When considering enlisting in the military, it's important to understand how the rank structure and pay grades are related. Pay grades are the same throughout each branch of service, with pay increasing in each grade. There are nine enlisted pay grades in the military, starting with E-1 and progressing up through E-9.
Ranks are tied to a pay grade and can be labeled differently depending on the military branch. Each time you're promoted, you receive a change in pay grade, rank, and pay. A typical enlisted member's career path will take 18-20 years to achieve the highest rank and pay grade.
The following paragraphs cover the pay grade and ranks, starting with the entry-level personnel. Service members in the first pay grade are usually either in training or right out of their training schools.
Enlisted Pay Grades E-1/E-2/E-3
- Air Force: Airman Basic [No insignia]
- Army: Private [No insignia]
- USMC: Private [No insignia]
- *USN/USCG: Seaman Recruit (SR) [No insignia]
- Air Force: Airman (AMN)
- Army: Private E-2 (PV2)
- USMC: Private First Class (PFC)
- *USN/USCG: Seaman Apprentice (SA)
- Air Force: Airman First Class (A1C)
- Army: Private First Class (PFC)
- USMC: Lance Corporal (LCpl)
- *USN/USCG: Seaman (SN)
Enlisted Pay Grades E-4/E-5/E-6
There is a significant increase in leadership responsibility in the mid-level enlisted ranks (E-4 through E-6). At this point, there is formal recognition given of the increase in responsibility with the use of the titles "Non-Commissioned Officer" (NCO) and "Petty Officer."
For rank and precedence within the Army, specialist ranks immediately below corporal. Among the services, however, rank and precedence are determined by pay grade.
An Air Force staff sergeant, an Army sergeant, and a Marine corporal are considered NCO ranks. The Navy and Coast Guard NCO use the rank of Petty Officer Third-Class as their first NCO rank.
- Air Force: Senior Airman (SrA)
- Army: Corporal (CPL)
- Army: Specialist (SPC)
- USMC: Corporal (CPL)
- *USN/USCG: Petty Officer Third Class (PO3)
- Air Force: Staff Sergeant (SSG)
- Army: Sergeant (SGT)
- USMC: Sergeant (SGT)
- *USN/USCG: Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)
- Air Force: Technical Staff Sergeant (TSgt)
- Army: Staff Sergeant (SSG)
- USMC: Staff Sergeant (SSG)
- *USN/USCG: Petty Officer First Class (PO1)
For both the Navy and the Coast Guard, the sleeve insignia chevrons are red (navy blue for summer uniform). However, if the petty officer has reached/obtained 12 years of continuous good conduct in the Navy, the petty officer must wear gold chevrons. If the petty officer loses eligibility for future good behavior, they revert to red chevrons.
Enlisted Pay Grades E-7/E-8/E-9
- Air Force: Master Sergeant (MSgt)
- Air Force: First Sergeant
- Army: First Sergeant
- Army: Sergeant First Class (SFC)
- USMC: Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt)
- USN/USCG: Chief Petty Officer (CPO)
- Air Force: Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)
- Air Force: First Sergeant
- Army: Master Sergeant (MSG)
- Army: First Sergeant (1SG)
- USMC: Master Sergeant (MSgt)
- USMC: First Sergeant (1st Sgt)
- USN/USCG: Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)
- Air Force: Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)
- Air Force: First Sergeant
- Air Force: Command Chief Master Sergeant
- Army: Sergeant Major
- Army: Command Sergeant Major
- USMC: Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt)
- USMC: Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)
- USN/USCG: Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)
- USN/USCG: Fleet/Command Master Chief Petty Officer
In the top-level enlisted ranks, there is an even more significant increase in leadership responsibility. As a whole, ranks E-8 and E-9 have between 15 and 30 years on the job and are usually the commanders' senior advisers for enlisted matters.
Some of the rank insignia become dependent upon the job: At the E-7 level, the Air Force has two positions at the same pay grade, which is reflected in the difference in the two insignia. For example, whether one is a master sergeant or a first sergeant in the Air Force depends on their job.
At the E-8 level, the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps have two positions at the same pay grade with differing rank insignia that depend upon their job as well.
Additional Top Enlisted Positions
At the E-9 level, things get even more interesting. At a "primary" level, all branches have split positions (and different insignia) that depend upon the job. But there's one more level to the E-9 pay grade: that of the senior enlisted person in each service.
- Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force
- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard
- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy
- Sergeant Major of the Army
- Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps
These individuals are the spokespersons of the enlisted force at the highest levels of their services.
Navy and Coast Guard Rates
The asterisk (*) denotes Navy and Coast Guard rank insignia—a specialty mark in the center of a rating badge, between the eagle and the chevron(s), indicates the wearer's particular rating. USN and USCG use the term "rating" to describe the sailor's occupation in the service.
For example, a Navy E-2 Hospitalman Apprentice has a rating of HA. If the sailor's last name were Smith, they would then be referred to as HA Smith. A Petty Officer Third-Class with a Hospitalman occupation has a rating of HM3.
Regardless of service, you will be required to learn the ranks of all the branches of service upon entering. The military is a joint operations world, especially in combat zones. Knowing all the ranks and insignia is not just something people do out of courtesy, but rather because their boss may be from a separate service branch.