I don’t really play the game. I know the rules, and I fire up MegaMek every now and then to keep my hand in and look for edge cases that might be interesting to tell in stories. But what I spend a lot of time thinking about is the world. How might these things all work, if not in a real way then at least in a consistent way. I build a lot of units because of this.
Part of that is figuring out how the organization that is a mercenary unit might work. One aspect of that is ranks. I fall into the camp that says, whether formal or informal, a mercenary unit—by which I mean a formed group of individuals under discipline—can only function if there if is a coherent and recognized system of authority.
That’ll be a whole other post.
Today I want to talk about ranks. Every military in the BattleTech setting has a semi-unique rank structure. Sometimes they make sense; sometimes they don’t. But I generally like to adopt a custom and unique one for mercenaries.
So, in a totally non-binding, non-canon way, here’s how I think about it.
Enlisted mercenary soldiers are professionals at the trade of war and the subdisciplines they focus in. In general, enlisted ranks are specialist ranks, with very little combat leadership beyond the squad or team level. In support arms, senior enlisted ranks are responsible for more persons.
A recruit is just that, an unskilled or semi-skilled volunteer often relegated to training formations or advanced schools (whether internal schools in large mercenary groups with organized training functions, or detached to paid schooling in smaller units) but not yet ready for regular unit placements. Recruits often act as supplemental logistics or astech personnel when in a combat zone.
A private is a qualified professional of any skill level (green to elite) assigned to a line or support role and expected to deliver professional value to the organization. Common infantrymen are privates, as are junior astechs, combat vehicle crewmen, or support service staff.
Privates who excel at their roles but show no aptitude for, or interest in, leadership are promoted to specialists. Mercenaries recognize that excellence in a combat or administrative skill does not necessarily equal leadership potential, and so maintain a rank and pay grade to support those limited ambitions.
A corporal is an enlisted person who was selected for, or showed aptitude for, basic leadership potential. Corporals are infantry fireteam leaders, responsible for two privates, or astech team leaders, responsible for two astechs. In combat vehicles with large crews, a corporal may serve as vehicle second. The most junior technicians who lead tech squads are corporals, as are team leads in administrative and service support roles.
Corporals who excel are promoted to sergeant; sergeants are generally senior term-enlistment soldiers or career mercenaries. A sergeant leads an infantry squad; this is also the normal rank for a technician in charge of an astech squad, or department duty NCOs in administrative and support roles. Common MechWarriors and aerospace pilots are sergeants, as are vehicle commanders.
In DropShips and other naval-styled rank groups, this rank is called chief.
Staff Sergeant (Senior Chief)
Senior sergeants in infantry platoons may advance to staff sergeant; they retain their squad command but assume responsibility for assisting the lieutenant in operating the platoon. Technical staff sergeants lead tech platoons; in administrative and support functions, including logistics platoons, staff sergeants act as section chiefs. A staff sergeant is a career mercenary with a skill specialty.
Gunnery sergeants are almost without exception combat specialty squad leaders. In roles where senior leadership is needed but officer candidates are few, such as specialty infantry roles like scout/sniper or long-range reconnaissance. In rare cases, the senior enlisted MechWarrior of a company may be granted a gunny’s rank.
Master sergeant is the support equivalent of a gunnery sergeant; senior company-level technicians and administrators are often master sergeants, as are service support and staff support NCOs. Aside from administrative convenience on tables of organization, technical and support companies rarely operate together; these semi-independent units are led by master sergeant specialists who may on paper report to an officer, but in reality, run their units as they see fit.
Sergeant Major (Master Chief)
Mercenaries, like many military organizations, recognize a handful of senior, experienced enlisted soldiers as sergeants major. In combat arms, there is normally not more than one sergeant major in a battalion; support and service branch enlisted soldiers rarely rise past master sergeant, as sergeant major is uniformly a leadership rank.
Warrant ranks in mercenary units are commonly career specialist ranks for long-service specialists or other soldiers whose duties routinely require command prerogatives. For example, many of the enlisted specialists who negotiate mercenary contracts and oversee the logistical purchasing are warrant officers.
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As in most state militaries, mercenaries award “commissions” to selected individuals who are set in authority over soldiers. Because the legal authority of warfighting extends from the employer to the mercenary unit, officers are necessary to assume the legal burden of command in warfare.
