Warrant officers: why?

Warrant officers (in the US military) are typically individuals who have extensive experience with some particular area of technical expertise. They occupy a position in the rank structure above enlisted ranks and below commissioned officers.

My question: why do the armed forces embrace this peculiar rank structure, as opposed to designating these individuals as senior staff NCO’s? In the Marine Corps, for example, Master Gunnery Sergeants (E-9) are considered individuals with experience in some area of expertise. Why is a different rank structure needed?

It’s probably historical momentum more than anything else.

Warrant officers originated in the British Navy, and were experts like sail makers, carpenters, people who could read and write and therefore could be trusted to run the ship stores and keep a proper accounting of things, etc. They had skills that the regular seamen did not possess, but at the same time they weren’t officers as officers at the time tended to come from nobility. So they were something in between.

The structure worked well even as technology advanced. When they started putting cannons on ships, you needed someone who was well-educated enough that he could be trusted with large amounts of gunpowder, and again, ship officers tended to be privileged by class and didn’t necessarily know the details about actually running the ship.

Now that technology has further diversified, and officers are no longer nobles (and our military is no longer British), you could make a claim that this sort of in-between position is no longer necessary, but I think you’ll find that most military forces aren’t too keen on re-doing their entire rank structure, especially if what they currently have is working.

That was the answer I was afraid I’d get, but I’m curious if anyone can try to provide a counterpoint. There may be some compelling reason that hasn’t occurred to either of us.

A warrant officer does a job that ordinarily requires an officer to do it. They’re the exception, not the rule, because they have the required specialized skills without being commissioned.

Warrant officer pay is roughly in between enlisted pay and officer pay for equivalent time in service. If you promoted all of the WOs to COs, it’d cost more. If you demoted them all to NCOs, you could make up the difference with flight pay, special duty pay, or enlistment/reenlistment bonuses, all of which already exist for enlisted troops, but WOs would also lose the title and the security of being in that pay track. In short, it may just come down to pay and retention at this point. There’s a lot of skilled AF jobs that struggle with retention because civilian pay is higher, a WO pay scale might make more sense than the convoluted incentive/bonus system they have now.

In British Commonwealth-tradition militaries, the ranks titled “Warrant Officers” are what the US would call senior NCOs (heck, in Canada everyone above Army buck sergeant is some sort or another of WO).

In 4 of the 5 services the US retained the WO category in the sense of highly technically specialized people who have the standing of an officer but are to dedicate themselves to being best at their specialty rather than to punching tickets at various support/staff/command billets on the way up to senior command. The USAF, OTOH, shortly afyer the upper NCO ranks of E8 and E9 were established, stopped creating new WOs which were a legacy from when they were part of the Army anyway.

The services seek that their core commissioned officer group be able to get moved around to do things other than the specific job for which they trained at entry once promoted to “middle management” level, in preparation for broad multifunctional responsibilities at senior command. By the time you are up for Colonel you will have commanded as many staff desks as units in your specialty. The WOs provide a group that is going to stay focused on their technical expertise all their career long.

In the military band, all our directors, conductors were always Warrant Officers.

And all they have to do is wave a stick around!

That actually makes a lot of sense. But that raises the question of why do doctors in the medical corps and lawyers in the JAG corps get commissioned as “full” officers (for lack of a better term). I understand they are not ultimately not going to get true command as other commissioned officers do, but they are certainly not NCOs.

They have university degrees, WO’s don’t have to. Higher education was the filter used to replace nobility.

Warrant officers don’t necessarily have extensive experience–with either some particular area of technical expertise or with the Army as a whole. Understanding that will help one understand why the rank of Warrant Officer exists at all, and especially why it exists within the hierarchy where it does.
A warrant officer may have extensive training in some particular area, but if you want experience–especially general military experience–you look for a higher ranking NCO. The MSG, as you mentioned, is going to have a great deal of experience as indicated by his/her rank. A WO1 warrant officer, on the other hand, likely has very little experience in the job and possibly has less than a year or two experience in the military at all.
Just to think of two specific Warrant Officer positions: CID Agent and Rotary Wing Pilot. The CID Agent may have been a SGT (E-5) with two or three years of experience as an MP before applying to be a Warrant Officer. Now he/she is a WO1 with about an additional year of training. That’s still only 3-4 years in the Army and practically zero experience in law enforcement. When you factor in the fact that two years of that time was spent doing Initial Entry Training, Warrant Officer School and CID training, that time was not spent gaining experience at the job itself. That person certainly does not have the added experience and training at the management and leadership tasks associated with being a high ranking NCO. A MSG would have years of experience as a manager and leader of personnel, not to mention formal training at those tasks. And on top of that, probably 15 years of experience doing their job.

