Rank structures in Military SF

One of the most enjoyable things for me about writing some of the military science fiction I generate is trying to get my head into a culture that’s hundreds or even thousands of years into our future, or, more fun, some alien place. Part of where that shows up on paper is in the rank structure (the military parts).

Most of my readers are familiar with the western standards (primarily United States military), either the US Army or the US Navy, both of which follow the same basic structure of E-1, E-2, O-1, O-2, etc. but with different names for the ranks themselves.

But what is the distant future going to hold?

Recently, I had someone reading the Jessica Keller series comment that I had gotten the ranks wrong, because when he was in the US Army, Yeoman was a job title for a clerk, and nothing more. I refrained from asking what his Command Centurion thought of that, because that would have probably just ended up feeding the troll. For those of you paying attention, much of Aquitaine is (VERY loosely) filtered through the Roman Republic, and not the traditional western militaries. (Fribourg, for contrast, uses the western model based loosely on the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy.)

Officers in the Republic of Aquitaine Navy thus run this way:

  1. Cornet
  2. Centurion
  3. Senior Centurion
  4. Command Centurion
  5. Fleet Centurion
  6. First Centurion

And Enlisted have this structure:

  1. Landsman
  2. Able-Bodied Spacer
  3. First-Rate Spacer
  4. Yeoman
  5. Chief (uncommon)
  6. Senior Chief (rare)
  7. Master Chief (rare)

For Chief and beyond, those are rare because Yeoman is the point where an individual takes a look at where they want their career to go. Many simply serve their full hitch and go back to civilian life, never rising above Yeoman. Others frequently make the leap from Yeoman to Centurion, having proven their worth and being made an officer. (Think Moirrey or Vo.) Only a very few remain in service and move up to the Chief ranks (Chief, Senior, Master), and those are generally technical experts that don’t want the added responsibility of being an officer.

That was why I was amused about the person who thought Yeoman was a clerk. That was his experience. But there are other ways to do it.

My grandfather served with the Eighth Infantry Division in Europe during World War Two. When he left service, he was a Technical Sergeant. That’s not even a rank that exists anymore, the services having consolidated line and paperwork ranks since then into a single chain.

And then I had to invent the Grand Army of the Republic for book four in the Jessica Keller series, Goddess of War. More opportunity to get strange.

Instead of divisions, they have legions. The RAN has security battalions, but the ground forces are organized into Cohorts, because why the hell not? And they want to be Roman, to boot.

  • Legate (Legion Commander)
  • Primus Pilus (First Spear. Senior Cohort Centurion of the Legion)
  • Cohort Centurion
  • (Patrol) Centurion
  • Optio
  • Decurion (Senior Enlisted)
  • Decanus (Leader of Ten)
  • Curator
  • Lancer
  • Trooper

Then you get job titles like: Draconarius (Standard Bearer), Cornicen (Radio Operator), Ballistarius (Squad Heavy Weapons), Pioneer (Sapper/Armorer/EO). All sorts of silly fun, especially when dealing with Fourth Saxon Legion, a horse cavalry unit in a space opera.

But I want exotic. This is Space Opera. With alien cultures and strangeness.

I just finished editing the first pass of the sixth Jessica Keller book (The Red Admiral) this week. The war with Buran gets bigger. And they are utterly alien compared to everyone else, based on a completely different cultural matrix. (And, by the way, the story starts in 13,446 CE, let’s guestimate what the future looks like ELEVEN THOUSAND YEARS FROM NOW. Heh.)

In Buran, most of the vessels, and all of the warships, are Sentient, but not in the sense that Suvi was aboard Mielikki or Hammerfield. There is an artificially intelligent computer involved, but the humans adjust the cognition levels as needed: low when just patrolling, high when combat is imminent.

And then you have Buran’s navy. In charge of a vessel or station is the Director. Equivalent to what we think of as a ship’s captain or a Command Centurion.

Below that, however, the culture is broken into occupational categories, one of which you will be routed into as you grow up:

  • Scholar
  • Technician
  • Warrior
  • Merchant
  • Artisan

Aboard a vessel you will have Advocates.

  • War Advocate (Warrior)
  • Entity Advocate (Technician)
  • Crew Advocate (Scholar)
  • Maneuver Advocate (Warrior or Scholar)

Each speaks for their charge. The War Advocate serves roughly the same purpose as RAN’s Tactical Officer/Second In Command. They fight, without having to worry about everything else at the same time. The Entity Advocate speaks with and for the Sentience, the Entity that is the vessel. The Crew Advocate speaks with and for the crew of humans that serve aboard the vessel. In The Red Admiral, you will meet your first Maneuver Advocate, who speaks with and for the smaller vessels that are carried aboard the Nightmaster Steadfast in Darkness.

Again, alien culture. Steadfast in Darkness is a battleship, but it carries with it four Makos, four medium cruisers that can detach and fight individually, but normally remain attached to the larger vessel all other times.

So military rank can be whatever I want it to be, as long as it makes sense. Think about some European cultures where Frigate Captain and Cruiser Captain were different ranks in previous centuries. What I’m aiming for is to convey to my readers how alien a culture can be, regardless of the people being human.

What was Rome like, two thousand three hundred years ago, during the Republic? Or the Hellenes, to say nothing of armies of the Three Kingdoms Period in China or Heian Era Japan?

And one of these days I will finish Jessica, and can move on to a whole new universe, one with a whole passel of alien species and cultures, into which humans are a very recent arrival. I have a few notes, but it’s going to be a ball going completely strange with militaries and their organization.

The only limits are my ability to dream it up, and my ability to make it understandable and believable for my readers.

So here’s my challenge for you: How would you organize your military, if you were inventing one from scratch and from whole cloth? Lemme know, as I find that sort of thing utterly fascinating.


shade and sweet water


West of the Mountains, WA