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In Deep Space Nine it is explained that Chief O’Brien is what they call a “non-com” (Non-Commissioned Officer). It is never explained exactly what this means, or how one goes about becoming one, but it is explained that even Ensigns outrank him, and Starfleet is made up almost entirely of commissioned officers.

So why, when Chief O’Brien is skilled, knowledgeable, and extremely experienced in a wide array of areas — as well as being one of the most dedicated members of Starfleet — has he never become commissioned?

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    Presumably he hasn't gone to Starfleet Academy. – Junuxx Dec 26 '15 at 18:26
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    There is an enormous difference between technical skill and command authority. When I was in the Navy I was an Electrician's Mate 1st Class. My commander would absolutely listen to my advice regarding my people and equipment, but he had to make the decision on what to buy, where to go and when to shoot. – Sean Boddy Dec 26 '15 at 19:41
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    This is pretty common even now, y'know.. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 26 '15 at 20:54
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    “Starfleet is made up almost entirely of commissioned officers” — is it? When did they say that? – Paul D. Waite Nov 9 '18 at 11:30
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    @PaulD.Waite Reading through this thread again gives an answer. memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Enlisted Gene states that the concept for SF was everyone was an officer (I wonder if that means Miles was an officer in NG). But DP9 changed that concept, presumably because they wanted to go a realistic, war filled, gritty route; making non-officers >= officers (even if they still did not get loads of screen time). – Jonathon Nov 9 '18 at 16:27
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The short reasons is that it's because he doesn't want to become an officer and/or, because he feels that his skills are best served as an NCO.

Note that O'Brien has repeatedly shown a mild dislike of 'officer-types' in general.

O'BRIEN: With all due respect, I think you're riding the men a bit hard. You have to understand, they're out of their element. They're not bridge officers, they haven't been to Starfleet Academy. They're engineers. They're used to being given a problem to solve, then going out and figuring out how to do it.

Added to that is that fact that Starfleet would apparently require him to attend the Academy for several years if he wanted to become an officer, as we can see from this exchange between (Enlisted medic) Simon Tarses and (Commissioned Officer) Captain Picard:

TARSES: Yes, sir. All my life I wanted to be in Starfleet. I went to the Academy's training programme for enlisted personnel. I took training as a medical technician and I served at several outposts. The day that I was posted to the Enterprise was the happiest day of my life.

PICARD: Did you ever consider applying to the Academy, going the whole route, apply to become an officer?

TARSES: My parents wanted me to. And then I thought about it. I used to sit under this big tree near the parade grounds ... I used to sit under that tree and watch the drills, picture myself an officer. I know that it would have made my mother very happy, but.

PICARD: You didn't do it.

TARSES: No. I was eighteen, and eager. The last thing I wanted to do was spend four years sitting in classrooms. I wanted to be out there, travelling the stars. I didn't want to wait for anything.

Even if he could get a field commission or earn credit for his long service, becoming an officer would simply take him away from what he seems to enjoy the most, working in engineering and and teaching others. On DS9 he's already a Department Head (and Chief of Operations with his own engineering teams) so gaining a commission really doesn't do much for him.

  • When you say becoming an officer would take him away from these things. Do you mean, it takes time to become commissioned, even if they fast tracked him, there would still be a lot of written exams and personal examinations that would need to be done. Or do you mean that as an officer he could not be an Engineer, at least not like he is currently? While that is true in the real world, in Star Fleet everyone is an officer, so even officers scrub nacelles and more importantly, all the commissioned engineers hold jobs exactly like his already. – Jonathon Dec 26 '15 at 20:43
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    @JonathonWisnoski - As "just another officer", he would presumably be expected to spend time at the academy, serve on a starship as a junior officer and maybe even spend time outside of engineering, and yes, do exams and study in classrooms, something that not everyone enjoys. Note also that the courses you have to do to become an officer (exo-linguistics, sociology, fractal calculus, etc) may simply be beyond him. – Valorum Dec 26 '15 at 20:49
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    This is the same reasoning Kirk used when he said, "Never let them promote you to Admiral". He rejected anything that would take him out of that chair. For some people, how far they go in life isn't because of their limits. It's because they know what they really want. – candied_orange Dec 27 '15 at 8:37
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    @CandiedOrange - He never struck me (on DS9) as the 'books and learning' type. I think it's quite telling that when he finally does return to Starfleet Academy (in the books), it's as an instructor. – Valorum Dec 27 '15 at 8:46
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    @O.R.Mapper - This is lampshaded in DS9: Rocks and Shoals; "KEEVAN: That's a communications system. It needs repair, but I'm willing to bet that you've brought one of those famed Starfleet engineers who can turn rocks into replicators."". Fed engineers are quite literally famous for their ability to improvise/ – Valorum Dec 27 '15 at 12:09
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tl;dr You can't be promoted from an NCO to a commissioned officer position; it's an entirely different career path.

Presumably because he doesn't want to.

The difference between a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and a commissioned officer is not unique to Star Trek; it's a feature of modern militaries as well. The way you become an NCO is to enlist as a regular servicebeing and get promoted. Chief O'Brien's actual rank is presumed to be Senior Chief Petty Officer, which is a real rank that exists in the naval forces of NATO member countries. Chief O'Brien must have enlisted in Starfleet as whatever the equivalent of a Private (or Seaman, in the Navy) is, and then got promoted to an NCO position.

Becoming a commissioned officer (usually just called "officer") is different; you have to go to an officer training academy. The United States has the US Military Academy at West Point, for example. Starfleet has Starfleet Academy, where both Wesley Crusher and Nog enroll as cadets.

If the Chief wanted to become a commissioned officer, he would have to go through Starfleet Academy the same way Wesley and Nog did. However, he most likely doesn't want to; in modern militaries (as DVK points out in comments), technical specialists like Chief O'Brien are generally NCOs anyway, so there's no compelling reason for him to go through the hassle of the Academy.

  • Also, the difference is, NCO doesn't have to command. Not everyone is suite to, or wants to, command and lead. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 26 '15 at 19:15
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    Yes, but enlisted and NCO in RL is not equivalent to NCO in SF, because in SF we know for a fact that enlisted and NCO are extremely rare, as a rule all starfleet officers are "officers" and graduates of SF Academy, except for O'Brian (And presumably a few other less famous examples). – Jonathon Dec 26 '15 at 19:29
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    @DVK a fair statement for the real world, not for SF, as the vast majority of commissioned officers we see are not suited to and do not want to command or lead. – Jonathon Dec 26 '15 at 19:33
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    @JasonBaker - The Enterprise is the plummiest posting of all, with people queuing up and calling in all sorts of favours to get on board. We see very few enlisted personnel but we do see some. We can also assume that quite a lot of the "N.D. Personnel" the script refers to are also non-coms. – Valorum Dec 26 '15 at 20:57
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    @Richard and here I just assumed they dressed up all the enlisted in red shirts to keep their numbers low. – candied_orange Dec 27 '15 at 8:44
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I think O'Brien wanted to stay where he felt he could do the most good with his knowledge. Also he had a daughter to take care of and didn't want to spend too much time away from his family. Also, didn't Starfleet have engineering courses that were taught at the Academy? How did Scotty and Geordi become both engineers and bridge officers?

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