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U.S. Military 101
The "Basics" of the United States Military (Page 2)

Organization/Chain of Command.
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Each of the services have their own unique organization. The Army is organized in Squads, Platoons, Companies, Battalions, Brigades, Divisions, and Corps. The Air Force is organized in Flights, Squadrons, Groups, Wings, Numbered Air Forces, and Major Commands. The Marine Corps is organized in Teams, Squads, Platoons, Companies, Regiments, and Divisions. The Navy has a somewhat complicated organizational structure.

Rank/Rate. There are three general categories of rank/rate (Note: The Navy/Coast Guard calls it "rate," the other services refer to it as "rank"): Enlisted personnel, Warrant Officers, and Commissioned Officers.

Enlisted personnel. Enlisted members are the "backbone" of the military. They perform the primary jobs that need to be done. Enlisted members are "specialists." They are trained to perform specific specialties in the military. As enlisted personnel progress up the ranks (there are nine enlisted ranks), they assume more responsibility, and provide direct supervision to their subordinates.

Enlisted personnel in certain grades have special status. In the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, this status is known as "Noncommissioned Officer status, or "NCO." In the Navy and Coast Guard, such enlisted are known as "Petty Officers." In the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, enlisted personnel in the grades of E-5 through E-9 are NCOs. However, some Army E-4s are laterally promoted to "corporal," and are considered NCOs. Personnel in the grades of E-7 to E-9 are known as "Senior NCOs." In the Navy/Coast Guard, Petty Officers are those in the grades of E-4 through E-9. Those in the grades of E-7 to E-9 are known as "Chief Petty Officers."

To join the military today, and become an enlisted member, requires a high school diploma (although a very few -- less than 10 percent each year, are accepted with "alternative credentials," such as a GED). However, a majority of enlisted members on active duty today have some college. Many have associates and bachelor degrees. Some even have higher-level degrees, such as masters and doctorates.

Warrant Officers. Warrant Officers are very highly-trained specialists. This is where they differ from commissioned officers. Unlike commissioned officers, warrant officers remain in their primary specialty to provide specialized knowledge, instruction, and leadership to enlisted members and commissioned officers alike.

With few exceptions, one must be an enlisted member with several years of experience, recommended by their commander, and pass a selection board to become a warrant officer. The Air Force is the only service which does not have warrant officers. The Air Force eliminated their warrant officer positions when Congress created the grades of E-8 and E-9 in the late 60s. The other services elected to retain the warrant ranks, and shifted the emphasis from a promotion process for E-7s to a highly selective system for highly-skilled technicians. There are five separate warrant ranks. Warrant Officers outrank all enlisted members.

Warrant officers are not required to have college degrees (they are selected primarily based upon technical skills and experience), but many of them do.

Commissioned Officers. Commissioned Officers are the "top brass." Their primary function is to provide overall management and leadership in their area of responsibility. Unlike enlisted members and warrant officers, commissioned officers do not specialize as much (with certain exceptions such as pilots, doctors, nurses, and lawyers). Let's take for example, an infantry officer. An enlisted member in the Infantry Branch will have a specific infantry specialty, such as armor, or artillery. Unless that enlisted member retrains, he will remain an armor infantryman or an artillery infantryman for his career. The officer, however, is designated to the "Infantry Branch." He can start his career in charge of a rifle platoon, then move to an mechanized platoon, etc. As he moves up the ranks, he gets more and more experience in the different areas of his branch, and is responsible for commanding more and more troops. All of this has the primary purpose of (ultimately) generating an experienced officer who can command an entire infantry company, battalion, or division.

Commissioned Officers must have a minimum of a four-year bachelor's degree. As they move up the ranks, if they want to get promoted, they will have to earn a masters degree. Commissioned Officers are commissioned through specific commissioning programs, such as one of the military academies (West Point, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy), ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps, or OCS (Officer Candidate School), called OTS (Officer Training School) for the Air Force.

There are ten commissioned officer grades, ranging from the "lowly 2nd Lieutenant" (or Ensign for the Navy/Coast Guard) to the four-star general (or Admiral in the Navy/Coast Guard). Commissioned officers outrank all warrant officers and enlisted personnel.

There are also two basic "types" of commissioned officers: Line and Non-Line. A Non-line officer is a non-combat specialist which includes medical officers (doctors and nurses), lawyers, and chaplains. Non-Line officers cannot command combat troops. For example, let's assume there was an infantry unit in combat, commanded by an infantry lieutenant. A captain, who is a Military Chaplain is attached to the unit. The Captain cannot issue any commands relating to the combat operation to the lieutenant or anyone else in the unit. If the lieutenant dies, command shifts to the highest ranking warrant officer or enlisted member, not to the chaplain captain.

The following is not an exact anology, as it's not possible to accurately compare the military to a civilian company or corporation. However, it may help the layman to visualize the differences between enlisted, warrant officers, and commissioned officers.

Think of the enlisted member as the worker in a civilian company. The enlisted are the ones who hands-on perform the job. Within the "worker group," NCOs (Army, Air Force, and Marines) and Petty Officers (Navy and Coast Guard) are the foremen and line-supervisors. They perform the job, but also provide direct supervision to the other workers. Senior NCOs (Army Air Force and Marines) and Chief Petty Officers (Navy and Coast Guard) are assistant managers who came up through the ranks of the corporation. They are valuable as managers because of their many years of experience, but will never make it to the Board of Directors. Commissioned officers are the managers of the company. They have broad areas of responsibility for the management, organization, and efficiency of various departments of the corporation. Senior commissioned officers (generals and admirals) are the board of directors. Warrant Officers can be thought of as the experienced technical specialists that the company hired to perform highly-specialized functions.

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