Military Pay Grade Vs. Rank

Updated: December 23, 2022
In this Article

    Military pay grades versus military rank can be a confusing issue for those unfamiliar with military culture. What is the difference between rank and grade, and why aren’t they basically considered the same thing? In some cases there may seem to be no difference at all, but in others the distinction is clear.

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    What Is A Military Rank?

    The rank of any military person refers to their position in the rank-based chain of command–not to be confused with an individual unit or organizational chain of command.

    There are basic classifications of rank–officer and enlisted. There are also basic classifications within the rank structure. For example, the lowest ranks are considered “junior enlisted”, while the highest enlisted grades are considered as “Senior enlisted NCOs” or non-commissioned officers.

    Among officers there are junior-level officers (Lieutenants and captains), and at the very top there are what are known as flag-level officers (Admirals, Generals, etc.). And then there are Warrant Officers, who fit in between regular enlisted and regular officers in a more specialized type of duty.

    Rank is awarded to enlisted troops via a combination of competitive exams, record reviews, and other processes. You have to be within a certain top percentile of the exam-takers to be considered eligible for promotion, and different branches of military service may include physical fitness criteria, off-duty education, and other areas to be influential factors in promotions at both the enlisted and officer levels.

    Military rank is basically the specific designation earned: Airman First Class, for example, is a junior enlisted rank. Corporal is also a rank. Master Sergeant, Captain, Colonel, Private, etc. These are all examples of military rank.

    You will hear these ranks sometimes referred to as their pay grades. The lowest ranking person in the military, a basic trainee with no additional rank (sometimes referred to as a “slick sleeve” because there are no stripes sewn on yet) is referred to as an E-1.

    This is NOT a rank but a pay grade and the two things are not necessarily the same thing, as we’ll explore below.

    What Is A Military Pay Grade?

    The pay grade you hold in the military is tied to your rank, but it is not considered your rank specifically. Instead, it is more of an administrative label that makes it easier to process the thousands of paychecks issued every month to every Private First Class, every four-star General and everyone in between.

    Pay grades are assigned to enlisted members, officers, and warrant officers. An enlisted member who has an E-1 pay grade is at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, of both rank and pay, A Second Lieutenant, the lowest officer rank, would hold the pay grade O-1, where the higher-ranked First Lieutenant would also be considered an O-1 in spite of the higher rank. A Captain is an O-2, a Major is O-3, etc.

    Pay Grade Does Not Equal Rank In All Cases

    Note the nuances of the pay grade versus rank. In both the Lieutenant’s case O-1 is the pay grade for the lower Lt. rank and the higher. The difference lies in the level of responsibility the higher-ranked 1st Lt. has to live up to. The pay grade does not inform those responsibilities, but the officer’s rank does.

    The same is true for an Army Specialist, also sometimes known as a Spec4 or Spec 4, who has an identical enlisted pay grade to a Corporal. Both earn the same amount, but a Corporal may have more duties than a Specialist.

    Once upon a time the Air Force had a similar rank–there is an E4 rank in the Air Force known as a Senior Airman, but at one time these E4s could be promoted to an E4 Sergeant or Buck Sergeant designation. Both ranks had the same pay and benefits, but the responsibilities of the Buck Sergeant were more in the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) camp than junior enlisted.

    And in some cases, someone with an identical pay grade AND rank may still outrank others who hold the same. Consider the Sergeant Major of the Army (SGMA), who is not the only person who holds the rank or pay grade of Sergeant Major. But the positional authority means one individual has more clout in the chain of command. The pay grade and even the rank remain the same. The authority does not.

    Pay Grade And Time In Service

    One nuance of the pay grade system is that there is NOT a single rate of pay for each individual grade. No matter if you are an E-5, which is a non-commissioned officer rank for enlisted members, or an O-3 (a Major) or any other rank, the O-3 rate of pay is determined by both the grade itself but also the amount of time the service member has spent in that grade.

    In some cases, there is a pay increase after you have spent one year in that grade, in others there may be a pay increase after two years spent in the grade.

    That’s one reason for the military jargon, “Time In Grade” or TIG. It is tied to your rate of pay at the rank you currently hold. Time in grade is a pay factor for both officers and enlisted members but one thing you should know is that at some point TIG pay increases stop. You will find a correlation between the time these pay increases stop and the expected career progression of a military member at that rank.

    You can’t hold the same rank indefinitely in many cases, without being upwardly mobile and getting promoted at a certain point. There is something known as “high year of tenure” which basically means that you cannot hold the same rank for too long.

    What does this mean? In the past the high year of tenure for enlisted Air Force E-4s who did not get promoted to E-5 was ten years–those who did not get promoted before their high year of tenure were separated from the military.

    As you might guess, you don’t get automatically promoted to the next rank if you simply hang in there long enough, and you don’t earn more authority just because you have many years in uniform. Those who remain E-4s up to a potential high year of tenure would not have anything more than a certain kind of seniority as opposed to higher rank and the added responsibilities that rank brings.

    About The Author

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team