The United States military had more than 2.4 million people in active duty or reserve service as of 2019, all of whom were getting a fair salary. The Army is by far the biggest of the six branches, followed by the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the newly established Space Force.
With those massive numbers and the great benefits that can come with serving, it’s no wonder that the military has been called “America’s biggest jobs program.” We’ve taken a look at how much money each rank in the military pays, from the entry-level cadet to the seasoned five-star general and the numbers might surprise you.
How Do We Know Their Salaries?
While America’s military intelligence is among the nation’s most guarded information, many details about the armed forces are an open book by law. Since U.S. taxpayers fund the military, the salary information for every rank is available for anyone to read as a public record.
The numbers we are reporting come straight from the military’s 2021 pay table, which went into effect at the start of the new year. The rate of pay increased by 3% from 2020 to 2021, which is the same bump service members saw from 2019 to 2020.
The pay provided by the branches of the military are quite competitive, even at the lowest level, but there are other pluses that go with it. In addition to Tricare, which is the health insurance program that covers service members, their family members and retired veterans, the majority of service members also get allowances worked into their pay. These include money to cover basic needs like food and housing every month, often free of taxes.
For example, in 2021, enlisted members will receive $386.50 per month for grocery and food expenses, which may come in the form of a meal card. Officers will get $266.18 per month for the same purpose.
How The Pay Chart Works
The U.S. military’s pay chart is organized into tiers that are related to a service member’s rank and experience. The chart starts with cadets and the base salary increases through various tiers of enlisted members, warrant officers and commissioned officers. There are 29 total tiers that a person can fall under, each of which has increasing levels of pay based on how many years the person has been enlisted.
The very top of the chart is reserved for the highest-ranking officers in each branch with at least 20 years of experience. With all that information out of the way, let’s start digging into the monthly pay rates that will be provided by the military in 2021.
Cadet/Midshipman — $1,186 Per Month
Students at the country’s five service academies are the lowest-ranking people in the military, in terms of salary. Cadets (as they are called at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Coast Guard Academy) and Midshipmen (as they are called at the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Merchant Marine Academy) will be paid $1,186 per month in 2021.
This allows those young service members to make a maximum salary of $14,232 for the year, but they get the additional benefits that go with being a college student and the likely chance that they will be a commissioned officer upon graduating.
E-1: Private/Seaman Recruit/Airman Basic — $1,650-$1,785 Per Month
The lowest rank of enlisted service member across the six branches of the military makes up the E-1 pay grade. They are known as privates in the Army and Marines, Seaman Recruits in the Navy and Coast Guard and Airman Basics in the Air Force and Space Force. If these members have less than four months of service under their belt, they get $1,650 per month, while any that have surpassed that milestone will make $1,785 per month.
That higher number would make for a yearly salary of $21,420 in 2021.
E-2: Private Second Class/Private First Class/Seaman Apprentice/Airman — $2,000.70 Per Month
The next tier of service members have a chance to make $24,008.40 per year, based on their base monthly salary. That’s still far below the median salary for American workers, which was about $50,000 in 2020. This group includes a private second class in the Army, a private first class in the Marines, a seaman apprentice in the Navy and Coast guard and an airman in the Air Force and Space Force.
E-3: Private First Class/Lance Corporal/Seaman/Airman First Class — $2,103.90-$2,371.80 Per Month
The E-3 pay grade is the first tier that sees its base pay increase based on how many years of service the member has put in. Those with less than two years of experience will make $2,103.90 per month, while those with at least three years of experience will make $2,371.80 per month. This means the yearly salary ranges from $25,246.80 to $28,461.60 for these enlistees, which include Army privates first class, Marine lance corporals, Navy and Coast Guard seamen and Air Force and Space Force airmen first class.
