Military Question: Commissioned vs. Enlisted

I work as a civilian on an Air Force Base. I have also had several family members in the Navy dating back to WWII. I’m plenty familiar with some of the most arcane military concepts. But I do have a few questions about military organization that elude me:

  1. What is the essence of a commission? What does it really mean to have a commission from the President? Enlisted folk and officers both volunteer to serve their country (ignoring the draft, of course). What is the difference in the nature of this service when one has a commission, versus not having one? I understand that responsibilities are different, and many other protocol-related things vary among the ranks. But what I don’t understand is what a commission really is, and what it really means.

  2. The AF doesn’t have them, but the other services have Warrant Officers. How does a warrant differ from a commission?

  3. The vast majority of commissioned officers have college degrees. It’s almost a requirement. However, almost 6% of officers do not have degrees. And about 3% of enlisted personnel have a degree. ( So it’s obvious that having one doesn’t mean having the other. How do people who don’t hold degrees earn commissions? And, in that case, what are the requirements for getting commissioned?

Well (this info pertains to the Canadian military, but a lot of it carries over to the US).

Way back in the day, a commission had to be purchased (hence the name). Those with wealth would purchase officer status, I assume for a variety of reasons which (I’m guessing) might include:

  • getting to boss other people around
  • being less likely to get blown to a smitherenes (officers were considered more valuable, and so would tend to hang back while the enlisted men rushed the enemy opening themselves to a hulluva lot more firepower)

Nowadays, a commission is earned in a few ways.

My father earned his commission by being “Best New Recruit” in his Basic Training. At the time he didn’t have a high-school diploma, let alone a university degree. However, due to his high performance he was offered oficer training which he accepted.

By completing a university degree. Generally people will be offered oficer training when they graduate (sometimes an associate degree is OK too). They can choose to accept the training or not. Depending on thier speciality, officer training may not be for them - it typically involves a lot more administration, which many people hate.

By working their way up. This is the most difficult and takes the longest time.

A couple of points to keep in mind. In Canada, all oficers have to have scored at a minimum level on an intellegence test (that is, they have to have a certain score to qualify - not that it has to be the minimum score. :))

A Warrant Officer is in charge of the troops - they serve a much more managerial function than other officers. I’m not sure why they are not commissioned, but they’re not.

Hope that helps a little.

The Navy’s Chief Warrant Officers are commissioned as such and are thus Commissioned Officers.

Actually it helps a lot. Thanks! Knowing a little about the history (which I assume is similar in most countries) makes the distinction make more sense.

Any other inputs are still hepful, however!

oooh-rah! A question in GD that I can answer!

1)An officers commission is an order from the President of the United States to hold rank and authority in an office. This includes special trust and confidence which is a priveledge given to you which trusts that you will always do the right thing and have integrity beyond reproach. If that special trust is broken, your commission will be revoked and you’ll be booted out. Also, after their initial obligation, an officer can resign their commission at any time and quit just like a civilian would.

An officer has a lot bigger responsibilities and are responsible for everything their unit does or does not do. The buck stops with the officer and has to make decisions and suffer with the consequences.

2)Warrant Officers sit in the middle ground between enlisted and officers. They are senior technical experts and are VERY good at their job. In the US Army, they serve as helicopter pilots.

3)Requirements for being an officer are have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college, meet mental, moral, and physical standards, and be a US citizen. Those are the requirements right now, those individuals might have been grandfathered in on a different set of criteria for commissioning.

Warrant officers in Comonwealth armies (canada, AUstralia, UK) are not the same thing as warrant officers in the US army.

In commonwealth armies warrant officer is simply the next rank above sergent ( or staff sergent) in the non commisioned chain. so EG in canada it would go private - coporal - master coporal - sergent - warant officer.

In the US army it goes into different permutations of “sergent”, so sergent e5 goes to staff sergent, to sergetn first class, master sergent, sergent major, etc.

I’m not exactly sure what the requirements for warrant officers are in the US army, I do know that the vast majority of helicopter pilots are warant officers and not commisioned officers, and the same goes for the Marines. I think the term means someone who is not an officer per se but has special technical training ( i.e. flying helicopters) that makes them a different chain in certain situations. E.G on board a helicopter, it would make sense for the pilot to have the most authority, so there will be no argueing and rank pulling if there was, say, an infantry officer riding in the back. For the same reason, Millitary doctors are always officers( in canada usually major or Lt. Colonel), because 1) they have a degree and 2 ) Their medical authority also bears rank, so they have authority to override, say, an infantry captain who REALLY wants pte bollogins to go back into battle with a broken leg.

Cite needed for this. For a counterexample, consider the Royal Navy - officers were certainly not encouraged to “hang back” (cf. Byng).

