What is the highest ranking officer in the US military likely to be in front-line combat?

I think I may have asked this before but I cannot find it. So…

I was watching the Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers” which was based on an actual early battle when the US was entering Vietnam (I know…Hollywood).

In the movie they note that losing Gibson’s character would be a disaster since he was a colonel.

Whether that is true or not (from the movie) it made me wonder; what is the highest US military rank that is likely to be on the front lines fighting today?

My uncle was a major in Vietnam and was injured in combat.

Flagships are at sea with the rest of the battle group (or whatever they’re called now). Those generally have admirals (from 1 to 4 stars) aboard.

Define combat first. No real front lines. If the Chinese unload a salvo of hypersonics on Gaum or Okinawa the general/flag officer commanding is going to be in as much danger as any Private.

Human, handheld rifle range.

Basically, someone who can expect to come under fire and not by a random bomber raid or missile strike but direct fire.

You are excluding anything above small arms and light weapons fire? No mortar, or field artillery fire? Or mines. Or attacks by close-support aircraft.

Battlefields have become a lot more spread out today than at any time in the past. Field artillery can engage targets 40km away, MLRS upto 70 KM, and things like HIMARS and ATACMS range upto 300 km, the last two are Corps level, not national level, assets.
Plus stuff like Drones and loitering munitions can attack deep behind the "front and be a persistent threat:, lots of senior Armenian senior officers and rear troops who “didn’t expect to come under fire” found themselves at the business end of a Bayraktar TB2 drone last year.


Battlefields can be urban and up close and very personal.

If you want to give a spread for up to 5 miles and/or 10 miles for mortar and artillery that would be interesting.

If you want to include a stealth drone that can fly 3,000 miles and put a missile through your bathroom window while you shower then you are missing the point of the question.

With respect, I think you are imagining a battlefield of the past. Tactical systems can do what needed strategic weapon systems to do so a generation ago. The enemy ommander is always a target, whether its worth expending effort to kill him varies depending on the battlefield.
In WW1, unless a senior officer was in the trenches he really didn’t have much to fear, outside the occasional long-range shell. In WW2, dozens of miles to the rear could be hit by tactical aircraft, Rommel was badly injured in Normandy by a Canadian Typhoon for instance.
These days? Hundreds of miles deep.
The question isn’t that there is the technical ability to engage targets at a long distance from the launch point, that’s been around since aircraft came onto the scene, The difference is that battlefield troops now also have that ability as the systems have become smaller and proliferated to lower levels units.

In WW2, if the German commanders on the ground wanted to kill Eisenhower during the Normandy campaign, they needed to contact the Luftwaffe which would send out its bombers. Today? They could use a Bayraktar TB2 drone, which could fly to London, flatten Norfolk House and return. Or MLRS, a single salvo of which can eliminate a grid sq of 1x1 km2. All launched, commanded and controlled by the directions of commanders on the ground rather than national HQ.
Again, these are weapons that are under the control of lower-level commanders and aren’t exactly limited assets.

Nope (ten years ago but recent enough, I think, for this):

Was it this one?


Perhaps the question that could have a more factual answer would have been: what is the highest ranking officer that was injured/killed in combat by country (not just the USA) and decade.
And then it depends on what you consider combat and what not. Alexander Haig, NATO Supreme Commander, was slightly injured in an attack against his armoured car:

On June 25, 1979, Haig was the target of an assassination attempt in Mons, Belgium. A land mine blew up under the bridge on which Haig’s car was traveling, narrowly missing Haig’s car and wounding three of his bodyguards in a following car. Authorities later attributed responsibility for the attack to the Red Army Faction (RAF).

He escaped almost unharmed and with some luck, but I believe they don’t come much higher ranking than that.

The question is really unclear, simply because every conflict is different. The simple idea of front line is largely obsolete. Modern conflicts often don’t have a front line. Street to street fighting in cities might be the closest, but that is a far cry from the idea of advancing lines where the prime engagement occurs when the lines of opposing sides collide. Conflicts are much more diverse in nature.

