Chains of Command

Chains of Command,


Ain’t nobody in Starfleet got time for that!

So here’s today’s random question: What the hell does Starfleet’s Org Chart look like?

I told you it was random.

Another question: Why doesn’t Starfleet have anything like a Military Occupational Specialty Code (MOS,

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek is on as I’m writing this.  Ironically, given my current ruminations, it is called “Chain of Command”.  In it, Captain Picard is removed from command by Vice Admiral Nechayev so he can go on an undercover mission.  It’s the issue where Picard is tortured, and he and David Warner chew scenery at one another.  “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”  Great acting, and I understand that overall the point of the episode is to make Riker existentially uncomfortable and Picard physically uncomfortable and show the results.

But it bothers me.  A lot.  I’m not a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine but I have known a number of them and I have some understanding of how the military works, though it be limited and anecdotal and Wikipedia based.  And this episode highlights some of the fascinating issues with Starfleet’s pseudo-military nature.

Chain of Command

As I said, in the episode Vice Admiral Nechayev orders the Enterprise to change Captains, and sends Picard on a special operations mission.  This means that, presumably, she is in the chain of command for the Enterprise—likely either because she is in the chain of command for whatever group or fleet the Enterprise is part of or because she is in the chain of command for all starships (or of a certain job/type/sector).  In Memory Alpha, a Star Trek Wiki, it lists her as being Picard’s direct commanding officer—which has its own issues, given that Vice Admiral is not the rank after naval Captain.  In Starfleet we have seen both Commodores (traditionally leading groups of captains) and Rear Admirals (similar to commodores in many navies, although higher in Starfleet).

But even assuming that Nechayev is in Picard’s chain of command somewhere that means she holds a definite position in that CoC.  She presumably reports to a single full on Admiral, who presumably reports to the Starfleet equivalent of a service chief or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  And indeed we have seen someone with the position of Chief of Staff of Starfleet Operations, the Chief of Staff of Starfleet, and something labelled Commander, Starfleet in previous episodes and movies.  So there is a top level man.

But Nechayev isn’t the only Admiral—or even the only Vice Admiral—that ever orders the Enterprise around.  At a casual perusal we find Vice Admiral Brackett recalling the Enterprise (, Vice Admiral Nakamura both conducting inspections and helping decide Data’s future (, Vice Admiral Thomas Henry ( presiding over a kangaroo court on the Enterprise with retired Vice Admiral Satie (, Vice Admiral Margaret Blackwell ordering the Enterprise to rendezvous with the Crazy Horse (, Vice Admiral Gromek ordering the Enterprise to intercept a probe (, Vice Admiral Haftel wanting to put his creeper hands on Data’s creepy kid (, and more!  And that’s just TNG, which only lasted seven years; it doesn’t include the Vice Admirals who got to order Sisko around (such as Leyton, Ross, Toddman, and even Nechayev again! Although she got a promotion) or any of the other series.  Or any of the movies!

Now I get that on something like a Starship you are going to go to a lot of different people’s spheres of influence and be subject to their rules.  But even in that non-exhaustive list that’s a lot of people, and a lot of freaking Vice Admirals, that get to just dial up the Enterprise and tell them what to do.  And I understand that people retire, as Admiral Setie did, and change positions but that doesn’t account for the sheer number of people the Enterprise has to answer yes to.  Because remember that if you are outside of their chain of command, Admirals don’t get to issue orders willy-nilly to ships; the Judge Advocate General of the Navy (Vice Admiral Nanette DeRenzi, does not get to order the U.S.S. George Washington not to go to Japan because she needs it to go on a secret mission to Iran!  You have to have command over something to send it somewhere, and even two Vice Admirals having operational control over the Enterprise would be baffling (if possible, since I’m given to understand the military is frequently baffling).

