Written by Shaun Hall
Between Enlisted and regular Officers sits a strange thing called a “Warrant Officer.” Warrant Officers get saluted and are called “sir,” but they have their own pay grades and do not receive their rank by commission . . . unless they’re “Commissioned Warrant Officers.” Shaun Hall breaks it all down below.
What Military Officer is not commissioned and, yet, also not non-commissioned?
If you’re like me, you just tilted your head, “Huh?”
To become a Military Officer, you normally have to be awarded a commission, literally, a document from the Head of State (King, Queen, President) certifying that you have the powers and responsibilties to execute official duties in the Armed Forces. Gaining a commission involves rigorous schooling at a military academy, such as West Point or the Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School (OCS), or in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). There are also such things as Battlefield Commissions.
In the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force, officers usually begin life as Second Lieutenants. In the Navy and Coast Guard, officers’ ranks start at Ensigns. The pay grade of these junior commissioned officers is O-1.
Then, there are military leadership positions acquired without a commission. Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) are promoted through the ranks to become various kinds of Corporals and Sergeants or, in the Navy and Coast Guard, Petty Officers. These non-commissioned leadership positions begin at pay grade E-4 (except Air Force, where they begin at E-5).
Then there is the Warrant Officer. They are considered neither commissioned, nor non-commissioned officers. Rather, they’ve gained their leadership responsibilities by warrant.
Warrant Officers have existed in some form or another for centuries. The Warrant Officer Historical Foundation says Napoleon rused Warrant Officers to communicate between his commissioned officers to the rank-in-file soldiers. In the United States, the Warrant Officer rank was created by Congress for the Army during World War I in 1918.
Warrant Officers (WOs) tend to arise from enlisted ranks by virtue of a specific skill, such as piloting aircraft, managing Human Resources, or overseeing cyber security. They outrank NCOs but remain below commissioned officer grade. They’re not quite considered officers, but they do hold officer-level power and are saluted as such.
In the United States, WOs can only be found in all branches of service, except the Air Force and Space Force. The Air Force eliminated Warrant Officers in 1959 when it created the Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant ranks to replace them.
Warrant Officers have their own pay grade that begins at W-1 and ends at W-5 (except the Coast Guard, where grades run from W-2 to W-4).
To become a Warrant Officer, you have to attend the five-week Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS) run by the Army out of Fort Rucker, Alabama (Special Forces Warrant Officer Candidates attend Special Forces Warrant Officer Technical and Tactical Certification Course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Upon completing WOCS, graduates receive their warrants from their branch’s respective Secretary and are then attached to a unit.
Moving from W-1 to W-2 and above involves receiving a commission. Technically, the “promotion warrant” is a document denoting the full authority of a commission.
In the Army, where WOs make up less than three percent of personnel, their responsibilities include training, organizing and advising on missions, and offering their expertise in more than 40 technical areas including intelligence, aviation and maintenance.
The Navy and Marine Corps structures are similar to the Army, but with different terminology (because, you know, Navy). In the Navy, any enlisted Navy Chief Petty Officer or above can become a Warrant Officer after completing 12 years of ervice and other requirements. They are ranked above all Enlisted Chief Petty Officers and junior to all Ensigns.
Becoming a Warrant Officer means living outside of the better-known enlisted and officer ranks . . . and perhaps living with tilted head responses when you tell people your rank.