Military ranks – sci-fi

I’ve seen a fair few numbers of military sci-fi novels that do interesting things with ranks. The modern ranking system has some meat to it, in that we see certain positions going back centuries and millenia.  Others, not so much.

There’s two approaches I see: 1) Historical, based on a present day military ranking system of a particular country; 2) Non-historical, either because the author doesn’t understand military ranks or they are deliberately changing it.

Historical Ranks

The advantage of using a system based on historical systems is that there is a lot of knowledge out there available to interpret and understand the ranks. Some authors may draw from their own knowledge and experience in the military.  There are nuances for different countries, and even the different services may have ranking systems that are not strictly using the same rank names for the same ranks.

Witness, for instance, the navies of the future.  If you’re using the United States navy, you have some classifications that might not sound right applied to space navy: Seaman, for instance.

You also have rank names and titles based on hundreds of years of traditions that are in turn descended from word origins that may or may not make sense. Lieutenant, which is Leftenant in the UK, is from the French.  The position is a junior officer in the US Army and USMC, but it’s a mid-level position in the US Navy.

While I was reading the Honor Harrington series, I thought it was fascinating that David Weber carefully brought forward the ranks and roles from the current UK modern navy, and even utilized the terminology.  It was a sort of look of “what would the English navy look like in space”?

If you’re going to use historical ranks, try to understand them enough to know what they do. Which ranks typically lead which sized forces?

Don’t mix up the force compositions. If you’re talking about a fireteam, that is not the same as a squad (it’s usually a sub-element of squad), or platoon, or company, etc. Those are terms of art and they have meanings that resonate with military guys.  They may differ from nationality to nationality.

In the Warstrider series, the ranks and force composition names are Japanese, reflecting the culture of those worlds.  I’ve seen Chinese ranks used as well. The future of space isn’t always ‘MURICA!, though it feels like it most of the time in the books I read.

Making up a new rank system

I believe that if you’re going to create a new ranking system, while it’s comfortable to use historical rank names, it’s going to look like you botched your research. When you say “this guy is an optio and he’s in charge of 100 men” that makes some readers’ heads hurt. We’re thinking, “no, you mean centurio, and it’s only 88 guys.”  Make up new ranks and rank structures with non-historical names, and you avoid this problem.  We readers have all this baggage about what we think it’s supposed to be, and it bothers us, a lot, when you do something that breaks the mold of what we think that means.  A sergeant is an non-commissioned officer (which is another funny term- if you don’t have commissioned officers, can you have a NCO? Or does it want another title?) so he shouldn’t be doing officery stuff, and vice versa.

Or make it clear that you’ve departed from the wonky historical ranks. You could have private 7th class as your lowest rank, and then after that, sergeants first through fifth class, and so on. Those people who don’t know what a first sergeant is or a staff sergeant or a master sergeant aren’t going to care, as long as they can get your system and understand the inherent rank status of each character.  Higher or lower?

Force Composition – Who leads what?

One thing you should consider is the makeup of the forces each person commands. The US has been experimenting with the ideal number of people under command of a person for over sixty years, and they think it’s four person teams, typically. This doesn’t mean you’re wedded to that fact, but you should consider force composition before blithely making up numbers. This is one of those areas where it won’t ring true if you say one guy is commanding, say, 48 people with no other NCOs or officers.  That’s a platoon, by the way, and there’s usually a ton of people to make everything happen.  For instance, you may have:
Platoon leader – 2nd or 1st Lt. (48 people under)
Platoon Sergeant – Sgt. or Staff Sgt. (directly trains the 4 SLs)
4 Squad leaders – Corporals or sergeants (12 or 8 people under)
3 or 2 fireteam leaders in a squad – specialists or lance corporals or corporals

And then there’s the idea of battle-buddies, which is that you have a guy to look after you and you look after him.  The Air Force calls that a wingman. We know from Top Gun that you never, ever leave your wingman.

Even in the four man fireteam, there is rank hierarchy due to position.  Thus, the fireteam leader is carrying a rifle with a grenade launcher, his battle buddy might be the least experienced guy who gets just a rifle, and then there’s a MG guy and his battle buddy humps ammo for him.  It’s VERY clear who is next in line for command of the element, because when the guy in command is killed or wounded, the next person has to take over.

The end result of that whole mass is that each person doesn’t command more than 4 people. Wait, Pontius, you say, the Lt. commands 48 people. No, he doesn’t. He tells their NCOs what he wants to have happen and they carry it out. So he’ll talk to the plsgt or the SLs and tell them that he wants them to move to a ridgeline using bounding overwatch and then provide fire suppression on position x.  The squad leader makes decisions and issues orders to the fireteams, and they execute the orders.  The Lt. does not give orders to individual soldiers at the end of the line; he goes through intermediaries and lets them use their training to carry out the orders using their best understanding of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Higher Ranks

The higher ranks are more esoteric; at a certain point, maybe at battalion level or higher, the officers aren’t in combat, aren’t in the field, necessarily. They’re directing things, again with a low number of officers directly reporting to them so they can keep the information flow going.

Think of it like trying to play four games of Risk simultaneously.  The information flow is going to be rocky; you might be getting slammed on one board while you have a great position on another, but your attention is limited and you can only focus on one thing at a time.  The joy of computer systems is that it can sometimes prioritize things and organize things for better review, and your sci-fi universe can reflect that.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Edit-  To help you out, current US Military ranks are found here: http://www.militaryfactory.com/ranks/index.asp


Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

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4 thoughts on “Military ranks – sci-fi

  1. This is good, and I like the general advice that you should use either what is already an place or was used historically for this stuff. Making stuff up is hard. Better to use something realistic as often as possible so as not to interfere with the story-telling. When I started my current project I had invented a whole new peerage system, and concluded it was a waste of time. Much easier to just use the usual baron, duke, count, king and so on. People are already familiar with it. In this case, even if you don’t know much about military rank I feel like most of us have a pretty good feel for the relative ranks of these titles.

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  2. It makes my teeth itch if the author is interchanging things like squad and platoon. Nope. Not the same. I remember reading something where a character was a corporal, and the sergeant was treating him like he was a Lt. I couldn’t figure that one out. I went back to where the character was introduced to see if I missed something. Nope. It was exactly as I read it. That should have been vetted by a beta reader.

    I totally get the ranking system of the peerage. It’s pretty goofy, though. Duke, viscount, earl, marquis, baron, knights (all flavors) etc. How’d I do? Witness Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter on Mars series – he invented new military ranks (padwar, kadar, odwar) and titles (jeddak) for the martian world. You learn those as you go along.

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