Major General, Lieutenant Colonel, Captain — all common military ranks you’ve probably encountered before; but where do these ranks fall in the chain of command, and why are they important?

When interacting with military personnel to influence policy or enter the military contracting space, it is important to have a general awareness of how the armed forces are organized. Outside of the military, departments and agencies use appointment types, and top offices are usually headed by a Presidential Appointment requiring Senate confirmation (PAS), Senior Executive Service (SES) member, or Schedule-C appointee. However, in the military, each service branch has its own complex structure.

Nevertheless, most military organizations follow a clearly defined, rank-based hierarchy, meaning one of the best ways to gain insight into where a service member sits in that hierarchy is by — you guessed it — examining rank. Rank highlights a service member’s responsibility and authority.

Another significant part of this equation is pay grade, which offers further insight into levels of seniority. By comparing military ranks and pay grades to civilian pay grades, you can strategically contact the right people in the military who wield authority and have a voice in decision-making.

Military Ranks

Enlisted Personnel

Airmen

E-2: Airman (Amn)

E-3: Airman First Class (A1C)

E-4: Senior Airman (SrA)

Non-Commissioned Officers

E-5: Staff Sergeant (SSgt)

E-6: Technical Sergeant (TSgt)

Senior Non-Commissioned Officers

E-7: Master Sergeant (MSgt)

E-8: Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)

E-9: Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)

E-9: Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: N/A

W-2: N/A

W-3: N/A

W-4: N/A

W-5: N/A

 

Commissioned Officers

Company-Grade Officers

O-1: 2nd Lieutenant (2nd Lt)

O-2: 1st Lieutenant (1st Lt)

O-3: Captain (Capt)

Field-Grade Officers

O-4: Major (Maj)

O-5: Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)

O-6: Colonel (Col)

General Officers

O-7: Brigadier General (Brig Gen)

O-8: Major General (Maj Gen)

O-9: Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)

O-10: General (Gen)

O-10: General of the Air Force (GAF)

Enlisted Personnel

Junior Enlisted

E-1: Private (PV1)

E-2: Private (PV2)

E-3: Private First Class (PFC)

E-4: Specialist (SPC)

Non-Commissioned Officers

E-4: Corporal (CPL)

E-5: Sergeant (SGT)

E-6: Staff Sergeant (SSG)

Senior Non-Commissioned Officers

E-7: Sergeant First Class (SFC)

E-8: First Sergeant (1SG)

E-8: Master Sergeant (MSG)

E-9: Command Sergeant Major (CSM)

E:9: Sergeant Major (SGM)

E-9: Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: Warrant Officer 1 (WO1)

W-2: Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2)

W-3: Chief Warrant Officer 3(CW3)

W-4: Chief Warrant Officer 4(CW4)

W-5: Chief Warrant Officer 5 CW5)

 

Commissioned Officers

Company Grade Officers

O-1: 2nd Lieutenant (2LT)

O-2: 1st Lieutenant (1LT)

O-3: Captain (CPT)

Field Grade Officers

O-4: Major (MAJ)

O-5: Lieutenant Colonel (LTC)

O-6: Colonel (COL)

General Officers

O-7: Brigadier General (BG)

O-8: Major General (MG)

O-9: Lieutenant General (LTG)

O-10: General (GEN)

O-10: General of the Army (GA)

Enlisted Personnel

Non-Rate/Apprentice

E-1: Seaman Recruit (SR)

E-2: Seaman Apprentice (SA)

E-3: Seaman (SN)

E-3: Fireman (FN)

E-3: Airman (AN)

Petty Officers

E-4: Petty Officer Third Class (PO3)

E-5: Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)

E-6: Petty Officer First Class (PO1)

Chief Petty Officers

E-7: Chief Petty Officer (CPO)

E-8: Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)

E-9: Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)

E-9: Fleet/Command Master Chief Petty Officer (CMC)

E-9: Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: N/A

W-2: Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

W-3: Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

W-4: Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

W-5: Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

 

Commissioned Officers

Junior Officers

O-1: Ensign (ENS)

O-2: Lieutenant, Junior Grade (LTJG)

O-3: Lieutenant (LT)

O-4: Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

Senior Officers

O-5: Commander (CDR)

O-6: Captain (CAPT)

Flag Officers

O-7: Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML)

O-8: Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM)

O-9: Vice Admiral (VADM)

O-10: Admiral (ADM)

Enlisted Personnel

Junior Enlisted

E-1: Private (PVT)

E-2: Private First Class (PFC)

E-3: Lance Corporal (LCpl)

Non-Commissioned Officers

E-4: Corporal (Cpl)

E-5: Sergeant (Sgt)

Staff Non-Commissioned Officers

E-6: Staff Sergeant (SSgt)

E-7: Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt)

E-8: First Sergeant (1st Sgt)

E-8: Master Sergeant (MSgt)

E-9: Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)

E-9: Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt)

E-9: Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps (SMMC)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: Warrant Officer 1 (WO1)

W-2: Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

W-3: Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

W-4: Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

W-5: Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

 

Commissioned Officers

Company Grade Officers

O-1: 2nd Lieutenant (2ndLt)

O-2: 1st Lieutenant (1stLt)

