Precedence Order

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'


"It is a maxim, that those to whom everybody allows the second place have an undoubted title to the first."
"One of the cardinal rules in protocol is the observance of the order of precedence at all functions where officials of a government or its representative are present."
McCaffree and Innis
Of all the things that can get you into trouble in protocol, making mistakes in order of precedence can be fatal. Determining order of precedence is the starting point for almost all you do in protocol—from organizing the order of arrival and departure, to seating, to introductions of distinguished guests. In many countries failure to recognize the proper rank and precedence of a guest is equivalent to an insult to his position and the country he represents. In fact, wars have started because of a failure to give proper recognition to the rank of an official of government. It was not until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that nations finally got together and agreed to rules of precedence based on diplomatic titles. Envoys of equal title were ranked according to the date and hour they presented their credentials, a practice still in effect today.

In our country, the President of the United States determines precedence for U.S. officials. The President also can and has changed the order of precedence within his own government. For example, President Kennedy elevated the Speaker of the House of Representatives ahead of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and although this ranking has been maintained since, there are other examples where a new administration has "demoted" positions elevated by its predecessor. Because of these changes, coupled with the fact that new positions are frequently created, an official order of precedence is not distributed by the Department of State, which is the real authority on such matters.

However, because of its importance, several useful precedence lists have been published. The most "authoritative" remains that in Protocol - The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage by Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis. (While refusing to distribute an "official" precedence list, the Department of State continues to use this reference as an "unofficial" guide.) Service Etiquette by Oretha D. Swartz also provides an abbreviated order of precedence. Additionally, the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee publishes "The White House Order of Precedence" for every President's inauguration, the latest being for President Clinton's ceremony in 1992. The Department of Defense has distributed its precedence list for DOD 1992. The Department of Defense has distributed its precedence list for DOD officials. All are useful, but none match exactly, making your job difficult if the discrepancies relate to officials you have to seat at an official function!

This chapter provides some general rules on order of precedence and some useful precedence lists that should cover most situations. (There is also useful information in the chapter on Forms of Address deeding with foreign officer rank and equivalents, comparable rank among the U.S. military services, and rank abbreviations.)

Any issues/conflicts involving foreign visitors, contact this office, AF/CVAI DSN 225-2796 or Commercial (703-695-2796) or the State Department at (202) 647-1734/4169/4543.

General Rules on Order of Precedence

Military and Department of Defense Civilians Order of Precedence

Precedence is based primarily on grade and position. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other officers, followed by the Chiefs of Staff (who are ranked by their date of appointment). At joint functions, Commanders-Chief of unified and specified commands rank next by date of appointment. They are followed by active four stars (by date of rank), retired four stars, active three stars, retired three stars, and so on.

When position held is not a factor, precedence among Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps officers on active duty, including retired officers on active duty, is determined by date of rank. When dates of rank are the same, precedence is determined by total active federal military service date. When date of rank and total active federal military service date are the same, officers of the Regular Air Force take precedence among themselves according to their position on the permanent promotion list.

Active duty officers precede reserve officers of the same rank. Retired officers rank with, but after, active duty Reserve officers of the same rank.

To determine relative rank among general officers in the Air Force, refer to the USAF General Officers Relative Rank List. To do the same for flag or general officers of the other services, your best avenue may be to contact the principle parties' offices (talk to the executive secretaries or aides).

There are two exceptions where precedence is not based on grade. Because of their positions, the commander and vice commander of a wing should take precedence over other colonels in the wing, regardless of their date of rank. Similarly, at Major Commands, the directors and chiefs of special staff take precedence over other staff officers of similar grade.

Senior Executive Service (SES) precedence is determined by position held. SES pay does not affect precedence. If not otherwise in a higher ranking position, the following generally applies: SES-6s rank just after generals, SES-5s just after lieutenant generals, SES-4s and 3s just after major generals, and SES-2s and 1s just after brigadier generals. An Equivalency Rank Chart is provided at the end of this page which provides additional information.

Interservice Unit Precedence.

When different services are in formation, the following order of precedence should be followed:
  • Cadets, United States Military Academy
  • Midshipmen, United States Naval Academy
  • Cadets, United States Air Force Academy
  • Cadets, United States Coast Guard Academy
  • Midshipmen, United States Merchant Marine Academy
  • United States Army
  • United States Marine Corps
  • United States Navy
  • United States Air Force
  • United States Coast Guard
  • Army National Guard of the United States
  • Army Reserve
  • Marine Corps Reserve
  • Naval Reserve
  • Air National Guard of the United States
  • Air Force Reserve
  • Coast Guard Reserve
  • Other training organizations of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, in that order

When the Coast Guard operates as part of the Navy in times of war, the cadets, Coast Guard Academy, the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard Reserve take precedence after the midshipmen of the Naval Academy, the Navy, and the Naval Reserve, respectively.

