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The article is organised as follows:


1.0     Introduction

“The general must know how to get his men their rations and every other kind of stores needed for war. He must have imagination to originate plans, practical sense and energy to carry them through. He must be observant, untiring, shrewd; kindly and cruel; simple and crafty; a ‘watchman and a robber; lavish and miserly; generous and stingy; rash and conservative. All these and many other qualities, natural and acquired, he must have. He should also, as a matter of course, know his tactics; for a disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house.” (Socrates in Wavell, 1941, p.14).

ca. 1940s, Europe – Generals Montgomery, Eisenhower, and Bradley.

This article provides an outline of the highest military ranks, termed senior commanders, which can be found within the various militaries of the world’s nations including, for example, General Marshal and Field Marshal.

The concept of generalship has been around in some form for approximately 2000-3000 years. In the ancient era, the tribal chief/monarch would have fulfilled the function of General of the Army, assisted by other chiefs/nobles who would have commanded other elements of the army. In this ancient era, an ‘army’ might consist of a few hundred foot soldiers (termed infantry) and a ‘general’ could lead from the front and fight alongside his warriors.

However, with technology came better weapons, better logistics (carts and horses) and better agricultural techniques (planting and storage), among others, which enabled generals to engage in warfare across the four seasons and with more men. The adoption of horses (termed cavalry) and later on cannon (termed artillery) into the structure of an army required other grades of general to command on behalf of the ‘supreme’ general.

These technological advances also enabled armies to transition from a few hundred fighting on a battlefield in one army to tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, to millions in several armies during the First and Second World Wars. For example, in 1914, the United States (US) Army comprised approximately 98,000 men, of whom some 45,000 were stationed overseas. By 1918, approximately 4,000,000 men had been drafted into the armed services, of which roughly 50% served overseas during WWI.

Thus, as armies became larger and more complex, more grades of general were created to aid the senior commander in their duties. This period of expansion also witnessed generals undertaking ‘staff officer’ duties rather than traditional leadership role as a leader of fighting men.

For those who apply to become officers and successfully complete their training, very few will be promoted to the generalship – even fewer will make it to the grade of Marshal, if at all. This article outlines the history of the various ranks and grades of general without reference to the traits, skills and knowledge required for generalship; which will be the remit of another, linked, article.

Most militaries have three or four active grades of general with the higher grade of Marshal reserved as an honorary appointment for retired officers or members of royalty.

For most nations, Marshals, and their various national (linguistic) iterations, are typically the highest ranked commissioned officers to be found in the military hierarchy. However, some nations have created an even higher level of military officer which is typically reserved to honour a specific military officer who has achieved outstanding military accomplishments or for political leaders.

The post-World War II era and the end of the Cold War, plus an economic downturn witnessed by most countries in the 2000s, has prompted finance ministries to downsize the number of personnel under arms – although most pledge to spend 2% of GDP or more on defence. Consequently, the need (or justification) for countries to promote their senior military personnel to some of the highest military ranks has diminished with a number of militaries now having one grade of general in continuous use; the higher grades remain extant but unfilled except for specific appointments.

This article will provide the reader with an outline of the various commissioned officers within the military hierarchy. Part One provides a background to the topic which looks at the various ranks and grades of commissioned officer within the military hierarchy. It will briefly outline the difference between general officers and field officers, and the three historic models of generalship. Parts Two to Eight provide an outline of each of the ranks and grades of general, starting at the lowest grade progressively moving on to the highest grade possible. Parts Two to Eight look at the history of the rank and formation the rank typically commands. Each part will also highlight some country-specific examples, service equivalents and the level of formation commanded by the ranks and grades of general (and their service equivalents). Finally, Part Nine provides a summary of the article before providing the reader with some useful publications, links, references and appendices.

1.1     Aim

The aim of this article is to outline the various grades and ranks of generalship that senior military commanders of militaries around the world can attain.

1.2     Commissioned Officers

An officer is a member of an armed force or uniformed service who holds a position of authority.

In its broadest sense, the term ‘officer’ includes commissioned officers, warrant officers (WOs) and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). However, when used without further detail, the term ‘officer’ almost always refers to commissioned officers, the more senior portion of a branch of military service who derive their authority from a commission from the head of state, or nominated representative (e.g. Governor-General), of a sovereign nation-state.

Commissioned officers generally receive training as leadership and management generalists (i.e. phase 1 initial military training), in addition to training relating to their specific military occupational specialty or function in the military (i.e. phase 2 employment training).

From a military point of view, a commission is a formal document (Commissioning Scroll or Script) authorising the holder to perform duties in the service of the State (Donald, 2011). They are granted by, or on behalf of, the sovereign and the recipient is ranked as a commissioned officer. In the United Kingdom (UK) and some other Commonwealth nations (Section 1.8), the awarding authority is the monarch (or a Governor-General representing the monarch) as head of state.