The question is more along the lines of “what is the highest ranking officer that will be allowed to be placed in danger of enemy fire during an operation.” Or perhaps the converse question is better. What is the lowest ranking officer that will be deliberately removed from an arena if clear and present danger becomes apparent? What rank of officer do you take overt action to avoid being killed over and above other ranks present? Perhaps because he really should not be there.

As noted, this isn’t trivial. I would have guessed major aka O-4. But in the navy the commanding officer of any large ship ranks captain, aka O-6. Any carrier group or the like will have higher ranks present. I doubt there is any specific plan to airlift these higher ranks away if there is a shooting match imminent, even though they are going to be present on the highest value assets in danger.

The air force is another matter. Serious rank doesn’t get to fly into conflict. The nature of conflict is vastly different.

My fault.

I used the movie We Were Soldiers as my example but I cannot suppose everyone has seen that movie.

I explicitly mean the highest ranking officer who is likely to be on the frontline, on the ground, with his troops when they are being shot at by enemy troops with small arms fire. Artillery may figure in. Air support may figure in. Naval support may figure in. But, mainly, being in range of enemy hand-held weapons and actively being shot at and shooting back as a force that means to engage the enemy.

Anecdotal, but my college buddy (MAJ, US Army) was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan a couple of years back. Wasn’t in touch with him, not sure exactly what the circumstances were. I was surprised that a major would be exposed like that, but if anybody was, it would be him.

The highest US military rank that is likely to be on the front lines in a classic infantry leg unit is a Captain. The key word in that sentence is ‘likely’. From Major on up, it becomes more unlikely the officer would be in front line combat. There are exceptions, good reasons, and just plain bad luck why a higher ranking officer would end up in the dirt.

This is an interesting discussion of what the modern tactical general looks like and it seems they are not on the front lines anymore…

I think a lot of people are unnecessarily obfuscating things - for what purpose, I’m not sure. One could readily provide some useful info by approaching it from the other end.

I have ZERO military knowledge/experience. But as I recall, in Viet Nam, it was discussed that Its led infantry companies. How does that compare to today? The forward bases were surrounded by wire and defenses, and were alert to possible infiltration at any moment. Would a Capt or Major be in such a base?

How “safe” does an area need to be before a Col or Gen is “allowed” to go there?

This, especially if we are talking about constantly in front-line combat. You will probably get general officers or flag rank officers at the front or in harm’s way in all the services from time to time, but with any large formation in the Navy, you are going to have an admiral in command and they will be there on the flagship.

This is a good one for @Bear_Nenno. But “likely” is a function of occurrence times probability.

Ten years ago, I was a Major (O-4) and occasionally rode in the trucks with my EOD Teams in Afghanistan–it was not routine. On these trips, I was exposed to the threat of small-arms fire, and IEDs (which was not covered in the OP). I was expected to be, and somewhat trained up in, small squad tactics, marksmanship (which IMHO I’m pretty good at), convoy tactics, and our normal IED remediation practices, etc. etc. I had taken fire on occasions, and know that when you’re sitting in an uparmored JERRV and getting shot at, you do not open a door–you ‘get off “the X”’.

In all reality, EOD (to include myself) was not expected to be routine, offensive ‘doorkickers,’ but we were (still are) targeted skillsets by the enemy. We needed to be able to defend ourselves should contact be made, and also to integrate seamlessly with our Army/Marine security elements.

It was also not uncommon for our Battalion Commanders in SW Afghanistan to periodically go on ‘Battlefield Circulation’ trips, to visit FOBs, other sites, etc, and they were often Lt Cols (O-5s) or an occasional Colonel (O-6).

As far as one time highest ranks? I had seen on Wikipedia that a Brigadier General (O-7) was captured in Korea, but on a search learned that Lieutenant General (O-9) Wainwright was captured on Corregidor during WWII. and later released.

Sometimes you just sit still and don’t open the doors.