Which Military Branch Pays the Most?

The U.S. military offers various jobs that allow you to build a great career while serving your country. Compensation often includes base pay, housing allowance, food allowance and many other unique military benefits that can be tax-free income. If you’re considering a U.S. military career, income can be a compelling factor in your decision.

In this article, we answer which U.S. military branch pays the most, which promotes the fastest and list the different pay grades and titles.

What are the branches of the U.S. military?

There are six branches of the U.S. military. They include:

1. Army

This is the main ground force of the United States and its primary function is to protect and defend the country with ground troops, attack helicopters, artillery, tactical nuclear weapons and other weapons.

2. Air Force

This military branch’s primary function is to defend the United States and its interests via air and space. It uses fighter aircraft, light and heavy bombers, tanker aircraft, transport aircraft and helicopters. This is also the military branch that controls nuclear ballistic missiles and military satellites.

3. Navy

The Navy is responsible for protecting U.S. interests at sea. The Navy handles operations on and under the sea, in the air and on the ground.

4. Marine Corps

The Marines specialize in assault, capture and control of beachheads. While Marines specialize in amphibious operations, they have also expanded to ground combat. It’s primarily a self-sufficient branch with its own airpower of attack helicopters, fighters and bombers.

5. Space Force

The Space Force is the military service that organizes, trains and equips space forces to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint forces. The Space Force maintains the military’s competitive edge on land, in the air and in orbit with specialized training and enhances its capabilities by acquiring and developing next-generation space-based systems.

6. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is technically a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It is primarily responsible for law enforcement, illegal immigration controls, boating safety and sea rescue in domestic waterways.

Which military branch pays the most?

All military members, regardless of which branch they serve, are paid according to their rank, time in service, location of duty station, family members and job specialty. The lowest-ranking enlisted military service member, whether an Army private or a Navy seaman recruit, has a pay grade of E-1. The highest-ranking officer, regardless of branch, carries a pay grade of O-10.

Branches that promote the fastest

The Army is generally the branch of the military that promotes the fastest. That said, your military job and any advanced education you have can impact your ability to be promoted. A college degree can help you get promoted, regardless of your branch. Specialized career fields often don’t promote quickly. The military typically promotes personnel when those in higher ranks are promoted or retire or when they need more people in a particular field and is also based on the needs of the service branch.

Annual pay for each rank

The U.S. armed forces provide housing for all of its service members. If housing isn’t available on base, the service member receives a basic allowance for housing (BAH) based on the pay grade and duty station. Service members are also paid a basic allowance for subsistence (BAS) based on whether they’re officers or enlisted service members. Special military pay can also be added to compensation, depending on the career field and location. For example, military personnel may receive hazardous duty pay, submarine pay, flight pay or career sea pay.

Here are the different pay grades for military personnel (effective date Jan. 1, 2023—source DFAS (Defense Finance and Accounting Service) Military Pay Tables 2023:

Military RankPay Grade (Monthly)
E-1$1,773.00 to $1,917.60
E-2$2,149.20
E-3$2,259.90 to $2,457.60
E-4$3,503.50 to $3,039.30
E-5$2,730.30 to $3,874.80
E-6$2,980.50 to $4,616.40
E-7$3,445.80 to $6,193.50
E-8$4,957.20 to $7,069.80
E-9$60,055.50 to $9,402.30
Military RankPay Grade (Monthly)
W-1$3,555.00 to $6,143.40
W-2$4,050.30 to $6,760.20
W-3$4,577.70 to $8,029.50
W-4$5,012.40 to $9,336.30
W-5$8,912.10 to $11,662.50
Military RankPay Grade (Monthly)
O-1E$4,576.80 to $5,682.60
O-2E$5,682.60 to $6,715.80
O-3E$6,469.80 to $8,421.00
Military RankPay Grade (Monthly)
O-1$3,637.20 to $4,576.80
O-2$4,190.70 to $5,799.30
O-3$4,849.80 to $7,890.60
O-4$5,516.40 to $9,210.30
O-5$6,293.30 to $10,861.80
O-6$7,669.20 to $13,576.50
O-7$10,113.00 to $15,110.10
O-8$12,170.70 to $17,545.80
O-9$17,201.40 to $17,675.10
O-10$17,675.10

Enlisted ranks

Below are descriptions of the enlisted ranks:

E-1

This is the lowest enlisted rank and includes airman basic (Air Force), private (Army and Marine Corps), seaman recruit (Coast Guard and Navy), fireman recruit, airman recruit or hospitalman recruit (Navy) and specialist 1 (Space Force).

E-2

Service members automatically promote to E-2 within six months of service and become an airman (Air Force), private (Army), private 1st class (Marine Corps) or seaman apprentice (Coast Guard and Navy), fireman apprentice, airman apprentice or hospitalman apprentice (Navy) and specialist 2 (Space Force).

E-3

Promotion to E-3 occurs automatically after 12 months. At this time, the service member becomes an airman 1st class (Air Force), private 1st Class (Army), lance corporal (Marine Corps), seaman (Coast Guard and Navy), airman, fireman or hospital corpsman (Navy) or specialist 3 (Space Force).

E-4

Service members who are E-4s typically have served for at least two years. The titles at this rank are senior airman (Air Force), specialist or corporal (Army), corporal (Marine Corps), petty officer 3rd class (Navy and Coast Guard) or specialist 4 (Space Force).

