Commissioned vs. Non-Commissioned Officer: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated December 11, 2020 | Published January 3, 2020

Updated December 11, 2020

Published January 3, 2020

In the U.S. military, there are three types of officers—commissioned, non-commissioned and warrant officers. All types of officers have their own leadership trajectory as well as training and experience requirements. In this article, discover the differences between commissioned, non-commissioned officers and warrant officers to decide which path is right for you.

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What is a commissioned officer?

A commissioned officer is an officer of the armed forces who has received a rank before officially assuming their position. Commissioned officers are tasked with training and leading enlisted soldiers. They are responsible for protecting them, helping to boost morale, leading by example, as well as orchestrating the professional development of their subordinates. Commissioned officers are also tasked with the daily training and motivation of all recruits in their platoon.

Although they are ultimately following the orders and commands of the higher-ups, commissioned officers are the central point of contact for every new recruit. Their ultimate goal is to teach the subordinate troops how to always give 100% to each task and how to work as a cohesive group. Commissioned officers can also play an active role in various missions, excursions and other methods of training.

What is a non-commissioned officer?

A non-commissioned officer (NCO) is a military officer that has not yet earned a rank or commission. Tasked with helping to execute the vast majority of military missions as well as leading by example at all times, they are responsible for fulfilling their individual duties and for ensuring that they accomplish all missions as a team. Non-commissioned officers may be selected to take the lead in various aspects of the mission based on their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Another important aspect of being a non-commissioned officer is to bond and commune with their fellow troops. Over time, they should learn to be both leaders and followers. They must learn to be dependable and also able to depend on their fellow troops as needed.

What is a warrant officer?

A warrant officer (WO) is a highly trained technical specialist that can work in any of the main branches of the military. They can specialize as combat leaders, advisors, trainers and their primary function is ensuring the Army's combat systems, vehicles and networks are operating at maximum capability and safety.

Warrant officers can work in intelligence, aviation or military police specialties. They outrank all enlisted personnel and can advance from technical experts into leadership roles that oversee Commissioned Officers in their particular specialty with experience, recommendations from their commanders and approval from a selection board.

Differences between a commissioned and non-commissioned officer

In addition to the roles they serve in the military, commissioned and non-commissioned officers have other differences as well. These include:

Education and training

Non-commissioned officers

Non-commissioned officers must graduate high school or earn a GED before they can enlist in the military. However, to improve their possibilities of climbing the ranks, they may pursue a secondary and/or post-secondary degree. One of the most common paths for NCOs is through the Non-Commissioned Officer Education System (NCOES), which is a series of leadership training courses and classes designed to teach soldiers how to lead in various levels of the military. The levels of NCOES are:

  • Basic Training: This first step focuses on teaching map reading, warfighting, leadership, navigation, training management, drill and ceremony.

  • Advanced Leadership Course: This course focuses on teaching the leadership and technical skills necessary for leading platoons of any size.

  • Senior Leader Course Training: It provides soldiers who are up for a promotion with the opportunity to learn the leadership skills, technical and tactical skills necessary to lead platoons as well as company size units.

  • First Sergeant Academy: This is a fast-paced class that provides the training necessary to act as first sergeant.

  • U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy: Known for being the world’s premier institution of education for non-commissioned officers, this 10-month-long academy helps prepare NCOs to efficiently lead the highest levels of the military.

  • Command Sergeants Major Academy: This focuses more on the interpersonal aspects of leadership to train sergeants how to lead at the Battalion Command level.

Commissioned officers

Commissioned officers are those who have obtained a mission from a specific channel, such as:

  • Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Known for being the most demanding and successful leadership programs in the country, the ROTC prepares young adults to enter the military.

  • Officer Candidate School. These schools are designed to teach commissioned officers the skills necessary to lead as commissioned officers in the army and tests them to make sure they can properly incorporate these skills while on the field.

  • Service Academy. These academies teach a variety of academic and military education. They teach everything: leadership, weapons, engineering, as well as math and science.

Even though commissioned officers come from these specialized military channels, they must also earn a four-year degree before officially entering into the military. However, to improve their chances of climbing the ranks, they may pursue a post-secondary degree or take training courses and earn certifications to improve upon their skill sets.

Warrant officers

Warrant officers (WO) complete military training which begins with the Warrant Officer Candidate School training and can go onto the Warrant Officer Flight Training program (if the candidate wants to be a specialized Army pilot). To apply, they must have a high school degree or GED and be Staff Sergeant/E-6 or higher.

Warrant Officer Candidate School: Candidates that are interested in specializing in a non-flight warrant officer career receive their education through the Warrant Officer Candidate School, which is a seven-week training, generally completed in Fort Rucker, Alabama. This rigorous program combines intense physical and specialty technical experiential training to prepare students to become warrant officers in one of the 14 military branches. Focus is put on both team-building and leadership exercises as upper-rank WO positions are mainly leadership, management and mentorship roles.

Successful graduates of the Warrant Officer Candidate School are appointed a Warrant Officer (WO1) and then sent onto more specific training in their U.S. Army branch and desired specialty.

Warrant Officer Flight Training program: Candidates interested in warrant officer careers as fixed-wing aircraft pilots, helicopter pilots or unmanned aerial vehicle officers need to complete the Warrant Officer Flight Training basic training program. Both civilians and officers can apply (civilians need to complete the "high school to fly school" requirements). This rigorous program trains students in aviation and combat training in the helicopter. In addition to meeting the basic U.S. Army admission requirements, students must have a minimum of 110 General Technical score on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery and passed a Class 1A Flight Physical Examination, approved by Army Flight Surgeons.

