Ranks, Titles and Organization - Commonwealth Navy

In the Commonwealth Navy, as in any navy, wet or space, there are numerous idiosyncrasies inherited through tradition from the very early days of organised state violence on the water. In this article, I will define some of the more puzzling ones as they apply to Siobhan Dunmoore’s time.

A Captain isn’t a Captain isn’t a Captain

The Navy uses Captain as a rank, identified by four stripes, equivalent to a Marine colonel, or in present day parlance, an O-6. Captains command ships larger than frigates, are chiefs of staff in battle groups and commandants of Fleet schools. The Marine Corps also uses Captain as a rank, identified by three four-pointed stars, but it’s equivalent to a Navy Lieutenant, an O-3, who wears two stripes. Not terribly complicated, as long as one knows if one is dealing with a Captain of the Navy or of the Marines. Where it gets more complicated, is when an officer who isn’t at the rank of Captain (navy) is appointed as commanding officer of an FTL-capable starship. By tradition, these commanding officers are given the courtesy title of Captain, whatever their rank. In conversation, the archaic term ‘post captain’ is sometimes used to identify an officer holding that substantive rank, versus a more junior officer being accorded the courtesy title.

Commodore is sometimes a rank, sometimes not

Commodore is the rank given a one-star flag officer who is immediately below a Rear-Admiral but above a post captain. Commodores are usually deputy commanding flag officers of battle groups, chiefs of staff of Fleets or commandants of the larger schools. However, Commodore is also used as courtesy title for an officer who is of a more junior rank, but is given temporary command of a group of FTL-capable starships. In some circumstances, the courtesy rank is made an acting rank, even though the officer thus named retains his or her substantive rank, in order to allow for some of the more arcane legalities of flotilla command. The term hoisting the broad pennant is sometimes used in conjunction with being named Commodore and this is to reflect that the Commodore’s flag is a rectangle, rather than the swallow-tail shape of the flags of Rear-Admirals and above. Courtesy Commodores don’t get to ‘hoist the broad pennant.’ Acting Commodores do.

Organisation and senior positions on a starship

A starship is divided into departments, which can be further divided into divisions, with each department under a specific officer (or in small ships, senior enlisted spacer), assisted by a specific Chief Petty Officer or Petty Officer. Overall responsibility for operations within a ship rests with the First Officer, often affectionately called Number One. He or she is the second in command of the ship, and is responsible for ensuring the ship is ready to fight at the captain’s command. This generally means he or she oversees all departments within the ship. In larger ships with a CIC (combat information centre), the first officer takes the bridge in battle to direct damage control while the captain fights the ship from the CIC. The first officer will take his or her turn as watch-keeper in smaller ships. Reporting to the First Officer, the Departments are:

Deck Department. The deck department comes under the Second Officer (who is emphatically not nicknamed Number Two) and who is the next in command after the First Officer. The deck department is responsible for security, damage control, boarding parties and the all deck works which includes ship maintenance, and repair of deck equipment. It is the largest department on a starship, and its ratings are a ship’s jack-of-all-trades. The senior enlisted spacer of the deck department is the Bosun or Boatswain.

Engineering. The engineering department comes under the Chief Engineer, who is generally of the same rank as the First Officer, or in some circumstances the Second Officer, but is not in the command chain since engineering officers are not trained as bridge officers (and vice-versa). The engineering department is responsible for the power plants, drives and ship’s systems.

Gunnery. The gunnery department, under the Gunnery Officer, or ‘Guns” is responsible for all of a ship’s weaponry (guns, missiles, torpedoes), other than small arms, which are the responsibility of the deck department. Gunnery is also responsible for all sensor gear.

Navigation. The navigation department comes under the Sailing Master, the senior navigation officer in a starship, and is responsible for all of the ship’s movements, from planning hyperspace jumps to manning the helm. Signals.

The signals department is responsible for communications (subspace, radio, laser optical, etc) as well as the ship’s computer systems. In larger ships, it comes under an officer, in smaller ships, it comes under a Petty Officer.

Logistics. The logistics department comes under the Purser, and is responsible for all matters dealing with supplies (spare parts, food, money). The ship’s catering services as well as cargo fall under logistics.

Medical. The medical department comes under the ship’s Surgeon. In ships smaller than a frigate, with some exceptions, the place of the surgeon will be taken by an enlisted physician’s assistant.

In larger ships where departments have more than one officer, the departments are further subdivided into divisions, to allow junior officers to take on direct leadership and administration responsibilities. In smaller ships, some of the departments are combined, with medical falling under logistics, navigation and signals combined or deck and gunnery combined. All officers other than engineering officers and in larger ships, the first officer, take their turn as watchkeepers.

There is one more key position on a starship that is of note: the Coxswain, or Cox’n. The Cox’n is the senior enlisted spacer aboard a starship, and depending on the size of the ship, can be anywhere from a Petty Officer First Class through to a Chief Petty Officer First Class. Where the Cox’n is a Chief Petty Officer, he or she will also be referred to as Chief of the Ship. Responsible for discipline aboard, he or she is also the captain’s advisor and enforcer on matters related to the enlisted personnel. The Cox’n may have a bridge job, depending on specialty, such as in the case of the Stingray, where the Cox’n also takes his turn at the helm since he had been a quartermaster in his younger days and is the best helmsman aboard. When the Cox’n is absent, the Bosun takes over that role.