For comparison, the U.S.S. George Washington is a part of Carrier Strike Group 5, headed by Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery ( CSG 5 is part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, headed by Vice Admiral (that damn rank!) Robert L. Thomas (   The 7th Fleet is part of the United States Pacific Fleet, headed by Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. (  See how simple that is?  A Captain reports to a Rear Admiral, who reports to a Vice Admiral, who reports to an Admiral; Admiral Harris then reports to Admiral Locklear of the unified United States Pacific Command, who reports in turn to the Secretary of Defense who then reports to the President.  A straight line of one person at each level.

Now yes it can get trickier, and yes naval vessels technically have an administrative and an operational chain of command.  But it is still a hell of a lot straighter a line then in Starfleet.

So we can assume one of a couple things.  Either Starfleet Admirals die or quit a lot, Starfleet is organized by a five year old who is INEXPLICABLY ALSO A VICE ADMIRAL, or…the writers don’t know how the military works.  And while that seems more likely, it still bothers me.


But this brings us to the other issue with this episode.  Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher, and Lt. Worf are ordered to go on a commando raid.  And it’s important to note: None of them are commandos.

Now Worf is a Klingon, and I’m willing to admit that being a Klingon is equated in the Star Trek universe as being pretty hardcore mother-shut your mouths.  But Jean-Luc Picard’s qualifications for being a commando are apparently a scientific knowledge of an episode specific MacGuffin, a love of archaeology, being French (by way of the North of England), future appearances as the head of the CIA in Family Guy, and knowing how to order tea.  And that still makes him more qualified than Doctor Beverly Crusher, whose qualifications involve medicine (but not necessarily combat medicine) and single motherhood. Is it any surprise when they get caught?

And this isn’t the only time this happens.  People in Starfleet are constantly being reassigned to secret missions or infiltrations, or diplomatic missions, or secret infiltration diplomatic missions (I’m looking at you, Spock).

In the real military you have a job.  Even as an officer you have a job that you are trained to do.  And you can change that job over the course of your time in the military, or pick up additional certifications (Ranger qualified, etc.), but on any given day you wake up and you have a set of things that you do.  This can change quickly on the whims of command, sure (as in the case of a friend who was rather surprised to go from an office job to Iraq), but that is more of an exception then the rule.  And it is more common in some services than others from what I understand (every Marine is a rifleman), and it is more common in some ranks than others.

You know what ranks it is really uncommon at?  The highest ones.  A naval captain, like Picard, is equivalent to an Army Colonel.  By that time you tend to have an area of specialty like, say, starship command.  That is a very different set of skills than a commando team leader, or the head of an archaeological dig.

Yes, Picard is very multi-talented.  He is an amateur archaeologist and anthropologist.  Even if he originally trained as a science officer, as we see in the Q created alternate future, it has been years since he was primarily responsible for science instead of administration and leadership.  Why is he still considered qualified to go do these things?  We don’t make someone the CFO just because they had a couple of accounting classes in undergrad, and the Navy specifically has rules (Line officers vs. restricted duty officers) on certain specialty officers and what they can command.  Because doctors are, generally, there to be doctors.  What a concept.


I get that Star Trek up through the reboot existed in a pre-Wikipedia world.  And I’m not going to lie, since my knowledge comes from other people talking to me and Wikipedia, I know I got some things wrong in this little rant.  But all it takes is going to one person and saying “Hey, does this smell right?” to get it better than this.  Seriously, 7 Vice Admirals in about ten minutes of looking?  Killing me.


*Khan = Writers.

One thought on “Chains of Command”

  1. Dear Matthew,

    I loved this. It sounded exactly like one of the famous Matthew Rants that I miss. Way to let your nerd flag fly unfettered!

    BTW, there is an omission in the following:Admiral Harris then reports to Admiral Locklear of the unified United States Pacific Command, who reports in turn to the Secretary of Defense who then reports to the President. A straight line of one person at each level.

    In actually Admiral Locklear reports to the Secretary of the Navy, who reports to the SecDef. And Locklear is the the CinCPACCOM. I love how the navy does that.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.