A noncommissioned officer (henceforth "NCO"), called or translated as "sub-officers" in some armed forces of the world, are the backbone of any organized military force, and NCO-alikes are found in almost every armed force, regular or irregular, throughout human history.

NCOs are typically senior enlisted personnel, inferior in the chain of command to all commissioned officers, but holding specific legal authority above and beyond that of regular enlisted personnel, often including the authority to dispense and authorize nonjudicial punishment and administrative action.

In the coarsest of terms, and in the general case, NCOs are responsible for enforcing and directing the completion of orders given by commissioned officers. On a daily basis, this generally means they act as supervisors, trainers, and bureaucrats. Commissioned officers very often fill these same roles, but the major difference - the commission itself - is an important legal distinction and is in fact set forth in both public and military law in the United States as well as many other countries.

In the United States armed forces, a military officer receives his commission by legal authority of the President, who is Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Officers are therefore empowered to give legal orders, which must be followed by subordinates, whereas NCOs may not give orders - they may only enforce them.

For example, a Captain in the United States Army - a junior commissioned officer - may order that the barracks be cleaned. He would likely not wish to order thirty individual troops to perform individual tasks. It would then, in this example, fall onto an NCO to execute that order. This is called a delegation of authority.

The NCO would be in charge of organizing and directing troops in specific tasks, perhaps by giving specific instructions to individuals. He or she might tell a group of soldiers, "You go clean the latrine," and another "You sweep and mop," and another "You buff the floors", etcetera.

He or she could also possibly delegate authority further - a Staff Sergeant may put one Corporal in charge of the latrines, another in charge of the sleeping bays, and another in charge of the equipment room. Those Corporals would then gather other lower enlisted and direct them in specific tasks, ensuring completion of the sub-tasks before reporting back to the Staff Sergeant, who would in turn report to the originating Captain.

The example of barracks cleaning is, obviously, very simple - the web of authority in actual organizations is very often dictated by the commanders of the organization, and supersets of specific policies. In theory, any commissioned officer can give orders to any NCO or lower enlisted person - in practice, it is seldom the case that an officer would issue direct orders outside his or her chain of command.

The same is true of non-commissioned officers, and their involvement with troops outside their chain of command. As their legal authority is in most cases derived from that of commissioned officers in their chain of command, they typically have little so-called "real authority", however the military tradition of most forces vests them with the power and responsibility to police order and discipline anywhere in the ranks, regardless of unit or command.


Pay grade E4 through E5. Corporals through Sergeants is the standard (it can be different in the Coast Guard or Air Force.) It only applies to enlisted military personnel not officers. Officers have a different ranking structure (example: O4 through O5) and have gone to college or some form of higher education.

Naval academies and the like count.

Most of the time they were in ROTC. Unless they are a Warrant Officer, in which case, they started out enlisted then switched over to Commissioned Officer, usually sacrificing some pay

NCOs are usually put in charge of squads or fireteams but not entire platoons as that is up to the Staff NCOs. They're in charge of Field Days but still have to clean. They can lead a run but not get out of one. They have to go on every patrol but they get to decide when to rest. A good example of someone who has responsibility but very little authority.

In the USMC, NCOs rate a blood stripe and a sword.

Army - United States

Pay grade E5 through E-9.

Corporal is a lateral promotion from the lower enlisted rank of Specialist(SPC). First Sergeant is a lateral promotion from Master Sergeant, usually placing them in charge of operations in a company, under the Commander. In the words of my 1SG at Fort Leonard Wood, "He's the Commander. I'm the First Sergeant. He commands, I run this mother fucker!" Command Sergeant Major is a lateral promotion from Sergeant Major, as is Sergeant Major of the Army. There is only one SMA. All lateral promotions are removed when the soldier moves to a new unit.

