Note: The below article was substantially updated in May 2014 by Patrick Long, incorporating several significant Navy enlisted promotion system changes announced by Navy Administrative Message (NAVADMIN) 114/14.
The Army, Air Force, and Marines have "rank," to denote personnel in various paygrades. For example, a Senior Airman in the Air Force has the "rank" of Senior Airman, and is in the paygrade of E-4. One addresses him/her as "Senior Airman," regardless to what his/her job actually is. In the Army, a Private First Class is the "rank" of a soldier in the paygrade of E-3. One addresses him/her as "Private First Class," regardless if his/her job is a plumber or an Air Traffic Control Specialist.
The Navy doesn't have "rank." The term is "rate." The rate of an enlisted sailor can be determined by their rating badge, which is a combination of rate (pay grade, as indicated by stripes for E1-E3, chevrons for E4-E6, and an arch connecting the upper chevron for the eagle to perch upon for E-7, and the addition of one star for E-8 or two star for E-9 – the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy has three stars) and rating (occupational specialty, as indicated by the symbol just above the stripes or chevrons) on the left sleeve of most uniforms (utility uniforms have only rate indicated).
For example, the "rate" of an E-6 in the Navy (i.e., what one calls him/her) depends on person's job.
A person with the rate (job) of Sonar Technician, Surface (STG) in the Navy, in the paygrade of E-6 would be an "STG1," or "Sonar Technician First Class". An E-5 with the rate (job) of Culinary Specialist (CS), would have the rate of CS2, or "Culinary Specialist Second Class." However, things reverse in E-7 through E-9 paygrades – there the individual is identified first by their rate, then rating (job) – for example, a Boatswain’s Mate in the paygrade of E-7 would be a “Chief Boatswain’s Mate.
Sailors in pay grades E-1 through E-3 are generally addressed as “Seaman” (last name), E-4 through E-6 can be addressed as "Petty Officer (name)". Chief Petty Officers are always referred to as "Chief", "Senior Chief", or "Master Chief" as appropriate. As example: "Chief Jones" or in subsequent references, just "Chief".
That can make an article about Navy enlisted promotions very confusing. Fortunately, there are accepted designations for all Navy enlisted personnel, which -- while not "technically correct" -- can be used to denote specific paygrades without too much confusion. Those terms that will be used for the purpose of this article are based on the three groupings that the Navy uses:
General - considered apprenticeships, indicating eligibility for entry into various ratings. Though “Seaman” is used in the example, others are “Fireman” (FN) and “Airman” (AN).
• E-1 - Seaman Recruit (SR)
• E-2 - Seaman Apprentice (SA)
• E-3 - Seaman (SN)
Petty Officer – the technicians and work managers within the ratings who provide the hands-on skills required to maintain, repair and operate the equipment associated with their rating
• E-4 - Petty Officer Third Class (PO3)
• E-5 - Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)
• E-6 - Petty Officer First Class (PO1)
Chief Petty Officer – the supervisory, expert, and higher level technical and managerial expertise for the Navy
• E-7 - Chief Petty Officer (CPO)
• E-8 - Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)
• E-9 - Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)
As with the other services, Congress tells the Navy how many enlisted personnel can be on active duty at any specific point in time, and the maximum percentages that can be serving in the paygrades above the grades of E-4. However, like the Marine Corps, the Navy has established their own limitation on the number of E-4s that can serve, so that paygrade is part of the "competitive" process.
The Navy takes the number of "billets" they have for each enlisted rank, above the rank of E-3, and allocates them to the different ratings (enlisted jobs). In other words, the Storekeeper (SK) rating may be allowed to have 5,000 E-4s at any point in time and 2,000 E-5s, and Hospital Corpsman (HM) rating may be authorized 7,000 E-4s, and 5,000 E-5s (as a general rule, the higher the paygrade, the fewer positions there are, within a specific rating).
In order to promote someone (above the rank of E-3), there must be a "vacancy." For example, if an E-9 retires in a certain rating, that means that one E-8 can be promoted to E-9, and that opens an E-8 slot, so one E-7 can be promoted to E-8, and so-forth. If 200 E-5s get out of the Navy in a particular rating, then 200 E-4s can be promoted to E-5.
As of September 2012, the Navy had 261,130 enlisted members on active duty. Here's how it breaks down, by enlisted rank (percentages rounded and may not equal 100%):
• Seaman Recruit (E-1) - 12,021 (3.8%)
• Seaman Apprentice (E-2) - 14,534 (4.6%)
• Seaman (E-3) - 44,601 (14.2%)
• Petty Officer Third Class (E-4) - 59,669 (19.0%)
• Petty Officer Second Class (E-5) - 57,864 (18.4%)
• Petty Officer First Class (E-6) - 43,991 (14.0%)
• Chief Petty Officer (E-7) - 20,202 (6.4%)
• Senior Chief Petty Officer (E-8) - 5,825 (1.9%)
• Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9) - 2,418 (0.8%)
[Source: DMDC Active Duty Military Personnel Master File (September 2012)]
Like the other services, the Navy has programs that will grant advanced paygrade (up to E-3) when joining up, for certain accomplishments, such as college credits, or participation in JROTC. Additionally, the Navy will give accelerated advancement (up to E-4) to recruits who enlist in certain enlistment programs, such as the Nuclear Field Program.
For a quick overview of the Navy Enlisted Promotion Requirements, see our Navy Enlisted Promotion Chart.