Also: In the US Military, the Warrant Officers originally were appointed by a “warrant” from the service secretary (War/Navy, later Army/Navy) as opposed to the President, to fill specific technical-specialty billets. As Monty indicates, for decades now all those in the Navy and almost all in the Army, have presidential commissions. The Army grade of Warrant Officer 1 (which the Navy has not used in ages) still is appointed by warrant at the entry level (I’m not sure about the Marine WO1; Monty?).

In Canada and most of the rest of the Brit Commonwealth, a “Warrant Officer” is a high-ranking NonCom, holding the role that in the US is held by the upper Sergeant/Chief grades – the senior hands-on troop managers and assistants to the junior officers.

kawaiitentaclebeast, there are two kinds of authority: general and positional. Positional authority is when a specific job you have gives you responsibility over members with a sometimes higher rank. Because of your job, you should be the most knowledgeable, so you’re in charge.

It’s not always who has the highest rank in charge, but who is tasked to that particular job. It matches up most of the time, but there are exceptions. Lance Corporals will be instructing a number of my field classes and even though I’ll outrank them, they’re in charge of the class. That helicopter pilot has command of the aircraft because of his job as a pilot, not because of his rank of Captain.

The United States Army has Warrant Officers in other fields besides helicopter pilots.

There are three (possibly four) ways to become an officer in the United States Armed Forces:

  1. Graduate and receive one’s commission from one of the three armed service academies (USAFA, USNA, West Point). The USNA also commissions Marines. It is possible to “cross-commission” from these academies; I know a captain in the Air Force who attended USNA in Annapolis.

  2. Attend Officer Candidate School / Officer Training School. This is a service-dependent training academy that accepts civilians and enlisted men. A college degree is a prerequisite for attendance. Upon graduation, one is commissioned into the appropriate service.

  3. Graduate from a civilian institution and its associated Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. I got my commission from the Air Force ROTC program at U. Maryland (College Park) but my degree was from Johns Hopkins. This involved a lot of commuting, but suited my academic goals the best.

  4. Field commission in wartime. Very rare.

I’ve left out the three other “uniformed services”: NOAA, National Health Services (watch “Outbreak” again), and the U.S. Coast Guard (which falls under the Dept. of Transportation because of their close affiliation with maritime commerce).


The likelihood of being “blown to smithereens” is entirely dependent on the service and time period one served in.

In the U.S. Air Force, the only personnel involved in combat are pilots (officers), navigators (officers), USAF Special Forces (mixed ranks), and possibly the crews of AWACS and other combat-related “slow-movers” (officer-heavy mixed bag). Compare, for example, the officer-to-enlisted ratio of any other service’s Medal of Honor recipients to the Air Force’s, and you’ll see right away that in the USAF, certain types of officer are much more likely to be killed than any enlisted person.

In the Army and Marine Corps (not surprisingly), it’s the infantry and riflemen who take the brunt of the enemy’s beatings. Because it takes thirty or forty enlisted men to keep a lieutenant from getting killed–or, from the officers’ perspective, one lieutenant can only handle thirty or forty enlisted men–it’s generally accepted that the enlisted men will probably get killed before the officers in combat.

“Band of Brothers” (now available on DVD via Netflix, Blockbuster, or wherever you rent or buy) is an excellent look at life in a small unit during WWII, and once you realize who the officers are and who the enlisted men are–and what those relationships mean–the series is much more poignant. It also serves as an excellent primer for ranks, since you see a character start out as a brand new 2d lieutenant (lowest officer rank) and progress up through major (O-4, two steps below colonel, three below brigadier general). You also get to see how each of those officer ranks relates to the enlisted men.

Other good movies that highlight the difference include “Good Morning Vietnam” (keep your eyes open for the obnoxious lieutenant!) and “Aliens” (Ripley is a lieutenant in the “fleet”, but the Space Marines are largely enlisted. When their lieutenant is taken hors de combat, she becomes the ranking officer, despite her reluctance). And of course, if you like reading good military history, “The Killer Angels” (on which the movie “Gettysburg” was based) and “Starship Troopers” (the title of which was attached to an almost-unrelated film) also detail the difference.


Thanks for the clarification, I see what you mean. But I thought the decision to make doctors and pilots officers ( in the 19th century or whatever when this stuff was hammered out into convention) at least had a LITTLE to do with their authority in their respective fields? So as to make the positional authority thing a little less ambiguos, at least in formal terms?

kawaiitentaclebeast (what’s that, a “Plush Cthulhu”?): Partly (specially for the pilots, being “in command”), but also, for the degreed professionals such as MD’s, lawyers, etc., because a certain social parallel was required (read: pay, privileges, and the status of “gentlemen”) when attaching them to the service or else they would not join. Go back to pre-Civil War time and you’ll find “Surgeon” or “Chaplain” as a rank title in and of itself, considered an officer but separate from the Lt-to-General chain. As the services became larger and more complex, these professional specialties first acquired “relative rank”, to differentiate within themselves, and eventually got integrated into the commissioned scale (most often as a separate “corps” from the line officers running combat operations)

The other WO-heavy field in the Army is the CID (criminal investigations) Special Agents. There you see something of what is the difference in the classes: MP enlistees are beat cops; MP commissioned officers are on a career track to become provost marshals and Pentagon staff to policymakers on how the MP corps will run, so eventually they’ll be doing more “police chief”-type personnel/budget management and “command politics” than actual police work; while CID WOs are able to focus specifically and intensely on Special Agent-ish work (intelligence, undercover, CSI/forensics, protective services) through their entire career.