Promotions in the Army are based on merit and promotion points. You gain promotion points for a number of things. In addition, you need to have time-in-service and time-in-grade for promotion. Once you reach E-5(SGT), you must attend the corresponding schools for promotion to the next rank. They are as follows:

The NCO Creed
No one is more professional than I. I am a Noncommissioned Officer, a leader of soldiers. As a Noncommissioned Officer, I realize that I am a member of a time honored corps, which is known as "The Backbone of the Army". I am proud of the Corps of Noncommissioned Officers and will at all times conduct myself so as to bring credit upon the Corps, the Military Service and my country regardless of the situation in which I find myself. I will not use my grade or position to attain pleasure, profit, or personal safety.

Competence is my watchword. My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind -- accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my soldiers. I will strive to remain tactically and technically proficient. I am aware of my role as a Noncommissioned Officer. I will fulfill my responsibilities inherent in that role. All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my soldiers and never leave them uninformed. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment.

Officers of my unit will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine. I will earn their respect and confidence as well as that of my soldiers. I will be loyal to those with whom I serve; seniors, peers, and subordinates alike. I will exercise initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of orders. I will not compromise my integrity, nor my moral courage. I will not forget, nor will I allow my comrades to forget that we are professionals, Noncommissioned Officers, leaders!

Some common names for NCOs:

  • Noncoms
  • NCO
  • Prick E-5's, E-6's, and so on...
  • Sarge
  • Zebras (Air Force - because of all the stripes)

If I have missed anything please tell me. When I find it I will add it to the list.

The lowest paygrade that is consistently considered a noncommissioned officer in the United States military is E-5. This is because of differences in who is, and is not, considered an NCO in each of the five branches.

In the Navy and the Coast Guard, all personnel in grades E-4 through E-9 are noncommissioned officers, but both services divide this into two tiers. First are the petty officers, in grades E-4 through E-6, and above this are the chief petty officers, or just chiefs, in grades E-7 through E-9. Warrant officers are commissioned, and are in virtually all respects treated like other commissioned officers save that all of them were once NCOs. Some regular officers were, as well, but every single warrant officer was at least a CPO (E-7) before accepting their warrant and commission.

Petty officers have responsibilities that vary by unit, paygrade and technical competence. An E-4 (petty officer third class) might be a leader of a small work detail, but is most often a technician of some sort. By contrast, a first class petty officer (E-6) might be mostly in charge of a division aboard a ship, or in the Coast Guard, might act as the OIC of a boat. Because advancement in the Navy and Coast Guard is dependent on positional vacancies service-wide, not within the unit as in the Marines and Air Force, it is not uncommon for someone to be working significantly below their paygrade.

Chiefs, on the other hand, tend to have much more responsibility. Their most important role is mentoring junior Sailors and Coast Guardsmen, but they are also the people who train most of the junior commissioned officers. In a division aboard a ship, or most shore bases, there will be an officer, typically an Ensign or a Lieutenant junior grade, in charge, but below him is a chief petty officer (or sometimes a senior chief, E-8, or a master chief, E-9), who really makes most of the decisions within the division. He teaches the new, inexperienced division officer the tricks of the trade, and how to be an effective leader. Occasionally the role will be reversed, with a warrant officer or formerly-enlisted junior officer teaching a newly-selected CPO the finer points, but this is not generally the rule.

In some cases, chiefs actually fill officer positions, especially in small commands. Though they are not permitted to act as commanding officers or officers in charge, some small, special purpose units (like SEAL detachments or riverine boats) may have a CPO that runs the unit in all but name. These will generally have a junior officer who carries the symbolic title, and a chief who makes all the serious decisions.

In the Air Force, however, the NCO ranks start at E-5. A Senior Airman is not considered an NCO, a point which may cause some consternation in joint commands, where that same SrA might be serving alongside USN, USMC and USCG E-4s who are considered NCOs. Also, while Air Force E-7 through E-9 personnel generally occupy positions of greater authority and responsibility than their lower-ranked NCO teammates, the USAF does not draw a distinction between standard and staff NCOs the way the USMC, USN and USCG do.

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