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What does a Navy Officer do?

By Lindsay Pietroluongo
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Navy officers are elite members of a national naval military service, and their main jobs are leading and instructing less experienced sailors, commanding vessels, and piloting aircraft as needed for national security or, in times of war, air-sea combat. Many are also involved in the provision, inventorying, and selection of mission-critical supplies. It can be difficult to set out a precise job description for this sort of work because so much depends on the naval forces a person serves, as well as his or her specific function as an officer. Some officers are career sailors who have risen through the ranks, but others assume a range of other professions — doctors, dentists, and lawyers are good examples — who have committed their careers to working with servicemen and women and their families. In nearly all instances officers are full-time professionals who dedicate their lives to the service of their country’s navy in a position of leadership.

Understanding Officership

Most countries with naval power separate their personnel into two broad categories: people who have enlisted as sailors, and those who have been commissioned into the post. The differences can vary from place to place, but in most cases the title of “officer” is reserved for someone who has been commissioned. This means that he or she has been identified as a person with exceptional leadership capacity and specialized training that will enable him or her to take charge of fleets and command operations more or less independently.

The promotion and advancement track is usually really different for people who are commissioned versus those who are only enlisted to serve for a specific period of time, and officers are almost always considered more elite. More is also usually expected of them, though. These are the people who are usually responsible for designing missions, carrying out plans, and giving instructions in crucial moments.

Leading Teams and Troops

Leadership is usually the most universally characterizing aspect of a navy officer. Even very young officers in the lowest ranking posts are often responsible for leading entire platoons of enlisted sailors, particularly in times of battle or war. They may also be charged with designing training exercises and motivating those around them to rally behind a common mission.

Commanding Vessels

Officers are usually also at the helm of ships, submarines, and other naval vessels. They are captains and admirals, and use their expertise to chart courses and identify targets. An officer is usually the person who makes the call of when to fire and at whom, as well. Actually providing express direction and navigation isn’t all these professionals do, though. Specially trained officers are usually the ones in charge of negotiating port entries, dealing with customs officials, and working with liaisons in ports-of-call. Since officers are the more elite personnel, they are often seen as a more polished face for the navy as a whole, and are usually the ones chosen to represent a ship, a crew, or even an entire fleet.

Piloting Aircraft

Many of the largest naval ships in the seas around the world serve as floating hubs where not just maritime but also air affairs are handled. Some officers are accordingly trained in how to pilot aircraft, which includes taking off and landing from the deck of the carrier. Maintenance and basic plane inspection may also be the officer’s job, or this may be relegated to someone with less expertise.

Providing and Inventorying Supplies

Officers may also be tasked with providing the Navy with supplies, ranging from ammunition and electronic equipment to medicine and food. These sorts of officers supply sailors, surface ships, submarines, shore stations, and aviation squadrons with crucial equipment. People in these roles typically need strong organizational, mathematical, and troubleshooting skills. Knowledge of logistics also can be imperative when trying to save time transporting vital materials.

A person in this role may also oversee the handling of delicate items, such as medicine and explosives. This job requires the officer to act as a leader and business manager by carrying out executive duties. Job responsibilities include financial management, assessing supply and demand, and evaluating the proposals of potential suppliers. Writing up accountability and after-action reports is usually part of the job, too.

Required Education and Training

There are a couple of different ways to become a navy officer, and a lot can depend on location and specific jurisdictional rules. University training is almost always required, though. In most cases, attending a specific naval academy, like the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is the most direct path. Officer recruitment frequently also happens at universities, and some countries also have special officer training schools for people who decide to pursue this career track later in life.

People who haven’t completed their university studies can sometimes still qualify if they pledge to finish and get a degree, and in many cases the navy will actually pay for the education in these circumstances. Many recruitment programs will also pay for professional education in exchange for a certain amount of time in an officer role. In addition to standard undergraduate learning this often also includes things like medical school and law school.

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Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Aug 07, 2012

I didn't have any idea that the Navy offered a graduate school for its officers. What sorts of degrees can you get at that school? I would assume they offer law courses for people who are going into that field. Do they only offer degrees in things that will benefit the military like engineering and communications, or can you get degrees in other things?

Besides going to the Officer Candidate School, what else is required to become a Navy Officer? The article mentions that you have to have a 4-year degree. Once you graduate and become an officer, what is the starting Navy officer pay? How does it compare to the other branches of the military?

By jcraig — On Aug 06, 2012
I think that a lot of people underestimate the necessity of the other types of officers like Supply Corps. Yes, they don't see the same type of combat like people on the ship, but if it wasn't for these people, the Navy couldn't function at all.

Although every branch of the military has similar positions, I think it would be especially tough if you were in the Navy. Some of those ships sail for several months at a time. I have a friend in the Navy who is part of a submarine crew, and it isn't uncommon for them to be on the sub for more than 7 months. If you are a Supply Officer, you have to be able to plan for how much food needs to be loaded on the ships as well as where the ships will need to stop and pick up more supplies.

By JimmyT — On Aug 05, 2012

@cardsfan27 - The different types of Navy officers can get confusing, because the other armed forces don't have a similar arrangement. Basically, the easiest way to think about it is pretty much what you said. An unrestricted officer is in charge of an entire vessel of some sort whereas a restricted officer works only in a specialized area.

One of the interesting things about this is that it presents one of the only times in the military when a lower ranking officer can command a higher ranking officer. If a commander is in charge of a battleship, there may also be an admiral on board who specializes in air combat. Since the commander is the expert on that ship, the admiral must obey all of his orders (unless they directly jeopardize the crew, mission, etc.).

Once the two officers step off of the ship, though, things go back to normal, and the commander is expected to obey all of the orders from the admiral, since he is a higher ranking officer.

By cardsfan27 — On Aug 05, 2012

I wasn't aware that all of the different types of Navy officer programs existed. I am still a little confused, though. What exactly is the difference between unrestricted and restricted officers? What do those terms mean? I understand that the unrestricted officers seem to have high positions.

Also, are the jobs of the officers determined by their rank? For example, I know the lowest officer in the Navy is the ensign, and the highest are admirals. Would an ensign automatically be assigned one of the lower jobs on the list and have to work his or her way up the ladder?

It almost seems as though the unrestricted officers are more in charge of large-scale things like entire ships or squadrons whereas the restricted officers are below that and only work in a small specialty area.

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