Bring back the Specialist Rank?

The Specialist RankThe Specialist Rank

I was recently browsing through a 1-year old topic that is trending again on a military forum that I belong to where a member posted the oft asked (and usually not researched by the OP) question “Why doesn’t the Army bring back the ranks of specialist again?” Like they often do the writer emphasizes the divergence of technical versus leadership, and reminds us that not everyone is “cut out to be a leader” but can still contribute as a specialist and should have a chance for upward mobility. I mostly chuckle and wonder if they ever heard of our great Warrant Officer corps?

First off, and to clear a misconception, there was never a Spec-8 or Spec-9 in the Army. Got it? The rank existed, but according the the DCSPER, (now HRC) no one was ever promoted to those grades before they were discontinued. I wrote a short monograph on the history of Specialist rank (link), you may want to give it a read if you have a real interest in the storied past of technicians and specialists. Then the Spec-7 rank was abolished in 1978 and except for the SPC, the specialists ranks of SP5 and SP6 were finally killed off in 1985, and for good reason. Though it is not specifically the why for, it is helpful to understand that unfortunately most personnel decisions and actions, especially relating to selection and promotion, are done for the “good of the Army.” Sadly that means policy is driven primarily by end-strength and/or budget decrees. That is how the Army manages ranks at each level. Not enough SGTs, mess with the promotion process. Too many SFCs, change RCP and institute QSP. Too many Sergeants Majors, decrease MTOE/TDA slots available for MSGs to compete for. One need only listen to our military leaders who fight for resources to watch their predicted results become a new personnel policy and sometimes history has shown us that decisions made were not always because they were best for the Army, it was what they could afford.

The Army had a two-tiered enlisted NCO-Specialist rank system from Jul 1955 to basically Oct 1985 (actually, to present day), and it was  thirty years of confusion. The problem still exists at the E-4 pay grade (how many corporals do you know?). The military branches went thru the creation of the “Super grades” (E-8 and E-9) and this “two party system” of the haves and have-nots in 1958 added to the problem, and career and mid-grade combat soldiers were asking their leaders ‘WTF, my risks outweigh theirs and they get the same pay and perks as me?’ One way the Army addressed some of this disparity between NCO leaders and specialist technicians was through something called “Pro Pay,” a monetary incentive for those performing specific functions and a soldier had to go through a exam to earn it. Soldiers who passed something called a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) tests at a certain level would received extra money in their check for “Proficiency Pay,” but alas it was phased out when the Army went to skills qualification testing (SQT).

It was thought at one time that because of “technology” we needed separate enlisted grade tracks. Heck early in the thinking of leaders of a changing Army there was a belief that NCOs wouldn’t be able to command an Abrams M1 tank because it would be too complicated. One has to remember the Army of the 1960s and 1970s and the people who served, we were in the process of rebuilding the Army and the NCO Corps itself. Specialists, regardless of their grade, were outranked by all noncommissioned officers from Corporal through to Sergeant Major. When used as part of the earlier Technical grades they were considered a “half-step” grade, that is ranking below hard-stripe NCOs of the same grade, but higher than the next lower grade. It was due to that, and the lack of authority, that differentiated the modern specialist ranks from the rank of a noncommissioned officer. But in the pay line the Spec. 6 received the same amount as the S.Sgt, unless there was a pro pay kicker.

The number one reason the two tracks didn’t work was because it sapped the morale of the men on the line. The Army is mostly (I qualified this and said mostly) run/led by leaders from the combat arms communities and the grumbling of soldiers in the trenches, on tanks and on the big guns and aircraft often griped about the Specialist’s perks versus their own…it was always a point of contention. Hard-stripe NCOs did have special privileges, but they were few and far between by 1984. When was the last time you saw an NCO Club, or a special mess area for the noncom at the unit DFAC? Plus, from ’58 to ’68 the super grade rank grade additions had fouled up the enlisted ranks because they let men wear the insignia of  their former grade and had sergeants first class in pay grade E-6 and E-7. Yes, really, it was messy and the Army made a few missteps trying to fix it. The fact was the ranks, responsibilities, duties and authority of the Specialist was a mere asterisk on the bigger problems going on with the enlisted force during, and the period immediately following, the Vietnam War.

Though this is purely a tongue-in-cheek look at the Army Specialist is in the The Creed of the Specialist, it humorously portrays the specialists as one of mediocrity. Plus there were those annoyances that all soldiers have to deal with that specialists were exempt from, things like leading “fatigue details,” like pulling guard duty, or tasks like CQ and Staff Duty.  A large number of specialist-technicians resided in the Women’s Army Corps which wasn’t dissolved until 1978 when women were integrated in to the Army. Interesting that 1978 is the same year that the Spec.-7 rank disappeared, I have no historical context from my research which describes the specifics for removing the SP7, but according to published report of the time Spec-6 and Spec-5 were eliminated based on the requests of the branches that had specialists ranks.

