In my review of The Last Jedi, I mentioned that the officer [Note 1] rank structure for the Resistance is canonically Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Commander, Colonel, General/Admiral (although Amilyn Holdo is a Vice Admiral and Nien Nunb is a Lieutenant Commander, but that’s not germane to this post). The Resistance is inspired by the Alliance to Restore the Republic (aka the Rebel Alliance), as the New Republic was unwilling to stand up to the threat of the First Order. I believe that the Resistance took its rank structure directly from the Rebel Alliance.
According to the canon reference book, Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide, the Alliance’s rank structure is Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Commander, Colonel, General, which is taken from the Alderaanian standard - this is similar to the description in the Legends roleplaying book Rebel Alliance Sourcebook, except that the roleplaying book indicates that red is designated for the army designation while blue is designated for the navy. However, Captain Cassian Andor and Captain Kado Oquoné wear green rank plaques [Note 2], which throws a wrench into both systems. I believe that there is a simple solution for this that covers all of the bases, save for one inconsistent badge.
Before I describe this, I must mention the beautiful work that Curtis Saxton put in on the STAR WARS Technical Commentaries website. He created marvelous explanations for the insignia that we see in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, using the on-screen characters, the given ranks, what real-world ranks are, and using math to give us what insignia must correspond to what officer grade based off all available information. His work holds up for the most part, although I think that he over-inflated the Rebel Alliance’s ranks slightly. However, now that Disney has acquired Star Wars, all of this is now Legends, and we have a new expanded universe to play in.
According to Saxton, “any realistic military force there must be at least ten levels of officer seniority” - which I would agree with under normal circumstances. However, with the forces available to the Rebel Alliance, it is conceivable that it is not necessary to have more than these five officer ranks. Consider the United States Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor to the United States Coast Guard: it had a simple officer rank structure of Captain, First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant, and Third Lieutenant. And the early United States Navy did not have the rank of Admiral until 1862 - up until then, the highest rank was Captain, with an appointment of Flag Officer. And some may ask “why not Ensign or Sub-lieutenant” (depending on which variation of English you may be accustomed to) - well, Ensign was the lowest officer grade until the 19th Century. The Royal Navy didn’t get Sub-lieutenants 1861, and the US Navy didn’t get Ensigns until 1862.
“Well,” some may also ask, “why the mix of naval and ground-forces ranks?” Because, unlike the Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance is a Combined Service. One of the short-falls of the Galactic Empire was inter-service rivalries - Ben Adams explains how this was an issue for the Empire - but the Rebellion cannot afford this problem. The Rebellion has to have complex joint operations between the Navy, Army, Starfighters, Special Operations, and so forth - and so they are set up in a similar to the Canadian Armed Forces. One Service, multiple branches, working together as a unified force. Also, in the Middle Ages, warships were typically merchant vessels that were hired by the crown - the person in charge of the ship was the Ship's Master, and the ship carried a company of embarked soldiers commanded by an Army Captain [Note 3].
Alderaan is one planet, and the Rebel Alliance is a collection of various rebellions working together to achieve a single goal. While there is an Alliance Council or an Rebel High Command, the Rebel Alliance is not as well funded, nor as vast, as the Galactic Empire. It has collections of ships, and officers who can crew them whenever possible, and relies heavily on small craft and starfighters. The Rebel Alliance was small enough that trying to capture a Super Star Destroyer would have tied up the rebellion - they did not have enough resources to keep one running - that’s why Home One was the largest vessel in their inventory during the Galactic Civil War.
A lieutenant is a junior commissioned officer, senior to non-commissioned officers. You likely have had some sort of officer training, be it from a planetary defense force or the Imperial Academy. We don't get to see any named characters wearing this insignia. Wedge Antillies and Luke Skywalker were Lieutenants at one point. The red insignia shown here is for Army/Ground Forces.
Captain is a very flexible rank - captain, as a title, is a person who is in command of a ship. With the rank of captain, they may be in command of a ship or a company of soldiers, or be an entry-level professional, or be second-in-command of a squadron of fighters, or merely a flight leader in a squadron of fighters. Lieutenants and captains are company officers. Cassian Andor and Kado Oquoné are seen wearing this insignia.