1.3     NATO Codes for Grades of Military Personnel

The aim of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Standardisation Agreement 2116 (NATO STANAG 2116) is to standardise, for the use of NATO Forces only, the NATO Codes for Grades of Military Personnel in the Army branch of military service. There are NATO codes for both commissioned officers (OF-1 to OF-10) and enlisted personnel (OR-1 to OR-9).

STANAG 2116 assigns NATO codes for each grade of commissioned officer based on the agreed corresponding Army grades as detailed in Table 1 below. The national equivalent for Naval and Air Forces is in accordance with national regulations, although they typically follow the NATO code. Table 1 outlines the common commissioned officer ranks in English.

Table 1: NATO Codes for Commissioned Officers
 Grading NATO Code Army Navy Air Force Marines
National Title


[Note 1]

Generalissimo or General of the Armies Admiralissimo, Lord High Admiral or Admiral of the Navy No Equivalent No Equivalent

[Note 2]

Field Marshal or General of the Army Admiral of the Fleet of Fleet Admiral Marshal of the Royal Air Force No Equivalent
General Officers OF-9 General Admiral Air Chief Marshal General
OF-8 Lieutenant General Vice Admiral Air Marshal Lieutenant General
OF-7 Major General Rear Admiral Air Vice-Marshal Major General


[Note 3]

Brigadier Commodore Air Commodore Brigadier
Senior or Field Officers OF-5 Colonel Captain Group Captain Colonel
OF-4 Lieutenant Colonel Commander Wing Commander Lieutenant Colonel
OF-3 Major Lieutenant Commander Squadron Leader Major
Junior or Company-grade Officers OF-2 Captain Lieutenant Flight Lieutenant Lieutenant
OF-1 Lieutenant, 2nd Lieutenant Sub-Lieutenant Flying Officer, Pilot Officer Lieutenant, 2nd Lieutenant


  1. Commissioned officers at the OF-11 grade use a national title. For example, General of the Armies in the US model. The grade of OF-11 is not officially recognised by STANAG 2116.
  2. Commissioned officers at the OF-10 grade use a national title. For example the UK, Germany and Egypt use the title ‘Field Marshal’ whereas the US uses the title ‘General of the Army’.
  3. For some countries, for example the UK, a brigadier is categorised as the highest field officer rather than the lowest general officer (Section 1.7).

1.4     Average Size of Army Operational Units

Table 2 highlights, for illustrative purpose only, the average number of personnel commanded by officers based on their rank.

Table 2: Average size of army  operational units and the ranks of their corresponding commanding officers
Formation Title Contains Number of Personnel Commanded by NATO Code
Army Group 2 or more Field Armies 200,000 or more Field Marshal OF-10
Field Army 2-5 Corps 100,000 or more General OF-9
Corps 2-7 Divisions 50,000 to 300,000 Lieutenant General OF-8
Division 2-5 Brigades 7,000 to 22,000 Major General OF-7
Brigade 2 or more Battalions or Regiments 2,000 to 8,000 Brigadier/Colonel OF-6/OF-5
Battalion or Regiment 2-5 Companies or Squadrons 400 to 1,200 Colonel/Lieutenant Colonel OF-5/OF-4
Company or Squadron 2-4 Troops or Platoons 100 to 250 Major/Captain OF-2/OF-2
Troop or Platoon 3-4 Squads or Sections 20 to 50 Captain/Lieutenant OF-2/OF-1

The exact number of personnel within any formation depends on a number of factors. For example, the nature of the operations to be undertaken, the units within the formation (e.g. infantry versus armoured versus mechanised), attrition, country-specific formation establishment and so on.

Further information on military units can be found in Appendix A.

1.5     General Officers

Within the army, General officers are a group of officers who usually command units, termed formations, larger than a regiment/battalion (or its equivalent) or they may command units consisting of more than one arm of service.

However, a general officer may be a senior staff officer rather than a commander, meaning they plan operations for a higher ranked general officer. General officers filling these positions will typically be referred to as the Chief of Staff or Principal Staff Officer.

General officers in the other services are known as:

  • Flag officers in the navy; and
  • Air officers in the air force.

Invariably, countries will have either three or four grades of general officer (Table 3). Some countries, for example the UK, categorise Brigadiers as the highest field officer (Section 1.7). In contrast, some countries, for example the US, categorise Brigadier Generals as the lowest grade of general officer (discussed further in Part Two).

Table 3: Star model for US Army officers
Grading NATO Code Stars Worn US Army Title
National Title OF-11 6 General of the Armies
OF-10 5 General of the Army
General Officer OF-9 4 General
OF-8 3 Lieutenant General
OF-7 2 Major General
OF-6 1 Brigadier General

Commissioned officers of the general officer grade are usually defined by the number of stars they ‘wear’. This is a model adopted from the US which, starting at one-star, utilises an increasing number of stars to identify an officer’s increasing rank.

