U.S. Military Careers: Navy Admiral

This is the highest rank in the Navy, requiring 20 years of service

Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mullen Speaks On The Mid East
••• Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mullen Speaks On The Mid East. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

An admiral is the top commissioned officer in the United States Navy, on par with a U.S. Army general, and is outranked only by a fleet admiral. However, there have been no fleet admirals appointed since World War II. The special designation of Admiral of the Navy, another obsolete rank, was granted only once in U.S. history to George Dewey in 1899 by an act of Congress.

Admirals wear four silver five-point stars and shoulder boards with four gold stripes to indicate their rank.

Navy Chief of Naval Operations

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.

Commissioned Officers in the U.S. Navy

Navy commissioned officers are paid according to rank based on a pay scale that runs from O-1 for the lowest-ranked 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. To be eligible for the rank of admiral, a sailor must have served at least 20 years.

Navy's Promotion System

While it's based partly on service record, the Navy's promotion system also is 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 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 that oversees huge budgets, and a lot of personnel. The position also requires negotiating and administrative skills and other executive competencies.

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,. Flag officers may even serve until age 66 at the president’s discretion.