There are proportionally far fewer officers in a mercenary unit than are often found in regular military tables of organization; where a nation-state unit may have as many as 6-10% of its headcount be officers, many mercenaries maintain fewer than 3%, due to their lean and combat-first orientation.
The usual lowest recognized commissioned rank is lieutenant; in combat branches, lieutenants command infantry platoons, aerospace fighter flights, vehicle platoons, and BattleMech lances. Support officers command technical battalions or service support detachments. In mercenary units of battalion size or smaller, for example, a lieutenant may oversee the entire technical support branch.
Captain (Lieutenant Commander)
A captain, in combat arms, commands a company, troop or squadron. Captains in mercenary units often exercise extraordinary amounts of independence compared to regular military captains, due to the nature of detached mercenary service. Unlike regular military captains, who have huge support bureaucracies to depend on, many mercenary captains are the final source of authority for their entire unit.
A battalion, squadron, or wing commander, majors are the field-grade officers of a mercenary unit. In regular militaries, this rank is often used for staff officers, but the light staff functions of most mercenary units means mercenary majors still exercise tactical control of their battalions. Like captains, mercenary majors are often the seniormost mercenary officer in their detachment, with a degree of independence most regular military majors could only dream of.
A sizable portion of modern mercenaries use the lieutenant colonel rank for senior leaders in a mercenary organization. In regiment or larger units, for example, senior staff functions are led by lieutenant colonels; often the regimental executive officer is a lieutenant colonel.
A mercenary colonel is generally accepted as the endpoint of the mercenary rank structure; units larger than a regiment are so uncommon that the general officer’s rank, or other flag ranks, are held almost in contempt. The generals of the Illician Lancers, the Eridani Light Horse, or a handful of other large units are only exceptions to the rule. Indeed other, larger units such as Wolf’s Dragoons or McCarron’s Armored Cavalry make due with colonels.
Unlike a regular army colonel, who may only be marking time hoping for a general rank, a mercenary colonel is responsible for their entire organization; due to this fact, the average mercenary colonel’s command of organizational and logistical doctrine routinely exceeds their regular military counterpart.
To give you a sense of how all these fit together, let’s looks at some small-unit examples.
A technical squad:
Every fourth technical squad with a staff sergeant replacing the sergeant to form a technical platoon, and every third technical platoon with a master sergeant replacing the staff sergeant to form a technical support company: tech support companies are administrative concepts that align with a combat unit company, one tech squad per BattleMech or combat vehicle.
An infantry fireteam:
Soldier (private or specialist)
Soldier (private or specialist)
Two of those, with a sergeant replacing one of the corporals, to form an infantry squad. 3-4 of those, with a staff sergeant replacing one of the sergeants, to form a platoon. One fireteam is normally replaced with a lieutenant and two specialists for an HQ element.
A scout-sniper squad (reinforced)
Soldier (gunnery sergeant)
A scout-sniper squad contains two reinforced fireteams of two pairs of scout/snipers, led by a gunnery sergeant specialist leader. Deployed at the squad level to be a mercenary unit’s hidden eyes, ears, and occasional hand of the gods, a scout-sniper squad is often outfitted with camo/IR sneaksuits and the most powerful weapons, deployed by specially-configured Karnov UR gunships.
A Brutus Assault Tank
Asst driver (private)
Asst gunner (private)
A five-person battle tank crew fights, lives, and if necessary dies often as a unit. Whether the asst driver acts in that role, or as a sensor operator, or if the asst gunner act as an autoloader troubleshooter, is up to the sergeant-commander. Many aggressive mercenary tank commanders choose to act as their own gunners.
Why Does Anyone Care?
For most players of the game, all of this detail doesn’t matter. At all. And that’s fine.
But for me, the writer who has to turn an on-paper mercenary company into living, breathing, interesting humans that people want to read about, I need to know how the pieces fit together so I can make it consistent and believable. People as characters are products of the environment in which they live, and hierarchy is a critical component of the environment.
Is my way the only right way? Of course not.
Many excellent writers have told many excellent stories using the out-of-the-book rank systems. Myself, I’m apt to use the AFFS officer ranks, but that system is woefully lacking in enlisted ranks, which is just plain ridiculous for the supposedly-ultra-professional Inner Sphere military, but that’s an argument for another day.
If you ever need to care about the minutiae of a mercenary regiment’s organization, maybe this will be a guide. And if not, well, I got the dopamine hit of writing it all down.