DA Message R-281450Z May 1985 stated that as a result of MACOM Commanders review of the Specialists ranks 5 and 6 that the Chief of Staff of the Army decided to eliminate them, in the prior year the Army 29,000 overages and shortages in grades E-5 to E-9 and they were hard at work trying to re-balance enlisted structure (see my above comment about policy decisions). But those problems track back to 1974 just a few short months after the end of major hostilities in Vietnam where the Army was short 65,000 personnel in the same top five enlisted ranks (E-5 to E-9).

Today, and it happens in public every few years, some hooah innocently asks “hey, why don’t we bring back career specialists?” It usually seems to crop up when some good human being who is a whiz at their job is about to be DX’d for some up-or-out policy like refusing to go to the board, eating themselves in to a date with the 1SGs measuring tape, or failing to meet a standard like APFT or a WLC requirements. The individual is probably a great PFC or SPC, but everyone around them knows they should not really advance to the ranks of the Noncom but don’t want to have to see them go. Often time the one with the idea claim that “certain” career fields should get special considerations without really doing any research or having the historical understanding of the turmoil it caused. In my time it was often admin-log; clerks, cooks, mechanics, truck drivers, commo and supply folks, today the MOS’s du jour are UAV and Cyber soldiers, or fill in the blanks of your favorite cause.

I was a multi-functional logistician back in ancient history, I spent many a day in the motor pools, supply rooms, Dfacs and in convoys. I served as SL, PSG, a Drill Sgt, an NCOES instructor at ALC (it was BNCOC then), was a 1SG a couple of times and had career broadening assignments for 11-years as a Cmd Sgt Maj. But I also was an ASE-certified mechanic in multiple auto and truck categories, a recovery vehicle operator, led the department at Ft Knox that taught complex wiring for the Bradley turret system for SSG 63T/91M and ran a number of maintenance shops as a motor sergeant. I was a technician, a leader, and a soldier and I am not any better than the soldier-technicians of today and I can easily point out a number of my fellow technician-soldiers today who have been successful…the cream rises to the top. I submit good is good, and good soldiers can and should be both and that if you ask then they will likely tell you that they don’t want a “special” rank other than the stripes of a sergeant. It is about leaders informing soldiers of the expectations and then setting the example and by doing. The one constant in the Army is change, it is the ability to listen to the changing nature and be out ahead of that change that will make one successful.

I suggest in today’s shrinking Army you cannot afford to sub-divide the ranks again and we are talking about a different caliber of soldier today then back in 1955 or 1965, and 1975. This isn’t 1975 anymore people, we can have noncommissioned officers who are technical and are good leaders. I read in the discussion in question by a level-headed leader who stated that if soldier joins and see’s the lifestyle and chooses to re-enlist or make a career out of the Army, they must grow and mature in their profession and development “tactically and technically” as the NCO Creeds reminds us. And if they cannot do that we should thank them and help them transition out of the military. That is probably the best solution, but tit brings my conversation around to the beginning. None of these matter if doomsday scenarios come to life and Army end strength tanks and we break the all volunteer force and cannot recruit highly technical skills at the appropriate levels, the Specialist program is there to grab off the shelf and be dusted off and re-instated because almost all “human capital” policies tie to budgets and end-strength.

CSM Dan Elder, USA, Retired

11 thoughts on “Bring back the Specialist Rank?

  1. Gina

    Hi, Dan:
    Interesting article (and history) of our Army rank structure.

    Thank you,

  2. Thanks Gina, I appreciate you taking time to read. Regards.

  3. Stephen Comstocm

    Some good points. We have Chiefs to be our true technical experts, soldiers must have technical proficiency but in todays Army every soldier must be a leader. We do not fight on clearly defined battlefields with lines in the sand. We need NCO’s who are both tactical leaders and technical leaders.