O-3: Captain (Capt)

O-4: Major (Maj)

Field Grade Officers

O-5: Lieutenant Colonel (LtCol)

O-6: Colonel (Col)

General Officers

O-7: Brigadier General (BGen)

O-8: Major General (MajGen)

O-9: Lieutenant General (LtGen)

O-10: General (Gen)

Enlisted Personnel

Apprentice

E-1: Seaman Recruit (SR)

E-2: Seaman Apprentice (SA)

E-3: Seaman (SN)

Petty Officers

E-4: Petty Officer Third Class (PO3)

E-5: Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)

E-6: Petty Officer First Class (PO1)

Chief Petty Officers

E-7: Chief Petty Officer (CPO)

E-8: Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)

E-9: Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)

E-9: Command Master Chief Petty Officer (CMC)

E-9: Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: Warrant Officer 1 (WO1)

W-2: Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

W-3: Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

W-4: Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

W-5: Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

 

Commissioned Officers

Junior Officers

O-1: Ensign (ENS)

O-2: Lieutenant, Junior Grade (LTJG)

O-3: Lieutenant (LT)

O-4: Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

Senior Officers

O-5: Commander (CDR)

O-6: Captain (CAPT)

Flag Officers

O-7: Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML)

O-8: Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM)

O-9: Vice Admiral (VADM)

O-10: Admiral (ADM)

O-11: Fleet Admiral (FADM)

Enlisted Personnel

Specialists

E-1: Specialist 1 (Spc1)

E-2: Specialist 2 (Spc2)

E-3: Specialist 3 (Spc3)

E-4: Specialist 4 (Spc4)

Non-Commissioned Officers

E-5: Sergeant (Sgt)

E-6: Technical Sergeant (TSgt)

Senior Non-Commissioned Officers

E-7: Master Sergeant (MSgt)

E-9: Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force (CMSSF)

 

Warrant Officers

W-1: N/A

W-2: N/A

W-3: N/A

W-4: N/A

W-5: N/A

 

Commissioned Officers

Company Grade Officers

O-1: First Lieutenant (2nd Lt)

O-2: Second Lieutenant (1st Lt)

O-3: Captain (Capt)

Field Grade Officers

O-4: Major (Maj)

O-5: Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)

O-6: Colonel (Col)

General Officers

O-7: Brigadier General (Brig Gen)

O-8: Major General (Maj Gen)

O-9: Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)

O-10: General (Gen)

Military Pay Grades

After you’ve identified rank, it’s on to military pay grade. While pay grades are administrative classifications used for salary purposes, they are also tied to ranks. U.S. military pay grades are the same for each branch:

Enlisted Personnel (E1-to E-9)

  • Comprised of junior enlisted, non-commissioned officer (NCO) and senior NCO ranks, enlisted service members make up more than 80% of the military and are responsible for carrying out missions.

Warrant Officers (W-1 to W-5)

  • Less common than enlisted service members and officers, warrant officers rank above non-commissioned officers and serve as highly skilled technical experts in areas like engineering and intelligence.

Commissioned Officers (O-1 to O-10)

  • Occupying the highest ranks in the chain of command, commissioned officers require additional training and education. Officers manage and lead enlisted personnel, and are also comprised of three tiers.

 

Civilian/Military Equivalent Rates

So, how do civilian pay scales come into play with military ranks and pay grades? Although the military follows a different pay structure than civilians, pay scale information is still comparable:

Civilian GradeMilitary GradeMilitary Rank
GS-13O-4Major, Lieutenant Commander
GS-14O-5Lieutenant Colonel, Commander
GS-15O-6Colonel, Captain
SES (ES Level V)O-7Brigadier General, Rear Admiral Lower Half

 

SES (ES Level IV)O-8Major General, Rear Admiral Upper Half
SES (ES Level III)O-9Lieutenant General, Vice Admiral

 

SES (ES Levels I and II)O-10General, Admiral

 

At the top of the chain of command, pay grades O-7 through O-10 can be compared to the Senior Executive Service (SES) and consist of the most senior-level commissioned military personnel — flag and general officers. Generals and admirals (grade O-10) technically fall under SES Level 1, but these ranks align more with PAS in terms of authority.

Because it can be more difficult to schedule a meeting or develop a relationship with a PAS appointee or with a member of the SES due to busy schedules and constant messages from various vendors, targeting a GS-13-15 may prove to be more successful.

These senior GS roles are comprised of supervisory positions that wield influence and have direct access to SES appointees, Schedule Cs, and other policymakers. In the military, grades O-4 through O-6 are equivalent to GS-13 through GS-15.

These ranks also make up most military and special assistant positions that directly support military leaders. In addition, other junior officers in equivalent or lower grades may serve in support roles, such as Aide-de-Camp or Military Aide.

Planning the Call

Regardless of whether you plan on contacting military or civilian defense leaders, comprehending rank dynamics will lead to better interactions overall. Remember, preparing a strategy is essential, especially with shifting dynamics across the globe. Knowing who to contact, when to contact them, and having alternatives to accomplish your mission will be key in short-term and long-term policymaking.

Andrew Ramos-Flynn

Andrew Ramos-Flynn

Senior Research Analyst, Federal