What Is the Difference Between a Captain & a Commander?

Nov 15, 2019

This article reviews the differences between a captain and a commander in four different branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Read on to learn about these positions, with information about their potential salaries and more.

Comparing Captains to Commanders

The ranks and positions of captains and commanders can be gained from being chosen by superiors or through promotions in a variety of careers. In the Army and Air Force, the position of commander simply encompasses the ranks of lieutenant colonels and above, while the Navy and Coast Guard both have specific commander ranks that are just above the level of captain. Each of these positions, across all branches of the military, require management of troops in various levels.

Job Title 2019 Monthly Salary (0-2 years of service)*
Captain U.S. Army: $4,251.60
U.S. Air Force: $4,251.60
U.S. Navy: $6,722.70
U.S. Coast Guard: $6,722.70
Commander U.S. Army: N/A
U.S. Air Force: N/A
U.S. Navy: $5,604.30
U.S. Coast Guard: $5,604.30

Source: *Department of Defense

U.S. Army


Army captains enforce the standards and procedures the U.S. Army operates under. They have overall authority within their company. These individuals can be put on assignments that require them to instruct at a service school. They can also serve as administrative staff at the battalion level.

Job duties of an Army captain include the following:

  • Managing everyday operations with their troops
  • Delegating tasks to NCOs
  • Making financial decisions
  • Commanding company-size units


In the U.S. Army, after someone gains the rank of lieutenant colonel, they can be promoted to commander. As a commander, they will manage personnel and maintain equipment. They are responsible for all of the unit's successes and failures under the guidelines of the U.S. Army.

Job duties of an Army commander include the following:

  • Working directly with other officers to complete missions
  • Monitoring units as a whole, instead of individual troops
  • Completing successful missions

U.S. Air Force


In the Air Force, it typically takes four years to gain rank as a captain. They are expected to know how to lead a group of people. Communication with their troops will be essential for being successful in this rank. Through the chain-of-command, enlisted personnel will report and communicate with their captains about issues. Captains can also be known as a flight commander in the Air Force.

Job duties of an Air Force captain include the following:

  • Performing administrative duties
  • Communicating with higher-ranking officials in the unit
  • Making effective decisions at the flight level
  • Maintaining an open-door policy with their troops


An Air Force Commander is responsible for executing the mission, leading the people, managing resources, and improving the unit. Each commander's unit has its own specific mission. The unit's function within the military will determine those missions. A commander will assess risks and formulate plans based on calculated strategies. This ensures the efficiency and safety of the unit.

Job duties of an Air Force commander include the following:

  • Leading people through effective communication
  • Managing unit funds
  • Using resources efficiently
  • Identifying issues in the unit's processes and implements changes

U.S. Navy


A Navy captain is a senior commissioned officer. Captains can be in charge of a Naval Air Wing or water vessels. They command their vessels and wings with the goal of following through with their missions. Commanders will report to the captain with information on the vessel, troops, and issues.

Job duties of a Navy captain include:

  • Communicating with commanders
  • Advising commanders of mission plans or changes
  • Ensuring the missions are carried out
  • Analyzing data and making decisions off that information


A Navy commander may be in charge of medium-sized vessels or submarines. In some situations, they may command a SEAL team. If they are positioned on a larger vessel there will be other commanders on board to help carry the captain's missions. These individuals will ensure the troops under them are following orders and help them when facing issues.

Job duties of a Navy commander include:

  • Managing troops to carry out the mission
  • Serving as a liaison between the captain and other officers
  • Communicating with the officers under them to ensure mission success
  • Helping resolve issues

Navy commanders can serve as a captain of small vessels or aircraft. Freights, destroyers, and submarines are the main vessels they command while in this rank.

U.S. Coast Guard


A Coast Guard captain is a senior commissioned officer position. They are in charge of a variety of different stations, vessels, and installations. Some will lead school houses instead of being on a vessel. Captains have the ability to lead, command, and direct their troops with few limits or boundaries.

Job duties of a Coast Guard captain include:

  • Navigating vessels through international waters
  • Communicating with officers to understand issues
  • Informing officers of decisions and plans
  • Planning travel routes


Commanders are the lowest of the senior officer rank in the Coast Guard. People in this rank report directly to captains. Coast Guard commanders typically manage smaller craft like submarines or aircraft squadrons. Sometimes these commanders help with search and rescue efforts, or even homeland security issues.

Job duties of a Coast Guard commander include:

  • Leading a unit of troops
  • Managing large scale operations and missions
  • Reporting to and communicating with the Sector Commander
  • Communicating with other officers in their unit to understand issues

Related Careers

Those interested in the responsibilities of a captain or commander that don't want to serve in the military could pursue a career as a chief executive officer, a position that requires significant overseeing management. A career as a ship captain might be more in line for someone who is intrigued by the naval aspect of work as a military captain but isn't looking to be in the military.

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