  4. Great article and perspective on the past traditions of the Army Specialist Ranks. I was a last generation Specialist 5 at the time in 1985 and serving in Germany as a Traffic Management Coordinator (MOS 71N later renamed 88N). I served as the Import Chief of the Vehicle Processing Center in Bremerhaven Germany at the time and although my MOS Rank as an E5 was Specialist 5 my Brigade Commander appointed me to the lateral Rank of Sergeant because I had many direct reports as chief of the Import Division and because I was the senior NCO of the Detachment that I was assigned to the Brigade which was a support group to the Transportation Terminal Command, Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC) in Europe. This was a pretty common practice at the time. Like many Specialist 5s & 6s at the time I was actually serving in a direct leadership role leading and managing soldiers as well as the technical operations. I was very competent and well respected and in late 1984 competed for and was selected as Soldier of the Year (MTMC Bremerhaven Terminal) and went to Rodenham The Netherlands to compete for MTMC Europe Soldier of the Year. In 1985 when all of the Specialist 5’s and Specialist 6’s (We had one Specialist 6… a Computer Technician leading a team of Computer Techs.) were laterally promoted My Brigade Commander and Sergeant Major held a Promotion Ceremony and I actually had to change Rank Insignia from the Sergeant Stripes that I was wearing back to the Specialist 5 insignia that my MOS designated me as just for the actual promotion ceremony to Sergeant which I was already actually wearing before the Army made it official.
    Although there were some concerns about the ability of some soldiers having the ability to lead for the most part it was a decision that really made sense and at the time the Army was truly moving away from technicians only at the NCO ranks to the combined Technician and Leader in it’s NCO Ranks. My professional development at the time as a Specialist was really no different than that of a Corporal or Sergeant. I was a graduate of the Basic Leadership Coarse (BLC) at Ft. Lewis Washington after being promoted to Specialist 4, and a few years later a graduate of the Primary Leadership Coarse (PLC) at Ft. Benning Georgia, and again a few years later just prior to Promotion to E-5, I was a graduate of the Primary Technical Leadership Coarse for my MOS (71N). So in summary I was well prepared for leadership as I assumed the rank of Specialist 5 and began leading soldiers on my team. Switching over to the “Hard Stripes” of Sergeant (as we called them back during that time) was really not a big thing for me or any Spec 5 or Spec 6 because we were already leading and performing the duties and responsibilities of the Sergeant or Staff Sergeant. I think the Army made the better decision in this regard and has a better NCO Corps that is geared towards leadership more so than just the technical side of the Military.

    1. William Evans

      I was a spec 7 in Vietnam. I was in a special forces. In December 1969 I went to sgt first class. As a spec you have more power baca use of your field. No other nco or officer but a warrant officer can tell you what to do. I love my spec 7. I was a explosive expert. I loved my work. I was sent to the navy to do work for them. I trained many seebees and marines.

  5. Ed Baldwin

    CSM, A great read but I am a bit baffled. You said there was no Specialist 8/9 ranks yet HQDA own site has the ranks as having existed for some time in the late 50’s and forward.
    “Grades E8 and E9 were added and restructuring of titles changed and was announced in DA Message 344303, June 1958. The specialist insignia was also enlarged for male personnel. The insignia remained the same size for female personnel. The new regulation, AR 670-5, dated 28 September 1959, described the insignia as follows:”

    The link below should take you to the full page to see the rest of their informotion. I look forward to your reply as this has been something I hAve long wondered about myself.

    1. Ed, the Army created the ranks, but no one was ever promoted to SPC8 or SPC9. That is according to DA G-1/DCSPER. I have citations documenting it, but the best is the 1967 Enlisted Grade Structure Survey, which has a comprehensive history of the enlisted ranks.

  6. Dave Rogers

    CSM, great article, I love this type of history. I was in the Army in 1985 when they changed Specialists 5 & 6s to hard stripes. But around that time, I heard a rumor that they were thinking of eliminating SP4 as well. They would do it by temporarily freezing current PFCs, encouraging boards to promote the exceptional SP4s to SGT, laterally transferring the good SP4s to CPL, and for the leftovers, administrative reduction to PFC.

    Again, I heard it as a rumor, but I was wondering in your extensive research on the Specialist subjects, did you ever come across this proposal?

  7. Tony Kiburis

    Thanks for the great background on the Specialist history. I always wonder why the Army did away the SP5-7 ranks. I think there is a place for the Specialist along side the hard stripes.

    I was a true Specialist during the Vietnam years of 1966-1969. My MOS was Data Processing Operator (74E20) but I held positions much higher than my pay grade. Rank came fast during the war and being assigned at high level HQ units also helped (DA, The Pentagon & CincPac). Got My Sp5 with just 2 years Time in Service.

    In both assignments I felt that I was treated as an “Enlisted Warrant Officer”.

  8. Today I looked into getting USAA insurance for car and home. They had me read off my DD214. For rank I told the lady my rank was Spec5. She said there is no more specialist rank and the I was considered an E4. Turns out their insurance was way more than we’re paying anyway but this spec business really surprised me.

  9. Mark B. Hensley

    If the U.S.M.C. can function without specialist ranks, why not the Army? When I was in the Field Artillery, a SPC was called a Full Bird Private. I was a SPC for over a year and a half and by good fortune, I went from SPC to SGT. There were three or four CPLs in my unit that I suddenly outranked them. Had I made CPL sooner, I would have had more experience as an NCO.
    I encountered many a SPC that had the maturity of 12 year olds and if lard was brains, they couldn’t grease a pan. How they made E4 SPC was a fluke.

    The road to CPL from PFC would be longer, but in the end a more mature and professional minded CPL would emerge. I feel that the SPC rank should be discontinued all together.

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