Almost all militaries in the world have two types of ranks: the lower ranks, which compose most of the fighting force, and higher-ranking officers, who are usually better educated, better paid, and hold command over the lower ranks.
In Commonwealth countries, these two sets are also referred to as “Non-Commissioned” and “Commissioned”. This is because every officer in the Forces is given a “commission”, a very large and formal document, signed by the Governor General, appointing the person to serve under the Crown and giving that person permission to command lower-ranking soldiers.
Traditionally, these two rank structures in the Canadian military are subdivided in two: the lower ranks have Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), while the upper ranks have Commissioned Officers and General Officers (in the Army and Air Force) or Flag Officers (in the Navy).
Let’s look at each of these four subsections individually.
Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs):
• In most of the Army, NCMs are ranked as Private, which is subdivided into Private (Recruit), Private (Basic) and Private (Trained), which is reached after about 2.5 years of service.
A number of sections of the Army use special names instead of Private: the rank of Gunner is used in the Artillery, Trooper in the Armoured Corps, Sapper in the Engineers, Signalman in the Signal Corps and Craftsman in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. In the Infantry, Fusilier is used in the fusiliers regiments, Rifleman in the rifles regiments and Guardsman in the guards regiments.
In Canada, Private is abbreviated as Pte.; Pvt. is only correct in America.
• In the Navy, NCMs are divided into the ranks of Ordinary Seaman (the lowest rank in the Navy) and Able Seaman (which is earned after completing basic training and thirty months of service).
• Before 1968, NCMs in the Air Force held the rank of Aircraftman. They became Privates in 1968, when all the Air Force’s ranks were changes to be the same as Army ranks. Starting in 2015, the rank will be changed to Aviator.
• Before 1968, the NCO ranks in the Army were as follows:
Lance Corporal → Corporal → Sergeant → Staff Sergeant → Warrant Officer Class II→ Warrant Officer Class I.
(Between 1939 and 1945, there had also been a Warrant Officer Class III.)
During the Unification, the ranks of Lance Corporal and Staff Sergeant were dropped and an extra warrant officer rank was added; the warrant officer ranks were re-named Warrant Officer, Master Warrant Officer and Chief Warrant Officer.
To make up for the number of lance corporals being suddenly promoted to corporal, the Army appointed a number of senior corporals to the title of Master Corporal. Many sources – including official ones – treat Master Corporal as a rank, even though it is technically an appointment and not a rank.
In the Artillery, Bombardier and Master Bombardier are used instead of Corporal and Master Corporal, and in the guards regiments of the Infantry, Warrant Officers are known as Colour Sergeants.
• In the Navy before 1968, the NCO ranks were:
Leading Seaman → Petty Officer 2nd Class → Petty Officer 1st Class → Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class → Chief Petty Officer 1st Class.
The only change since then was the addition of the appointment level of Master Seaman, which is the Navy equivalent of Master Corporal.
• Air Force ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968, Air Force NCO ranks were:
Leading Aircraftman → Corporal → Sergeant → Flight Sergeant → Warrant Officer Class II → Warrant Officer Class I.
• Army officer ranks have consistently remained as follows:
Officer Cadet → Second Lieutenant → Lieutenant → Captain → Major → Lieutenant Colonel → Colonel.
In the guards regiments of the Infantry, Second Lieutenants are known as Ensigns.
• Officer ranks of the Navy are as follows:
Naval Cadet→ Acting Sub Lieutenant → Sub Lieutenant → Lieutenant (N) → Sub Commander → Commander → Captain (N).
Before 1968, Naval Cadets were called Midshipmen.
• Air Force officer ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968, officer ranks in the Air Force were:
Flight Cadet → Pilot Officer → Flying Officer → Flight Lieutenant → Squadron Leader → Wing Commander → Group Captain.
In 1962, the rank of Flight Cadet was renamed Officer Cadet.
General Officers (“Flag Officers” in the Navy):
• General officers in the Army are:
Brigadier General → Major General → Lieutenant General → General.
Brigadier Generals were called Brigadiers before 1968, except between 1922 and 1928, when they were called Colonels-Commandant.
• The flag officer ranks of the Navy are:
Commodore → Rear Admiral → Vice Admiral → Admiral.
• Air Force general officer ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968 the Air Force general officer ranks were:
Air Commodore → Air Vice Marshal → Air Marshal → Air Chief Marshal.
The Chief of Defence Staff is the only person who is ever appointed to the highest general officer rank.