Major has two dots at the top and one dot at the bottom, while commander has one dot at the top and two dots at the bottom. Orientation is important to tell the two grades apart - the closest analogue to this that I can think of is having silver insignia for first lieutenant/captain and lieutenant colonel/commander while having gold insignia for second lieutenant/ensign and major/lieutenant commander in the United States Armed Forces. Majors are often staff officers and field officers, being the executive officer or the operations officer of a battalion. Commanders are in control of bodies of troops or military operations, in command of squadrons, serve on staffs, or may only have the title as a symbol of the position that they are in. We see Bren Derlin and an unnamed major at Echo Base with the red insignia, and Luke Skywalker with the blue insignia, during The Empire Strikes Back.
Colonels are the senior-most field officer, typically in charge of a regiment in the army, or a wing or group of starfighters, or are staff officers serving between field commands at battalion and brigade levels. While we don't get to see him wear the insignia in the movies, Ledick Firest is a Colonel during The Empire Strikes Back. We see Bandwin Cor and Haxen Delto wear the insignia in Rogue One.
Generals and Admirals are the flag officers, the senior-most military rank in armed forces. They are the decision makers, the planners, the ones who sends people out on missions. The only admirals that we see are Gial Ackbar and Raddus; all other flag officers are called General, including Jan Dodonna, Dravits Draven, Baccam Grafis, Pitt Onoran, and Carlist Rieekan.
But what about...
Captain Raymus Antilles? He is wearing a fleet blue 5-pip insignia, but is called a Captain?
Captain Antilles was in command of the Tantive IV, which gives him the title of Captain, regardless of rank. Also, as he served the House of Organa, so he may have also had a higher ceremonial rank that he was permitted to wear, or was actually of a higher rank which meant that he was assigned to captain the Tantive IV. Or he could be like a Colonel-in-Chief or a Colonel of the Regiment, where he is of a higher rank, but is associated with his organization.
Commander Bob Hudsol? Isn't he called a General in the Star Wars Holiday Special? And shouldn't he be an admiral instead of general since he is wearing blue?
Commander Hudsol may in fact be a General - however, he may hold the position of Commander. That is, he may be the Commander of the Starfighter Element, while General Jan Dodonna is in overall command of the Yavin IV defenses, and many air forces use either Marshal or General as their flag ranks. Lastly, in the Star Wars Holiday Special, the character that people see is General Ristt, who was modeled after Hudsol (but isn't actually him).
Commander Lajaie only has information on him in Legends, so I cannot say much about him. As for Commander Willard, he is in command of the planetary defenses of Yavin IV (yes, Yavin IV is a moon, but it is a planet-sized moon). Though some speculate that they may have dual service (both army and navy), I suspect that it is a costuming error.
Generals Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, and Crix Madine? They all are wearing the different insgina while on Home One. And why isn't Han Solo, also a general, in uniform? And how come General Organa doesn't have the collar insignia?
Simple: all of the uniforms in Return of the Jedi were the result of a costuming error. Since we know that is what happened to make all of the Imperial officers have the rank badge of commander, that's likely what happened to the Rebels as well. Also, Han Solo is a scoundul - he wouldn't wear a uniform if he didn't have to.
Me? If I had a rank insignia, which one would I probably have? And where would it get shipped if someone were to gift me one?
If I went to a military academy straight out of secondary school, and stayed in service until now, I would be about age and service appropriate to be a Major. While I fancy myself as a starfighter pilot, I realistically would either be in Fleet Command or in Support Services. I might have the red major insignia (especially as that seems to be most common on screen), but the blue major insignia would be more logical.
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- In my review, I forgot to explicitly say that it is the officer rank structure - I only implied it. Oops.
- It is possible that Cassian Andor and/or Kado Oquoné are supposed to be wearing blue insignia and it looks green instead due to lighting or other factors. Kado Oquoné is rarely in decent enough lighting to get a good look at his plaque; however, in every shot where we can see Cassian Andor’s rank plaque, it is clearly green. However, Cassian Andor is stated as being army in the visual guide, which also states that red is for Army. My conclusion is that Army is Red, Navy/Starfighter Command is Blue, and Intelligence is Green.
- Navy Captains (O-6) outrank Army Captains (O-3) because of the evolution of the ranks and duties. Both had lieutenants as their assistant, but the needs of each branch were different. Ships that were too small to have a Captain in command were given to Master-and-Commanders, and even smaller ones were given to Lieutenants-in-Command. So we have Captain, Commander, Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant. Whereas, in the Army, units only got bigger, and the ranks of Major and Colonel were already established at these points.