A rotary wing pilot could have been a cook or an infantryman before applying to be a Warrant Officer. Time spent at that job does not count as experience in the field of flying helicopters. Hell, the Warrant Officer pilot may have joined right out of high school in which case that WO1/CW2 helicopter pilot doesn’t even have 2 years of experience in the Army, let alone flying helicopters. The MSG crew chief is going to be they go-to guy for problems needing the insight of someone with vast experience around the helicopters, whether its issues of training, gunnery, maintenance, personnel management, tactical or logistical employment, refueling and resupply operations, etc. That Warrant Officer flies the thing, but everything else needs an experience and knowledgeable NCO. The planning, resourcing and execution of training and real world missions is going to take experience and knowledge that a Warrant Officer simply doesn’t have.

To start, not every position or job field has Warrant Officers. Within the areas which do have them, they are often not at all equivalent to a senior NCO, nor do they have the authority and responsibility of a traditionally-commissioned officer. Therefore, a separate hierarchy is appropriate.

Word of advice, don’t let the regulars in those corps hear you say they don’t get “true” command, y’know…

Again this is a historic-legacy thing. Back in the old navies, physicians were Warrant Officers in the old sense of the word; in the XIX-century US Army, which *did not *have WOs, degreed professionals such as Physician/Surgeon could even be contract hires, given sui generis “ranks” based on their post (Chief Surgeon, Assistant Surgeon) so in war they’d be treated as officers but noncombatants.

Later on, as the US adopted the WO class to cover specialized technicians, the medical professionals and chaplains were kept with their old “social class” and first given what was called “Relative rank”, use of the same titles and insignia as the commissioned officers for the sake of making the grades uniform; and then as the organization evolved this led eventually to staff corps that are integral to the structure of the service rather than auxiliary, and regular commissions for their officers.

The Army has had a distinct JAG Corps far longer than the other services – JAG lawyers in the Navy until 1967 were Line Officers who happened to be lawyers rather than a separate staff corps. The Marines and Coast Guard, IIRC, do retain the having legal officers be Line Officers who happen to serve in the JA/Legal Division.

I once had an interesting conversation with a WO who was a helicopter pilot. My impression is that flying a helicopter requires a lot more skill than, say, flying a fighter plane. So I don’t understand why any airplane pilot is a full CO, but the helicopter pilot is of lower grade. He was black, BTW.

Controlling a helicopter on a day to day basis is definitely a skill and not to be taken likely. But flying a jet is probably relatively easy (landing is the hard part :slight_smile: ) until you get into a dog fight. Keeping it cool while you are pulling 5g’s at Mach 2 when someone is shooting at you and you are trying to turn the table on them is the hard part.

I’m looking at Mrs. L.A.'s helicopter helmet from her time in the Iraq War. She has her wings/name patches on the back of it. The cloth one says ‘CWO’, and the leather one says ‘CW2’.

IANA military pilot, but I do hold ROTORCRAFT-HELICOPTER and AIRPLANE-SINGLE ENGINE LAND ratings. I used to be asked if flying a helicopter was harder than flying an airplane. Not really. They’re different, though. An airplane will pretty much fly itself. Have you built any Guillow’s models? There ya go. Helicopters are inherently unstable, and require constant control input. Also, the hardest thing to do in a helicopter is to hover, and it’s the first thing you have to learn. But I was hovering (after a fashion) at the end of my first lesson. The necessary control inputs become automatic fairly quickly. After that, I think flying a helicopter is easier than flying an airplane. At least, it feels more free.

Helicopters and airplanes have different missions. Helicopters fly low-and-slow, and fighters fly high-and-fast. ISTM that fighters have a lot more going on. The pilot (in a single-seat fighter) has to fly the aircraft, navigate, manage the weapons systems, locate enemy aircraft, maneuver to intercept the enemy, and engage the enemy. Military helicopters have either two rated pilots (UH-60, e.g.), or a pilot and someone handling the weapons.

Personal opinion, not being a military pilot: The fighter pilot has the harder job.
ETA: Or what Si Amigo said. :wink:


The organizational difference between Army and AF is much more about headcount and legacy than anything else.

The army has lots and lots of helos. So needs lots and lots of pilots. WOs are cheaper.

As a separate matter … within the overall Army, helo (and fixed wing) piloting is a niche skill. It’s practically different than tank-driving skill or artillery-ing skill, but organizationally they’re all just different tools used to fight in different ways.

