Admirals wear four silver five-point stars and shoulder boards with four gold stripes to indicate their rank.
The Navy’s chief of naval operations (CNO), the service’s highest-ranking officer, is a four-star admiral who serves just below the secretary of the Navy. He or she is commander in chief of the armed services and is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which advises the president. Together with the secretary of the Navy, the CNO oversees combat readiness, recruitment and training, among other things. The Navy’s Vice Chief of Naval Operations also is a four-star admiral.
Naval commissioned officers are paid commensurate with their rank based on a pay scale that runs from O-1 for the lowest-ranked individuals to O-10 for the rank of admiral. Officers within the O-7 to O-10 range are considered “flag officers.” Fewer than 1 percent of career officers are promoted to flag rank, which in the Navy comprises the one-star rear admiral, the two-star rear admiral, the three-star vice admiral and the four-star admiral. Anyone eligible for the rank of admiral must have served at least 20 years.
The Navy's promotion system is based on service record strength, but is also vacancy-driven and for flag officers is a highly political process. Each year, in-service promotion planners map out the anticipated need for officers in each grade based on quotas established by Congress for each category. The selections board recommends officers to the president of the United States, who will choose from this list whenever a vacancy occurs in the appropriate rank due to another officer's promotion or retirement. The president makes a decision with input from the secretaries of the Navy and Defense Department and in consultation with the service chief of staff/commandant. The Senate must then confirm the president’s choice.
Officers recommended for promotion will have their service records thoroughly analyzed and will be vetted both professionally and for strength of character before they are deemed qualified by the selections board. Leadership abilities are crucial -- the role of a U.S. Navy admiral is not unlike that of a corporate CEO, who oversees huge budgets and a massive number of personnel, and requires negotiating and administrative skills and other executive competencies.
Per their O-10 pay range, admirals with 20 years invested earn $13,659 per month, while those with more than 38 years in service are paid $16,795 per month. Federal law limits the number of active-duty officers, and the Navy is restricted to 216 flag officers, with eight spots reserved for those with the rank of admiral.
The law also dictates that all naval flag officers retire by age 62, although this can be delayed until age 64 if the Navy secretary or defense secretary grants an extension, and flag officers may even serve until age 66 at the president’s discretion.