E-5

At this rank, promotions are no longer automatic based on time served, although service members can reach this rank in as little as three years. Titles at this rank are staff sergeant (Air Force), sergeant (Army and Marines), petty officer 2nd class (Navy and Coast Guard) or sergeant (Space Force). Service members usually spend three years at this pay grade, although their pay increases with their time served.

E-6

Generally, service members with this rank have served for at least six years. At an E-6, their titles are technical sergeant (Air Force), staff sergeant (Army and Marines), petty officer 1st class (Navy and Coast Guard) or technical sergeant (Space Force). They typically don’t achieve the next pay grade increase, an E-7, until they have served for 10 years.

E-7

Service members typically don’t achieve the rank of E-7 until they have served for 10 years, although it can be accomplished sooner. Titles for this rank include master sergeant (Air Force and Space Force), sergeant first class (Army), gunnery sergeant (Marine Corps) or chief petty officer (Navy and Coast Guard). A master, senior and chief sergeant may be named as first sergeant. It’s not considered a rank but a special assignment role for a senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO). The first sergeant is typically assigned to a flight unit and reports directly to the deputy commander.

E-8

At E-8, service members are senior master sergeant or first sergeant (Air Force), master sergeant or first sergeant (Army and Marine Corps), senior chief petty officer (Navy and Coast Guard) or senior master sergeant (Space Force). They can reach this rank with as little as 12 years in service.

E-9

E-9s typically have 15-30 years of experience and their titles are chief master sergeant (Air Force), sergeant major (Army), master gunnery sergeant, sergeant major (Marine Corps), master chief petty officer (Navy and Coast Guard) or chief master sergeant (Space Force). Some branches allow E-9s to stay in the military for up to 32 years.

Warrant officer rank

Warrant officers hold warrants from their service secretary and are specialists and experts in certain military technologies or capabilities. The lowest-ranking warrant officers serve under a warrant, but they receive commissions from the president upon promotion to chief warrant officer 2 (CWO2). Warrant officers outrank all enlisted members but aren’t required to have a college degree. The Air Force and Space Force don’t have warrant officer ranks.

Below are descriptions of the warrant officer ranks:

W-1

Warrant officers are considered the tactical and technical experts of the Army. WO1 is the base-level rank and primarily supports operations from a team or detachment through a battalion (Army, Marine Corps and Navy—WO1).

W-2

This rank is considered an intermediate-level technical and tactical expert. The W-2 responsibility is to support levels of operations from a team or detachment through a battalion (Army—CW2; Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard—CWO2).

W-3

As a warrant officer of this rank, W-3s are considered advanced-level technical and tactical experts. Their role is to support operations from a team or detachment through a brigade (Army—CW3; Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard—CWO3)

W-4

This rank is considered a senior-level technical and tactical expert. Their primary duty is to support brigade, battalion, division and corps operations (Army—CW4; Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard—CWO4).

W-5

This rank is considered a master-level technical and tactical expert. The primary duties include supporting brigade, division, corps, echelons and command operations. W-5s specialize in warrant officer leadership and representation responsibilities within their respective commands (Army—CW5; Marine Corps and Navy—CWO5).

Commissioned officer ranks

When a commissioned officer has prior enlisted service, they can start at a higher pay scale than a regular O-1. Additionally, the pay starts at the four years of service mark, which means it’s slightly higher than O-1. The ranks for officers with prior service are O-1E, O-2E and O-3E. They’re referred to as a “Mustang.”

Below are descriptions of the commissioned officer ranks:

O-1

A freshly commissioned officer earns $3,386 per month in base pay, tax-free housing and food allowances. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps officers are called company grade officers in the paygrades of O-1 to O-3. Titles for O-1s are second lieutenant (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force) or ensign (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-2

After two years of service, officers are promoted to O-2. Titles include first lieutenant (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force) or lieutenant junior grade (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-3

Officers receive an automatic pay increase after three years of service. Army officers achieve the next rank automatically at four years of service. At this rank, officers receive pay increases every two years. Titles at this rank are captain (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force) or lieutenant (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-4

By the time they reach the rank of O-4, military officers typically have 10 years of service. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps officers are called field grade officers in paygrades O-4 to O-6. Titles include major (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force) or lieutenant commander (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-5

Officers usually spend 17 years or more in the military before being promoted to O-5. When they reach their 18th commissioning anniversary, they have the rank of lieutenant colonel (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force) or commander (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-6

Officers require promotion to colonel or admiral by their 30th year of service or they start the retirement process. Titles include colonel (Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force) and captain (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-7

Army, Air Force and Marine Corps officers are called general officers in paygrades O-7 and higher. Each rank, at this point, carries its own mandatory requirement, although officers can promote to the next rank or retire. Promotion to brigadier general or rear admiral (lower half) depends on job availability and a range of other variables. Officers who have served for 30 years and have spent less than five years at the lowest flag rank retire.

O-8

This rank includes major general (Air Force, Army, Marines and Space Force) and rear admiral (upper half) (Navy and Coast Guard).

O-9

At this pay rank, the titles for the officers are vice admiral for the Navy and Coast Guard and lieutenant general for other branches.

O-10

This is the highest pay grade and once a military officer achieves a four-star rank of general or admiral, they no longer receive pay increases, regardless of their time in service.

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