What is a Commissioned Officer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A commissioned officer is a person who has been granted highly specialized leadership authority in a national military or armed forces troop. In most cases, this authority comes from a country’s head of state, usually a president or monarch. Soldiers who receive a commission enjoy different promotion, leadership, and career options than do those who are simply enlisted, and often garner more prestige as well. While it is possible for enlisted men and women to rise to the ranks of commissioned officer, this is rare; in most cases, these two tracks operate completely independently, with different training and advancement requirements.

A commissioned officer is a person who has been granted highly specialized leadership authority in a national military or armed forces troop.
A commissioned officer is a person who has been granted highly specialized leadership authority in a national military or armed forces troop.

Primary Distinctions Between Commissioned and Enlisted

Most of the world’s militaries are comprised of two types of soldiers and fighters. The term “enlisted” describes those who have voluntarily signed up, usually without any prior training or experience. These people make up the bulk of most forces. They must be led and directed, however, which is where commissioned officers come in. Governments typically recruit high achievers and proven leaders to fill these slots. Earning a commission is usually very competitive and prestigious, whereas nearly anyone can enlist.

Service Academies

The road to becoming a commissioned officer almost always starts with training. One of the most direct ways to learn the needed skills is to attend a national service academy. These schools are often operated like universities or graduate school programs, but students typically focus on military arts as much if not more than traditional academics. Admissions to these schools is highly selective, but graduation guarantees a commission and a career as an officer.

Other Officer Training Programs

It may also be possible to earn a commission by completing an officer training course alongside a university education, though this option is by far the most popular in the United States. The U.S.’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, recruits and trains university students throughout the four years of their education; those who successfully complete the program earn a commission and begin work as officers as soon as their education is done.

Many countries also offer special training programs for officer candidates that culminate in a commission. These are usually designed to be intensive immersion courses, and often take about a year to complete. Candidates must usually hold a college or university degree before they will be considered for admission, but there are sometimes exceptions. Enlisted men and women who have been tapped to become officers may also join up with this sort of training program in certain circumstances.

Privileges and Duties

The primary job of any commissioned officer is to command troops. Officers must exercise independent judgment when creating battle plans and ordering tactical maneuvers, and must serve as leaders and role models for all soldiers under their care. Simply earning a commission does not exempt an officer from following orders, though. Officers, like enlisted soldiers, have ranks and ladders of seniority. A junior officer must implement the orders of his or her commander in all instances, even though he or she is likely to be working without direct supervision.

Commissioned officers typically enjoy a range of benefits connected to their rank. Their housing is usually provided, for instance, and their income may not be taxed. The more seniority an officer has, the more power he has to influence his assignments and duty stations. In most cases, though, these benefits come at a cost — even officers at the highest rank are subject to the needs of the force, and can usually be called away or ordered to move at any point.

Terms and Conditions

While many commissioned officers make full-time service their career, not all do. Commissions are permanent, but the jobs they are connected to are more flexible. Militaries usually ask officers for a commitment of a certain number of years; when the term expires, the officer can choose to either renew or retire.

Identifying Rank and Tier

Members of the armed forces typically display their rank and status on their uniform. The specific symbols of a commissioned officer vary from country to country, but are usually worn on the breast lapel, on the shoulders, or both. This way, those who are familiar with uniform protocol can immediately identify high-ranking officials and command leaders.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


commissions are signed by the service secretaries.


Are military commission documents actually signed by the president or does someone else sign for the president?


The easiest US Military branch to tell is the Marine Corps. In camouflage uniform, look at the collar: Shiny insignia= Commissioned officer. Black insignia= Enlisted. For all US services, officer insignia are standardized (bar, 2 bars, oak leaf, bird, 1-4 stars) while except for US Navy Chief Petty Officers (and Senior and Master CPOs) enlisted insignia is a variation on the theme of chevrons.


what about the uniform makes this distinction?

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