Military Rank Breakdown For The Uninitiated

Military Rank Breakdown For The Uninitiated

For the uninitiated, the military rank, pay grade, and rating systems can seem daunting.  Each branch of service has its own unique military designations and nomenclature.  This guide to military rank structure should help you make sense of it all.

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You can best understand the difference between military rank and military pay grade by remembering one important factor: military pay grade does not change regardless of branch of service.

That is to say, an E-5 (Enlisted pay grade 5) is the same in the Army as it is in the Navy.  Meanwhile, an E-5 in the Coast Guard would be the same in the Marines or Air Force.

The distinction between the two is with the naming of military rank.   For example, if all service members are E-5’s, you should address them by their different ranks.  The military rank name used depends on the branch of service.

For instance, while an E-5 in the Army or Marines is called a Sergeant, an E-5 in the Navy or Coast Guard is called a Petty Officer Second Class.   Meanwhile, in the Air Force, an E-5 has the military rank of a Staff Sergeant.

The same distinction would apply in the Officer community.

All O-3’s (Officer pay grade 3) are the same across all branches.  Just like enlisted military ranks, officer ranks differ in name, too.  In this case, an O-3 in the Army is a Captain, while an O-3 in the Navy is a Lieutenant.

We’ve provided two handy charts that break down the military rank of each service.  Please note, the Navy and the Coast Guard have the same Officer Military Rank.  The Army, Air Force, and Marines also share a military ranking structure.


Hopefully, you now understand military ranks and pay grades.  In addition, we need to discuss military ratings.  A military “rating” is just a fancy way of saying what a person’s job in the military is.

For example, an Artilleryman in the Army is called a Gunner’s Mate in the Navy or Coast Guard.  However, on September 29th, the United States Navy announced a new enlisted rating modernization plan.  Rumor has it that the Coast Guard is not far behind in adopting a similar plan.

In short, military ratings are going away.  The Navy is creating Navy Occupation Specialty codes or NOS’.  They are similar to the Army and Marine Corps’ Military Occupational Specialty codes (MOS’.)  The Air Force uses a system called Air Force Specialty Codes, or AFSC.  So, the need to learn military job ratings like Gunner’s Mate or Machinist Mate will no longer be necessary.  All military personnel, regardless of branch, will now simply be referred to by their military rank.

The advantage of using this system is that a sailor, soldier, airman, or marine, will now be able to hold more than one specialty.  This makes them much more valuable on the battlefield and off.


The new system of rating service members will have a profound impact.  Both in the military and in the civilian sector.

“In modernizing our enlisted rating system we are not only giving our Sailors increased opportunities within the Navy, such as a higher level of flexibility in training and detailing, but also increasing their opportunities when they transition out of the service. In aligning the descriptions of the work our Sailors do with their counterparts in the civilian world, we more closely reflect the nation we protect while also making it easier for our Sailors to obtain the credentials they’ll need to be successful in the private sector,” said Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

For example, a title of corpsman under the old system will now have a NOS title matched as a medical technician.  The new term better reflects the duties and responsibilities of the job than the term corpsman does.  Medical technician also aligns with what someone in the civilian medical profession does.

Sailors will be able to hold more than one NOS.  This will give them a broader range of professional experience and expertise. NOS’ will be grouped under career fields. This will enable flexibility to move between occupational specialties within the fields.

And the NOS’s will be tied to training and qualifications.  This new system is reflective of the current systems in place in other branches of the military.

In short, our service members will now be better aligned with their civilian counterparts

This will make it easier for civilian employers to understand the true nature and role of our military, and how they are a valuable asset to their company.

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