Why a Lieutenant General ranks a Major General
"When Cromwell's "New Model Army" was raised in 1645, it was commanded by Captain General Sir Thomas Fairfax. The cavalry (being the "senior service") was commanded by Lieutenant General Oliver Cromwell and the infantry was under Sergeant Major General Skipton. That's why a lieutenant general ranks a major general. The rank we now call "major" was originally "sergeant major."

Order of Precedence Among Elected Officials.

U.S. Senators rank according to length of continuous service. If several members took office on the same date, they are ranked alphabetically.

U.S. members of Congress also rank according to length of continuous service. If several members took office on the same date, they are ranked according to the order in which the states they represent were admitted to the Union, or they are ranked alphabetically by state. Consideration is given to ranking committee chairmen.

Governors of states collectively, when not in their own state, rank according to the state's date of admission to the Union or alphabetically by state at the option of the person or group planning the function.

According to the Department of State, Mayors of cities collectively, when not in their own city, are ranked like Governors (according to the state's date of admission to the Union or alphabetically by state at the option of the person or group planning the function). Other sources (Department of the Army) suggest ranking based on population represented, with Mayors of larger populations ranking first.

Other state and local officials are difficult to rank, and there are no fixed rules for doing so. We have included several in the precedence list in the next section, and are indebted to the Department of Army protocol office for their suggestions. However, you may want to consider the purpose of the function, level of all guests, and political significance when determining seating arrangements or other tasks based on order of precedence. Following are a few "rules of thumb" that may apply to your situation. Whatever you do, be consistent.

  • A mayor of a large important city might be placed after a United States Senator or member of the House of Representative, depending on the circumstances.
  • Lieutenant Governors in their own states might equate to a Deputy (or Under) Secretary of an executive department.
  • If State Senators are in their own states, they rank in the area of General Counsels of the military departments, or possibly higher depending on the occasion and other factors.
Diplomatic Precedence.

As previously mentioned, precedence of chiefs of missions depends on the date they presented their credentials - an ambassador accredited in January precedes one who was accredited in May of the same year.

Other rules to Consider.

Rank of a foreign visitor often takes precedence above the "principle of courtesy to a stranger," one of the rare excuses under which the order of precedence may be broken. For example, a Canadian national at a dinner in his honor in an American home would not sit in the guest of honor's seat of another foreign diplomat of higher rank should be a guest also, although the foreign diplomat is permanently stationed in the U.S., where the Canadian is just visiting.

At a function in the U.S. to which the President has been invited but sends a representative, his representative is accorded the rank and courtesy that goes with the Presidency. The same is not true, however, for other officials of the government. Their representatives are accorded the position they themselves hold.

Spouses of government officials are accorded the same rank as the principals at official functions and are seated accordingly unless they hold official positions themselves in which case they are placed where their official position dictates. (An exception is when a woman of higher rank displaces the wife of the highest-ranking man.)

Widows of former Presidents have a special place in the order of precedence with the rank of each according to the seniority of her husband among the past Presidents.

Medal of Honor winners hold no special precedence except when being specifically honored at a dinner or function (where the medal winner is the guest of honor), or on the basis of the military rank they hold.

Precedence Lists

As we discussed earlier, there is no official precedence list used by all agencies and departments of the Federal government.

In developing this list we have reviewed several sources, including: Protocol - The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage by McCaffree and Innis; "The White House Order of Precedence" published by the 1992 Armed Forces Inaugural Committee; Service Etiquette by Oretha D. Swartz; "The Table of Precedence, Department of Defense" (1 Apr 94) published by the Secretary of Defense's office of protocol; the "Flight Plan VIP Codes" published in the DOD Flight Information Publication "GENERAL PLANNING"; and several other commands' and service lists, including the Department of Army's "Precedence List". We also consulted with the Department of State's Ceremonial Division, Office of Protocol, who graciously reviewed our draft list and suggested changes.

This list incorporates most of the entries of all of these lists (unless we knew positions were no longer in existence). Unfortunately, we found very little consistency or commonality among the lists once we got below the first 30 or so entries. As a general rule, we deferred to the Department of State in placing diplomatic positions; the Army's list in placing state and local officials; and the DOD list in placing all DOD officials. Where there were conflicts between the Department of State and DOD concerning the placement of DOD officials, we show the relative rankings for both sources, and reference the differences in parentheses. We recommend using DOD's Precedence List for military functions and Department of State's for all others. We've also asterisked (*) those positions that hold no "official rank" with the Department of State.

For general reference, we've also included the complete DOD Table of Precedence and the Flight Plan VIP Codes following our list. Following these lists is the Order of States Determined by Date of Admission into the Union, which you'll need if you have to rank Governors or members of the House of Representatives

VIP Codes Chart

Department of Defense Order of Precedence


Equivalency Rank Chart