enlisted men. Medics and medical personnel are attached to units from battalion onwards.

As I understand it, in the U.S.A. and many western countries there is a perfectly professional and respectable carreer track for NCOs, distinct from the carreer track of officers; in the former Warsaw Pact, and maybe even today in Russia, I don't know, this was restricted to the higher ranking NCOs, say from the equivalent of a sergeant 1st class (OR-7) onwards; lower ranking NCOs (sergeants and staff sergeants, OR-5 and OR-6) were enlisted men.

There is most usually a third separate carreer track for technical personnel, called warrant officers in the U.S.A.

Wikipedia provides equivalence lists for ranks in NATO countries, where the equivalence is more or less complete for reasons of interoperability:

Nowadays and ever since the middle ages onwards, naval forces have different ranks than land forces; the Romans themselves did not use special words for naval officers.

Air forces sometimes use fancy ranks; drivers of flying vehicles are given exalted officer ranks such as lieutenant or captain, whereas drivers of land vehicles have to make do with enlisted or NCO ranks such as corporal or sergeant. Keep in mind that an army captain commands about 100 men, whereas an Air Force captain commands between zero and about ten men, and a navy captain commands hundreds to thousands of men and is the equivalent of an army colonel.

The number of ranks increases as the military becomes more and more sophisticated. The Romans did not really have any ranks other than private, decanus for infantry or decurion for cavalry (a corporal), centurion (a sergeant), tribune (a lieutenant, captain or major), praetor or later laticlave tribune (a colonel or brigadier) and legate (a major general or lieutenant general); in addition the most senior centurion of a legion was called the primus pilus and functioned as the senior NCO, sort of a sergeant major. During most of the Middle Ages, things were even more simple: there were generals, captains, sergeants and privates. Then war become a complicated profession with an associated formal education and ranks proliferated together with the evolution of military science and technology.

Regarding the specific questions:

  • Is there a certain rank you have to be to head a fire team? No. It is usual to have a corporal in this role, but a sergeant may be pressed into service if the situation requires it and a private may have to make do if there are no corporals around.

  • Or fighter squadron? A major or more usually a lieutenant-colonel (called a wing commander in the U.K.).

  • Do you have to have a minimum rank to be a deck chief? I have no idea what a deck chief is. (Apologies, but English naval and nautical terminology was never a burning interest.) If you mean the chief of the boat, that's simply the man with the most senior enlisted rank in the crew, almost always an NCO -- a petty officer or chief petty officer. If you mean the officer of the deck that an officer, usually a some sort of lieutenant (OF-1 to OF-3) (but see Xachary Thompson's comment, to the effect that in the U.S. navy this is usually a petty officer, OR-6 to OR-8).

  • $\begingroup$ Your comment about navy captains is very bad, especially considering your links to rank structures. Navy captains are (in uniform rank terms) the equivalent of a full colonel (O6), not a captain (O3). Full colonels will often command brigade forces with numbers in the thousand range. On another subject, using a sergeant as a fireteam leader "especially if he's good at it" suggests he is not competent at his specified job of squad leader. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2017 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast: No offence intended. Answer corrected to eliminate the miswordings. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 24, 2017 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of this was definitely helpful. I would like to comment though that as was mentioned in another answer, pilots are required to be officers (or at least become officers) because the extensive training required to "drive flying vehicles" at sub-sonic and super sonic speeds. Besides that though, this was pretty helpful. It was interesting to me that you said the Officer of the Deck is O1 - O3 in the (I'm assuming) Russian Military while it is E6 - E8 in US Military. Definitely gives me some ideas to change up my military structure. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2017 at 22:57

There is a big difference between now (peace) and then (war)

First, this question fluctuates wildly over time and by country. I will concentrate on what I know well, US forces since WWII. By and large, most western armed forces have similiar structures and requirements to the US military. Originally this involved armies copying Germany, and Navies copying Great Britain. After the Cold War set in and NATO was formed, it involved everyone copying the United States.

Generally, in peacetime, military structures revert to maximum bureaucratic inertia and detailed and complex rules for assigning ranks to positions come into being. This is case today in the US Navy and Air Force. The Army and Marines, having recently/currently been involved in something resembling warfare, are a little more flexible, but not much.

In wartime, and by war I mean the serious all-out total war of the type we have not seen since WWII, those rules go out the window. Tolerance for stupidity exponentially decays to zero as stupidity does things like get people killed, ships sunk, and wars lost. In that case, the best get put in charge, no matter what the rules say.

Just a note, my experience is in the US Marine Corps (enlisted) and US Navy (as an officer) so I will answer these questions from that perceptive.

Peacetime examples

  • A fireteam is ostensibly directed by a corporal (E-4), in reality, more likely a lance corporal (E-3).

  • A fighter squadron command tour is given to a senior Commander (O-5) who has passed the command selection board and completed a squadron XO tour.

  • The CO of the fighter squadron is the CO. Each squadron belongs to both a 'Carrier Air Wing' when it is deployed/operational; and a 'Type Wing' for administrative purposes. The type wing is generally responsible for manning the squadrons, supporting maintenance activity, and providing training opportunities. The Carrier Air Wing (formerly called Carrier Air Group) is the mixed group of all aircraft embarked on a carrier on a deployment. It is responsible for training the wing as a unit and running a deployment (bombing ISIS, and such). Both 'wings' are commanded by an Captain (O-6). Neither Captain has basically any input onto who the squadron CO's will be; they are chosen by the selection board.