The US Coast Guard is one of the 5 armed services, and has been around in that capacity since 1790. It has its own service academy for officers at New London, CT. (There are 4 armed service academies) It is no longer in the DOT, it is now Dept Homeland Security.


(Bolding mine)
U S Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point NY)

Many years ago I attended a USMMA “info session,” and the word then was that a graduate had a choice of being commissioned an ensign or receiving a 2nd mate’s ticket. Seems that things have changed slightly since then, but it’s still a path to commissioned officer status.

Well, alice I have to dispute this. A platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant, of infantry is one of the more dangerous jobs in a war. A platoon leader who has the habit of “hanging back” is exposed not only to enemy fire, but, if the habit is continued, to the fire of his own platoon.

In a fighter squadron in the Air Force, all of those who are actually exposed to enemy action are commissioned officers. The enlisted personnel stay back at the base.

In the plane I was in in WWII, there were three officers, pilot, copilot and bombardier (four if there was also a navigator along) and three enlisted gunners. When the plane got hit, the whole plane went down and not just that part containing the enlisted.

This is inaccurate. USMC helicopter pilots are never warrant officers. They are always regularly commissioned officers. (There may be an odd case or two out there, but probably not.)

Navy and Air Force helo pilots are also typically regularly commissioned officers.

Now I will do some speculating of my own. I believe that commissions were bought back in the day because militaries were all about conquest – a successful military officer got to keep a fair amount of what his unit took. Therefore commissions could be very valuable investments in the right hands.

There’s also the US Coast Guard Academy, Jurph. Also, two Uniformed Services which are composed only of Commissioned Officers are the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service and the Commissioned Corps of the NOAA.

I would love to see some statistics showing that the vast majority of US Army helicopter pilots are Warrants.

Originally, in England, a (usually) noble (always) wealthy individual was given a royal commission to provide troops to the king. This meant that he went out and recruited men, provided arms, uniforms, and training, and was paid a set sum per man, from which he recouped costs and paid the soldiers*, and served as colonel of the resulting regiment (many of the older British regiments have their earliest titles as Col. So-and-so’s Regt.). The colonel, and certain specified officers under him, held the king’s commission(s) to raise and command the regiment, and came to be known as commissioned officers.

(* Often supplemented by the colonel out of his own pocket to provide fancier uniforms, regimental band, and other amenities.)

Other officers (corporals and sergeants) were appointed directly by the regimental colonel from the enlisted ranks, and came to be known as non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to differentiate them from the higher-ranked commissioned officers.

Warrant officers were originally technical specialists, such as artillerymen or doctors, who were people who handled important matters which couldn’t be done by commissioned officers for various reasons (usually snobbery - cannons were low class things that a real gentleman didn’t dirty his hands with). This was handled by giving them a warrant from the appropriate technical office authorising them to act as gunners, surgeons, etc. They came to be known as warrant officers. Generally, their authority was specifically limited to their technical area, so that a warrant gunner could command artillerymen, but was outside the normal command structure and therefore had no authority over the lowliest infantry private.

The military is very conservative in some things, so as the original organizations adapted to changes over time (and to the different evolutionary path followed by the American army), the actual legal source of authority and roles played by various ranks changed again and again, but the rank titles remained much the same. Warrant officers in both British/Commonwealth and US armies are presently an intermediate rank filling a gap between the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, although the US seems to see these as junior commissioned officers while the British/Commonwealth sees them as senior NCOs.

As an aside, this system persisted well into the 1800s for the Royal Navy. While Royal Navy commissioned officers were appointed by the Admiralty (the king signed the commission, but the Admiralty provided the names of qualified people to receive the commissins), all the technical stuff was taken care of by warrant officers appointed by various technical boards. Surgeons held warrants from the Sick and Hurt Board; masters (responsible for ship handling and navigation), bosuns (responsible for deck operations and sail handling), and carpenters held warrants from the Navy Board; pursers (responsible for food, clothing, and similar supplies) held warrants from the Victualling Board; and gunners (reponsible for gun maintenance, the powder magazines, etc.) held warrants from the Ordnance Board. See The Admiralty for more info on this. When steam engines were introduced, engineers were originally appointed as warrant officers.

For reference, we’ve had a couple of recent relevant threads:

What is the role of a Warrant Officer in the modern military?

Officer Candidate School: How does it Differ from Regular boot camp?