Becoming a Military Officer

The military distinguishes between enlisted and officer careers. Enlisted personnel make up about 82 percent of the Armed Forces and carry out military operations. The remaining 18 percent are officers—military leaders who manage operations and enlisted personnel. About 8 percent of officers are warrant officers, who are technical and tactical experts in a specific area. Army aviators, for example, make up one group of warrant officers.

Commissioned Officers

Commissioned officers are the military’s managers and highest-ranking leaders. They oversee plans, direct operations, give orders, and command units. Some are doctors and lawyers. They typically have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Officers have authority over enlisted members. They have broader responsibilities and accountability. But they rely upon enlisted members’ technical skills and experience to get the job done.

Junior officers may lead platoons and command patrol boats. But a senior enlisted member is often their second in command.

Officers must get promoted at certain points to remain on active duty. This can be true for enlisted members too. But it is guaranteed for officers at a much earlier stage of their careers.  In return for officers’ greater accountability and less job security, they get higher pay and some extra benefits.

Ways to Become a Commissioned Officer

There are five paths to an officer commission:

  • Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges
  • Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
  • Officer Candidate School (OCS)
  • Direct Commission
  • Enlisted to Officer Opportunities

Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges

There are five service academies. Entrance to these schools is highly competitive. Applicants for every academy but the Coast Guard’s need a nomination from the vice president or a member of Congress.

Students attend the service academies for free. In return, they agree to spend the next several years as military officers.

Senior military colleges are civilian schools that combine higher education with military instruction. Students can become commissioned officers after graduating. But they only have to join the service if they’re received a military scholarship.

Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC)

Colleges and universities nationwide offer the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. The program pays for students’ tuition and prepares them to be military officers. In return, students commit to serving in the military afterward. Each service has its own ROTC program.

Officer Candidate School (OCS)

New four-year college graduates go to Officer Candidate School (OCS) to join as officers. Each service has its own OCS, which lasts around three to four months. Enlisted members can also apply to attend OCS and graduate as commissioned officers.

Direct Commission

Direct commission officers are professionals with advanced training who join as military officers. They are usually doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, or chaplains.

Contact a recruiter for the service branch you’re interested in to learn more about officer programs:

Enlisted to Officer Opportunities

Enlisted members in all five services can advance through the enlisted ranks and apply for Officer Candidate School to earn a commission.

The Army and the Air Force also offer non-scholarship programs that lead from enlisted to commissioned officer.

Warrant Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers

Warrant officers are officers who advance from the upper enlisted ranks. They stay in their career fields. They rank above enlisted members and below commissioned officers. A Marine Corps E5 can compete for warrant officer. In the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, you must be an E6. The Air Force doesn't have warrant officers.

Non-commissioned officers (NCO) are higher-ranking enlisted members with demonstrated leadership abilities. Most services consider enlisted members at pay grade E4 to be NCOs. In the Air Force, you are an NCO at E5. The Army has two ranks at pay grade E4 - specialist and corporal. But a corporal is an NCO while a specialist is not.

Types of Officers

The following are examples of types of officers:

Combat specialty officers plan and direct military operations, oversee combat activities, and serve as combat leaders. They may be in charge of tanks and other armored assault vehicles, artillery systems, special operations, or infantry units. This group also includes naval surface warfare and submarine warfare officers, combat pilots, and aircrews.

Engineering, science, and technical officers’ responsibilities depend on their area of expertise. They work in scientific and professional occupations, such as atmospheric scientists, meteorologists, physical scientists, biological scientists, social scientists, attorneys, and other types of scientists or professionals. For example, meteorologists in the military may study the weather to assist in planning flight paths for aircraft.

Executive, administrative, and managerial officers manage administrative functions in the Armed Forces, such as human resources management, training, personnel, information, police, or other support services. Officers who oversee military bands are included in this category.

Healthcare officers provide medical services to military personnel in order to maintain or improve their health and physical readiness. Officers such as physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and dentists examine, diagnose, and treat patients. Other healthcare officers provide therapy, rehabilitative treatment, and additional healthcare for patients:

  • Dentists treat diseases, disorders, and injuries of the mouth.
  • Nurses provide and coordinate patient care in military hospitals and clinics.
  • Optometrists treat vision problems and prescribe glasses, contact lenses, or medications.
  • Pharmacists purchase, store, and dispense drugs and medicines.
  • Physical therapists and occupational therapists plan and administer therapy to help patients adjust to injuries, regain independence, and return to work.
  • Physicians, surgeons, and physician assistants examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment to military and their families.
  • Psychologists provide mental healthcare and also may conduct research on behavior and emotions.

Human resource development officers manage recruitment, placement, and training programs in the military:

  • Personnel managers direct and oversee military personnel functions, such as job assignments, staff promotions, and career counseling.
  • Recruiting managers direct and oversee recruiting personnel and recruiting activities.
  • Training and education directors identify training needs and develop and manage educational programs.

Media and public affairs officers oversee the development, production, and presentation of information or events for the military and the public. They manage the production of videos and television and radio broadcasts that are used for training, news, and entertainment. Some plan, develop, and direct the activities of military bands. Public affairs officers respond to public inquiries about military activities and prepare news releases.

Protective service officers are responsible for the safety and protection of individuals and property on military bases and vessels. Emergency management officers plan and prepare for all types of disasters. They develop warning, evacuation, and response procedures in preparation for disasters. Law enforcement and security officers enforce all applicable laws on military bases and oversee investigations of crimes.

Support services officers manage military activities in key functional areas, such as logistics, transportation, and supply. They may oversee the transportation and distribution of materials by ground vehicles, aircraft, or ships. They also direct food service facilities and other support activities. Purchasing and contracting managers negotiate and monitor contracts for equipment, supplies, and services that the military buys from the private sector.

Transportation officers manage and perform activities related to the safe transport of military personnel and equipment by air, ground, and water. They operate and command an aircraft or a ship:

  • Navigators use radar, radio, and other navigation equipment to determine their position and plan their route of travel.
  • Pilots in the military fly various types of military airplanes and helicopters to carry troops and equipment.
  • Ships’ engineers direct engineering departments, including engine operations, maintenance, and power generation, aboard ships.



sources - , United States Bureau of Labor Statistics