Successful graduates can continue their training in more specialized rotary aircraft—such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and AH-64A Apache helicopters—upon graduation.

Experience requirements

Rather than joining the military at the entry-level, once commissioned officers have completed their schooling in ROTC, officer candidate school or a service academy, they join the military as management of new commissioned leaders.

Rather than transferring into the Army from an ROTC or a Service Academy, non-commissioned officers earn their rank by advancing to leadership roles and obtaining more responsibilities throughout their careers. Some advancements may require certain training courses, sponsorship from a military leader, or recommendations for continued excellent service and demonstration of the military branch’s values. Occasionally, some military personnel become NCOs after they have completed some post-secondary schooling or have acquired a degree.

Those intent on a career as a warrant officer must complete basic training and be enrolled in the U.S. Army before being selected for Warrant Officer Candidate School. Those interested in the flight program to be a U.S. Army Pilot must complete basic training and the Warrant Officer Flight Training Program.

Salary

The salary range for a commissioned officer is between $7.25 and $21.35 per hour, with an average salary of $11.26 per hour. The typical tenure is between 3-5 years.

The salary range for a non-commissioned officer is between $7.25 and $18.60, with an average salary of $12.89 per hour. The typical tenure is between 1-3 years.

The average salary range for a warrant officer (WO1) starts at $3,216 a month (not including pay allowances and incentives) and can increase up to $5387 (as a Warrant Officer 4) based on time in position and rank. The typical tenure for a WO1 (there are five grades) is two years before advancing to a Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2). Subsequent promotion to CW3, CW4 and CW5 typically takes five years each for non-pilots and six years each for aviators.

Non-commissioned officer roles

In general, service members have both ranks and paygrades. Ranks determine the level of responsibility while paygrades determine the salary. Paygrades go from 1-9, and the “E” stands for enlisted while the number is an indication of the paygrade.

Military personnel on levels E-1 through E-3 are those in basic training and just beginning their careers in the armed forces. Following basic training, soldiers are typically put on more specialized tracks to prepare them to either climb the ranks or begin their career in the field. The earned NCO ranks for each branch are as follows:

Army

  • Sergeant (SGT)

  • Staff Sergeant (SSG)

  • Sergeant First Class (SFC)

  • Master Sergeant (MS)

  • First Sergeant (FS)

  • Command Sergeant Major (CSM)

  • Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA)

Marine Corps

  • Sergeant (Sgt)

  • Staff Sergeant (SSgt)

  • Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt)

  • Master Sergeant (MSgt)

  • First Sergeant

  • Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt)

  • Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps (SgtMajMC)

Navy

  • Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)

  • Petty Officer First Class (PO1)

  • Chief Petty Officer (CPO)

  • Second Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)

  • Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)

  • Fleet Command Master Chief Petty Officer

  • Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON)

Air Force

  • Staff Sergeant (SSgt)

  • Technical Sergeant (TSgt)

  • Master Sergeant (MSgt)

  • Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)

  • First Sergeant

  • Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)

  • Command Chief Master Sergeant

  • Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF)

Coast Guard

  • Petty Officer Second Class (PO2)

  • Petty Officer First Class (PO1)

  • Chief Petty Officer (CPO)

  • Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)

  • Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)

  • Fleet/Command Master Chief Petty Officer 

  • Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG)

Commissioned officer roles

For COs, paygrades are marked with an “O” instead of an “E”. These roles have the highest level of leadership in the U.S. military. The CO ranks in paygrades O-1 through O-10 are as follows:

Army

  • Second Lieutenant (2LT)

  • First Lieutenant (1LT)

  • Captain (CPT)

  • Major (MAJ)

  • Lieutenant Colonel (LtCol)

  • Colonel (COL)

  • Brigadier General (BG)

  • Major General (MG)

  • Lieutenant General (LTG)

  • General (GEN)

  • General of the Army (During times of war only)

Marine Corps

  • Second Lieutenant (2ndLt)

  • First Lieutenant (1stLt)

  • Captain (Cpt)

  • Major (Maj)

  • Lieutenant Colonel (LtCol)

  • Colonel (Col)

  • Brigadier General (BGen)

  • Major General (MajGen)

  • Lieutenant General (LtGen)

  • General (Gen)

Navy

  • Ensign (ENS)

  • Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)

  • Lieutenant (LT)

  • Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

  • Commander (CDR)

  • Captain (CPT)

  • Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML)

  • Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM)

  • Vice Admiral (VADM)

  • Admiral (ADM)

  • Fleet Admiral (During Times of War Only)

Air Force

  • Second Lieutenant (2ndLT)

  • First Lieutenant (1stLt)

  • Captain (Capt)

  • Major (Maj)

  • Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)

  • Colonel (Col)

  • Brigadier General (Brig Gen)

  • Major General (Maj Gen)

  • Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)

  • General (Gen)

  • General of the Air Force (During Times of War Only)

Coast Guard

  • Ensign (ENS)

  • Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)

  • Lieutenant (LT)

  • Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

  • Commander (CDR)

  • Captain (CAPT)

  • Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML)

  • Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM)

  • Vice Admiral (VADM)

  • Admiral (ADM)

  • Fleet Admiral (During Time of War Only)

Warrant officer roles

Army

  • Warrant Officer 1 (WO1)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CW4)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5)

Marine Corps

  • Warrant Officer 1 (WO)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

Navy

  • USN Warrant Officer 1 (WO)

  • USN Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

  • USN Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

  • USN Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

  • USN Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)

Coast Guard

  • Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)

  • Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)

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