  • The deck 'chief' I assume means the 'Chief Petty Officer of Deck Department.' Deck department is generally in charge of mooring lines, small boats, removing rust, painting the ship, and other old-timey navy things. You may be trying to refer to some sort of watchstanding position. For example, the Officer of the Deck is the officer in charge of a bridge watchteam, and for navigating the ship and executing the plan of the day. The Officer of the Deck doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Deck Department. A Chief Petty Officer is an E-7 in the Navy, though I have been on ships with both a E-6 and E-8 'Deck Chief.'

  • The senior enlisted man in Deck Department is the Deck Chief. You don't get promoted/demoted to hold that role.

Wartime differences

  • Fire team leaders are whoever the sergeant trusts to not to get other people killed. As shown in Band of Brothers rifle companies that have been through the meat grinder of modern warfare are pretty democratic at the enlisted level. The best are acclaimed by peers and superiors alike, they are given authority by peers, and responsibility (and eventually promotion) by superiors.

  • The CO of a fighter squadron after a major air battle is the senior member of the squadron who is not dead.

  • In this case, yes! The CAG (Carrier Air Group commander, the Captain we talked about in peacetime) usually does not fly. Thus, when you launch a torpedo strike on the enemy, and the torpedo squadron's CO is shot down, the CAG can pick his successor from the survivors of highest rank remaining. An O-3 squadron CO would not have been uncommon in 1942-1943.

  • With deck chief's, you run into the fact that during war lots of non-military ships become military ships. Lots of transports and various small cutters are pressed into service for various needs. The ships are sent to bases to be outfit for combat in whatever way they can be, and the COs of those bases were generally responsible for providing some sort of crew for the ships. Every ship (especially in WWII) needed a deck department, so any reasonably experienced and competent sailor could find him self as 'deck chief' of a small anti-submarine cutter, merchantman cum amphibious transport ship, or landing craft.

  • $\begingroup$ I did mean Officer of the Deck, I suppose Deck Chief is a term I got from Sci Fi movies and books. An unfortunate result of over simplification, which is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. So, thanks! $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2017 at 23:00

Here is sort of a baseline thing here. I'm deliberately not referencing any specific military structure because when you look at them from a very high, conceptual level, they tend to work the same throughout history.

First of all, there is almost always a hierarchy, and rank is based on how many men you are in charge of. A squad leader is in charge of 5 men, himself and 4 others. A Platoon leader is in charge of 4 squads, or 20 men. a company leader is in charge of 5 platoons, or 100 men. I made up my names based on extensive movie watching and not much else. Of course the numbers, ranks, titles and so on can change, but that is the core organizational framework.

Hierarchy is absolutely critical for any sort of standing military. It helps keep discipline and makes coordination possible. Without discipline and coordination on the battlefield, you die.

You get interesting deviations when you start getting into specializations. Your motor pool does not need the same amount of manpower as a combat unit, but you do not want to entrust your army's ability to get from point a to point b on someone that low level. so you jump him a few ranks. Likewise, with pilots and such. A pilot has to be extremely well trained and skilled, so you make them officers, even though the may not be directly leading anyone. A squadron leader, though, may be in charge of 5 pilots, and a wing commander in charge of 4 squadrons....and so on (again, names made up for my convenience). So even though there is specialization, the Core Structure remains.

A lot of modern military names come out of long and cherished tradition. Modern US Marines will talk about "Gunny" which comes from "Gunnery Sergeant" as an example.

You can make your military have whatever names/specializations, you want, just keep them in a logical hierarchy.


Modern Military uses dual leadership for the most part.

Team - 2-5 people Squad - ~10 people, or two teams Platoon - ~40 people, or four squads Company - ~100 people, or three to four platoons Battalion - ~400 people, or 4 companys Brigade - ~800 people, or two battalions


  • Private, Private First Class - typically no responsibilities
  • Corporal - sometimes has responsibilities, usually team leader
  • Sergeant - typically a team leader, sometimes put in squad leader position
  • Staff Sergeant - squad leader
  • Sergeant First Class - Platoon leader
  • First Sergeant - In charge of a company
  • Sergeant Major/Command Sergeant Major - In charge of battalions and above


  • 2nd Lieutenants - in charge of a platoon

  • 1st Lieutenants - typically XO or 2nd in command of a company

  • Captain - in charge of a company

  • Major - usually an adviser to LTC or above

  • Lieutenant Colonel - in charge of battalion

  • Colonel - in charge of brigade

  • General Officers (1 star-5 stars) - in charge of everything else, most are advisers to 4 stars. 5 Star are only used in war time


Warrant Officers

  • typically ranked by number 1-5, 5 being most senior
  • These are typically your subject matter experts in their field
  • W1 - on par with LT
  • CW2-3 - typically on par with a CPT
  • CW4 - on par with a LTC or COL
  • CW5 - on par with a General
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    $\begingroup$ What does dual leadership mean. Because that was not my experience in the modern military. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 24, 2017 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ Okay so LT is the leader of the platoon but the SFC is interchangeable with the LT, 1SG and CPT, SM and LTC, and so on. There is an equally rank enlisted person to go with the officer at each level $\endgroup$
    – Dtb49
    Apr 24, 2017 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ I think both the officers and enlisted would be insulted by you suggesting they are interchangeable. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 24, 2017 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ Whether they are insulted by it or not it is why the rank structure is what it is. $\endgroup$
    – Dtb49
    Apr 24, 2017 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ The responsibilities of Officers and Enlisted members vary greatly. In my experience enlisted members are going to be far more technically proficient and focus on a more narrow area of responsibility usually in the arena of day to day operations, whereas Officers have broader responsibilities/knowledge and focus on administrative stuff. They are most certainly not interchangeable. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Apr 25, 2017 at 20:08

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