Some countries, for example China, have several grades for officers at each rank:

“Officers are assigned grades along with military ranks. Each grade from military region leader down has two assigned ranks, while some ranks, such as major general, can be assigned to up to four grades. On average officers up to the rank of senior colonel are promoted in grade every three years, while they are promoted in rank approximately every four years. In the PLA, an officer’s grade is more important than his rank.” (Allen et al., 2016).

Typically, general officers will constitute a very small percentage of the overall military population, and a small percentage of the officer population. For example, using the UK Regular Forces for May 2017, officers (of all services) constituted 18.1% (26,991/149,366) of the regular forces, of which 431 were OF-6 to OF-9 (MOD, 2017). Of that 18.1%, 1.1% (303) were OF-6 level, 0.3% (94) were OF-7 level, 0.1% (26) were OF-8 level, and 0.029% (8) were OF-9 level (% rounded) (MOD, 2017).

In the US model, the number of general officers is subject to statutory caps, although some positions are exempt (Kapp, 2016). In December 2015, the US armed forces had 896 general officers but was authorised 962, with 19 exemptions (Kapp, 2016). In 2015, officers (of all services) constituted 17.54% of the total forces. OF-6 to OF-9 officers constituted 0.048% of the total force.

However, the current NATO system is not the only system of classifying general officers, as discussed below.

Further information on general officers can be found in Appendix B.

1.6     The Three Models of General Officer

There are three historic models of categorising general officers, as outlined in Table 4.

Table 4: Three models of categorising general officers
NATO Code European Model French (Revolutionary) Model Arab Model
OF-10 Field Marshal or General Field Marshal Marshal Mushir (Counsellor)
OF-9 Colonel General No Equivalent No Equivalent
OF-9 Captain General or General Army General Farīq Awwal
(First General)
OF-8 Lieutenant General Corps General Farīq (General)
OF-7 Serjeant Major General or Major General Divisional General Liwāʾ (Ensign)
OF-6 Brigadier General or Brigadier Brigade General Amīd (Colonel)
OF-5 Colonel Colonel Aqīd (Colonel)

The UK model of general officers is based on the European model (although it did not originate with the British), which is based on the arm commanded by the general officer. The Captain General or General was in overall command of the army, whilst the Lieutenant General was in charge of the cavalry, and the ‘Serjeant Major General’ in charge of the infantry. Further information on the anomaly of the Serjeant Major General can be found in Part Three. Some countries use Major General as the equivalent of Brigadier General, in which case, they may then use the rank of Colonel General to make four general officer ranks.

The French Revolutionary model is based on the late-1790s, early 1800s French model of general officers titled by the formation they would command.

The armies of Arab countries generally used traditional Arabic titles. These were formalised in their current form to replace the Turkish system that was formerly in use in the Arab world and the Turco-Egyptian ranks in Egypt.

A brief history of general officers can be found in Appendix B.

There are a variety of other titles for general officers which can be viewed in Appendix C.

1.7     Field Officers

Field officers, field-grade officers or senior officers as they are referred to in some countries, is a group of officers who usually command units at the regiment/battalion level (or its equivalent) or sub-units within the regiment/battalion (Table 5).

Table 4: Three models of categorising general officers
Grading NATO Code Stars Worn British Army Title
Field/Senior Officer OF-6 1 Brigadier
OF-5 Colonel
OF-4 Lieutenant Colonel
OF-3 Major

A field officer is an army, marine, or air force commissioned officer senior in rank to a junior/company officer (Table 1) but junior to a general officer. In most armies this corresponds to the ranks of Major, Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel (or their equivalents). Some countries also include Brigadier in the definition.

Typically, naval officers are referred to as senior officers. Air Force officers may be classed as field officers due to their army ancestry – a number of western Air Forces started life as an arm of the army.

Historically, a regiment or battalion’s field officers constituted its command element.

  • Colonel: traditionally the commanding officer (CO) of a regiment or brigade.
  • Lieutenant Colonel: traditionally the colonel’s assistant, but in modern armies a Lieutenant Colonel will generally be the CO of a battalion, usually one of several within a regiment.
  • Major: In modern armies a Major will generally be the officer commanding (OC) of a company or squadron, usually one of several within a battalion or regiment respectively.

Further information on field officers can be found in Appendix D.
Further information regarding staff officers can be found here.

1.8     Commonwealth of Nations

The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of fifty two (52) independent and sovereign states, with most being former British colonies or dependencies of those colonies. Consequently, a number of these nations’ military rank systems (especially commissioned officers) are based on, or closely aligned to, the UK model of ranking for commissioned officers.

For example, commissioned officers from the rank of Second Lieutenant (Army), Sub-Lieutenant (Navy) or Pilot Officer (Air Force) to the rank of General, Admiral or Air Chief Marshal respectively, are holders of a commission granted to them by the appropriate awarding authority (Section 1.2).

The UK model is derived from what is termed the ‘European Model’, one of three historic models (Section 1.6).

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