E-4: Specialist/Corporal/Petty Officer Third Class/Senior Airman — $2,330.40-$2,829 Per Month
This pay grade caps out for those service members who have at least six years of experience. Anyone with at least that much experience at this tier will make about $500 more per month than equally ranked members with less than two total years of service. The ranks in E-4 include Army specialists and corporals, Marine corporals, Navy and Coast Guard petty officers third class and Air Force and Space Force senior airmen.
E-5: Sergeant/Petty Officer Second Class/Staff Sergeant — $2,541.60-$3,606.90 Per Month
This tier starts to represent those enlisted service members who have reached the status of noncommissioned officers across all six branches. From sergeants in the Army and Marines to petty officers second class in the Navy and Coast Guard to staff sergeants in the Air Force and Space Force, service members that have reached the E-5 pay grade typically got there the hard way, by working their way up from E-1 status.
Anyone at this pay grade has a chance to make as much as $43,282.80 per year if they have at least 12 years of service in their file.
E-6: Staff Sergeant/Petty Officer First Class/Technical Sergeant — $2,774.40-$4,297.20 Per Month
Service members who have at least 18 years of experience on the books and have reached the pay grade of E-6 can make as much as $51,566.40 per year, surpassing that median mark of the average American salary that was previously mentioned. This includes staff sergeants in the Army and Marines, petty officers first class in the Navy and Coast Guard and technical sergeants in the Air Force and Space Force. These service members maintain the status of noncommissioned officers.
E-7: Sergeant First Class/Gunnery Sergeant/Chief Petty Officer/Master Sergeant — $3,207.60-$5,765.40 Per Month
We’re getting near the high end of the pay grades offered to enlisted members who aren’t warrant officers or commissioned officers, which is what the “E” in these tiers stands for. The E-7 class includes Army sergeants first class, Marine gunnery sergeants, Navy and Coast Guard chief petty officers and Air Force and Space Force master sergeants. Yearly salaries range from $38,491.20 for service members who’ve served less than two years to $69,184.80 for those who’ve served at least 26 years.
E-8: Master Sergeant/First Sergeant/Senior Chief Petty Officer/Senior Master Sergeant — $4,614.60-$6,581.40 Per Month
Unlike the previous pay grades for enlisted members, which start with salaries for members who have less than two years of service experience, the military’s E-8 distinction doesn’t begin until someone has at least eight years of experience. These ranks are where we start to see salaries that are more lucrative, as E-8’s can make anywhere from $55,375.20 to $78,976.80 in 2021.
Master sergeants in the Army and Marines, first sergeants in the Army, senior chief petty officers in the Navy and Coast Guard and senior master sergeants in the Air Force and Space Force are all in this pay grade.
E-9: Sergeant Major/Master Gunnery Sergeant/Master Chief Petty Officer/Chief Master Sergeant — $5,637-$8,752.50 Per Month
The prestigious E-9 pay grade is the highest achievable by anyone in the class of enlisted members. These high-ranking noncommissioned officers include Army sergeant majors, Marine master gunnery sergeants and sergeant majors, Navy and Coast Guard master chief petty officers and Air Force and Space Force chief master sergeants, as well as the command versions of these ranks and special distinctions, such as the rank of sergeant major of the Army.
This is the only pay grade for enlisted members that can offer a six-figure salary, as E-9s with at least 38 years of service experience can bring in $105,030 in 2021.
W-1: Warrant Officer 1 — $3,309.30-$5,718.60 Per Month
Above the class of enlisted members, warrant officers are highly skilled service members in a specific area of expertise who have their rank approved by Congress. You’ll notice that although they outrank all noncommissioned officers from the E pay grades, W-1s typically have a lower salary. This is because warrant officers are often far less experienced than E-7s, E-8s and E-9s, in terms of how many years they’ve served.
The Air Force doesn’t offer a warrant officer rank, and the Space Force currently doesn’t either, but all other branches do, including the Navy, which brought the rank back in 2018 to boost recruitment numbers.