As such piloting has some extra status, but not major-league extra status in the Army.

Prior to about 1990 piloting was exactly and entirely the raison d’ etre of USAF. It wasn’t just a high status job. It wasn’t even *the *highest status job. It was the *only *high status job. Everybody (and I do mean everybody) else was what we derisively called “shoe clerks”. As in “Sells shoes at JC Penneys.”
This difference plus the accidents of history are the bulk of why Army pilots are (mostly) WOs and (so far) USAF pilots are 100% commissioned officers.
The future will be different in both services.

The fact pay is closely tied by law to rank means DoD has a very hard time paying high prices for specialized labor. Unlike the private sector. They can only go so far with various special pay for special skills gimmicks. This is going to have to change DoD wide somehow someday.

The other issue, specifically applicable to USAF, is that USAF is doing a darn good job of extending itself into being the DoD’s Space Force and Cyber Force in addition to being the longstanding Airplane Force. As that happens, USAF airplane piloting will become more like Army aircraft piloting: one combat and combat support specialty among many. I predict it’ll be another 50 years before the first USAF Chief of Staff is not a pilot. But that day is coming.

USAF is making noises now about trying to use enlisted people as UAV pilots. Right now those vehicles still need some pilot-type skill to operate. As automation advances that may change to the point that pilot-specific skills are somewhere between unnecessary and unhelpful. Which will lower the institutional barrier to handing off that job to non-pilot non-officers specialists.

The problem was that in the British armed forces, Officers came from the upper, or at least the university educated classes. In the Navy, especially, It was realised that there were skilled leaders in areas like gunnery and first aid. The warrant gave them status without actually making them officers. Bear in mind that the junior officers were midshipmen who could be as young as 12 (or as old as 30).

Right- the actual officers were commissioned, could be promoted, were in the chain of command, etc… and most importantly, were not necessarily sailors. The captain of a ship was at the time, the Captain of the Ship’s company, which put him on a roughly equal footing of an Army captain, who was captain of a company of soldiers. Over time, ships became larger and larger, so that a captain of a 74 gun 3rd rate was in charge of 500-700 men, while an infantry captain was still in charge of roughly 100 men (a company). So the naval rank of Captain moved up in the rankings relative to the original land-based rank, and it’s been there ever since. Even now, an aircraft carrier is commanded by an O-6 Captain, while an infantry company is commanded by an O-3 Captain (a Lieutenant in the Navy). At some point, the Commander/Lieutenant Commander ranks were inserted in there between Captains and Lieutenants, but originally it was more similar to the land-based scheme.

Anyway, the officers were military commanders, and nothing else, so the Royal Navy resorted to hiring warrant officers via Royal Warrants for specific technical tasks related to the successful operation of a combat ship. You had warrant officer positions for nearly every important function- Master (navigator), Surgeon, Boatswain, Gunner, Purser, etc… and a much smaller handful of commissioned Lieutenants and Midshipmen who were more concerned in general with the overall handling of the ship and crew.

This sort of follows into modern usage; many warrant officers do jobs that are technically specialized- helicopter pilots, CID agents, musical band commanders, etc…

True in the Army, where a WO1 can be “fresh off the street”.

Not even remotely close to true in the Marine Corps, who only accept high-performing NCOs who are, at the very least, well into their second enlistment, for the Warrant Officer Candidate School. Once they graduate from WOCS (which is NOT a sure thing - not everyone makes it through every time), new Marine WOs are assigned back into the career field (aviation, supply & logistics, etc.) they originally came from, in order to capitalize on their existing training, knowledge, and experience. I suspect the Navy & Coast Guard are similar to this as well, but I don’t have first-hand knowledge of those services.

Its only true in the Army for helicopter pilots as well, generally. In the case of CID, 2 years as an MP is enough to apply to CID, but CID enlisted, not warrant. You also have to have 2 years as an enlisted CID agent (minimum) before going CID warrant.

In most technical jobs, the target for a warrant accession is 6-8 years experience (more more common than less) in the job, be very good at it, and want to stay as a technical specialist instead of progressing along the higher NCO ranks, where you shift more and more to managing personnel, and less on doing a specific job. Both senior NCOs and all officers get shifted to all sorts of jobs, often times completely unrelated to their specialty training, but a CID agent is always a CID agent. They will never be assigned as a platoon sergeant for an Adjutant General unit or something.

Current warrants owe the category to historical navy jobs, but it has evolved into a self-supporting niche in the Army and Marine Corps. You could probably get the same thing done if senior NCOs had a path to technical specialization, but that isn’t the way the system has developed.