W-2: Chief Warrant Officer 2 — $3,770.40-$6,293.10 Per Month
Like the W-1 pay grade, this tier is currently only offered by the Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. W-2s who have served less than two years can make $45,244.80 in 2021, while those with at least 24 years of experience can make $75,517.20 at the same rank. Either way, it’s good money for a role that allows a service member to flex their technical skills in a particular focus as well as command detachments.
W-3: Chief Warrant Officer 3 — $4,261.20-$7,474.50 Per Month
Working one’s way up to the grade of W-3 often takes time and considerable skill. These highly specialized officers exist in the Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard and provide invaluable expertise to their unit and leadership to the many service members under them. At the low end, W-3s can expect to make $51,134.40 per year, while those with at least 26 years of experience can expect to make $89,694 in 2021.
W-4: Chief Warrant Officer 4 — $4,665.90-$8,691 Per Month
The rank of chief warrant officer 4 is the highest currently offered to warrant officers in the Coast Guard, while those in the Army, Marines and Navy can go up to the W-5 pay grade. As you’d expect, the salary for this rank is quite generous, surpassing the average American’s median income even at the lowest level. The yearly pay for a W-4 with less than two years of experience is $55,990.80 and goes up to $104,292 for those with at least 30 years of service.
W-5: Chief Warrant Officer 5 — $8,296.20-$10,856.40 Per Month
For most warrant officers serving in the Army, Marines and Navy, the pay grade of W-5 is the highest they’ll be able to reach. This elite tier starts its high pay rates at those with at least 20 years of service experience, according to the military’s basic pay table. A chief warrant officer 5 at that level will make $99,554.40 in 2021, while one with at least 38 years of experience will make $130,276.80 at the same rank.
O-1: Second Lieutenant/Ensign — $3,385.80-$4,260.60 Per Month
While the service members that start at pay grade O-1 outrank those at a W-5, their pay is far less generous. This is (again) because the years of experience that are required to reach the O-1 tier are far less than what’s needed to reach W-5 status. Army, Marine Corps and Air Force second lieutenants, along with Navy and Coast Guard ensigns are the lowest-ranking commissioned officers in the military, typically earning their commissions through graduation from either a service academy, ROTC program or officer candidate school.
These officers, who are often quite young, will earn anywhere from $40,629.60 to $51,127.20 in 2021.
O-1E: Second Lieutenant/Ensign — $4,260.60-$5,289.90 Per Month
While the rank of those in the O-1E pay grade is the same as those in the O-1 tier, these officers make a bit more money because they bring more experience with them. To reach O-1E status, one has to have served for at least four years as an enlisted member or warrant officer before earning their commission. These seasoned service members start at a salary of $51,127.20 and can make as much as $63,478.80 if they have at least 14 years of experience in their file.
O-2: First Lieutenant/Lieutenant Junior Grade — $3,901.20-$5,398.50 Per Month
The O-2 pay grade is the next tier for commissioned officers and is offered in every branch of the military. The ranks that go with it are that of first lieutenant in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force and lieutenant junior grade in the Navy and Coast Guard. The least experienced officers at O-2, meaning those with less than two years of service, would make $46,814.40 in 2021, while those with at least six years of experience would make $64,782.
O-2E: First Lieutenant/Lieutenant Junior Grade — $5,289.90-$6,251.70 Per Month
Just like the O-1E pay grade, this tier offers a better salary than the O-2 group, despite covering the same ranks. To be eligible for O-2E pay, an officer has to have at least four years of previous service experience as an enlisted member or warrant officer before becoming a commissioned officer. These officers will start out at a rate that would pay them $64,782 for 2021 and could make a salary as high as $75,020.40 if they have at least 14 years of experience.
O-3: Captain/Lieutenant — $4,514.70-$7,345.20 Per Month
Anyone who achieves the rank of captain in the Army, Marines, Air Force or Space Force, or the rank of lieutenant in the Navy or Coast Guard, is eligible for the O-3 pay grade. For those who earn these commissioned ranks with no previous experience as an enlisted member or warrant officer, the salary starts at $54,176.40 and goes up to $88,142.40 if they have at least 14 years of experience.
O-3E: Captain/Lieutenant — $6,022.80-$7,839 Per Month
The pay grade of O-3E is the final one that elevates an officer’s starting pay based on whether or not they come in with at least four years of previous service experience. The captains and lieutenants at this pay grade are offered a lucrative salary right out of the gate. The starting yearly salary for 2021 is $72,273.60, while those with at least 18 years of experience will make $94,068.
O-4: Major/Lieutenant Commander — $5,135.10-$8,573.70 Per Month
In the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force, majors qualify for the O-4 pay grade, while it’s reserved for lieutenant commanders in the Navy and Coast Guard. Those rare officers that reach this pay grade with less than two years of experience in their file will start out making $61,621.20 for the year, but those who are much more experienced will clear six figures in base pay. Anyone at O-4 with at least 18 years of service will make $102,884.40 at the same rank.
O-5: Lieutenant Colonel/Commander — $5,951.40-$10,111.20 Per Month
As we continue climbing the ranks of commissioned officers, those who have reached the level of an O-5 will have many people at their command. Lieutenant colonels in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force and commanders in the Navy and Coast Guard are eligible for the generous pay offered at this grade. The least experienced among them will collect $71,416.80 in 2021, and those with at least 22 years on file will just about double that salary, making $121,334.40 this year.
O-6: Colonel/Captain — $7,139.10-$12,638.40 Per Month
Any commissioned officer who ascends to the O-6 pay grade will almost surely have a lot of valuable experience and a high level of leadership skills at their disposal. This tier includes colonels in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force and captains in the Navy and Coast Guard. Basic pay starts out at $85,669.20 for this year but goes all the way up to $151,660.80 for those officers with a remarkable 30 years of service experience in their file.
O-7: Brigadier General/Rear Admiral Lower Half — $9,414.30-$14,065.80 Per Month
We’re now getting into the truly elite ranks of the armed services. Commissioned officers who reach the O-7 pay grade will find that they aren’t outranked by many people. This tier cover a brigadier general of the Army, Marines, Air Force or Space Force, as well as a rear admiral lower half of the Navy or Coast Guard and starts at a six-figure salary for those with the least experience. On the low end, an O-7 can clear $112,971.60 in 2021, while those with at least 30 years of military experience will clear $168,789.60.
O-8: Major General/Rear Admiral — $11,329.50-$16,333.20 Per Month
If you remember what a lowly cadet will clear for the entire year of 2021, it’s less than what many officers at the O-8 pay grade will make in a month. This is for good reason because the amount of responsibility and decision making that goes along with the ranks at this grade is immense. Major generals of the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force, as well as rear admirals of the Navy and Coast Guard are eligible for O-8 basic pay. This grade starts at $135,954 for 2021 and goes all the way up to $195,998.40 for anyone with at least 34 years of experience.
O-9: Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral — $16,012.50-$16,608.30 Per Month
On the military’s basic pay table, the O-9 pay grade doesn’t even begin until a service members has at least 20 years of experience. That’s considered the low end of this scale and commands a salary of $192,150, while those with at least 26 years of experience are on the highest end and will clear $199,299.60 in 2021. The O-9 pay grade includes the ranks of lieutenant general in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force and that of vice admiral in the Navy and Coast Guard.
O-10: General/Admiral — $16,608.30 Per Month
Unlike the other pay grades in the military, the one at the very top offers a flat rate of basic pay for anyone who reaches it. This is because the monthly salary for this most elite grade is tied to the rate of pay for Level II of the U.S. Executive Schedule. This means anyone who reaches the rank of general in the Army, Marines, Air Force or Space Force, as well as admiral in the Navy or Coast Guard, is capped at a yearly salary of $199,299.60 in 2021.
This pay grade also includes those officers serving in the prestigious roles of chairman or vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chief of staff of the Army or Air Force, chief of Naval operations, chief of space operations and commandant of the Marine Corps or Coast Guard.