To my knowledge every Starfleet ship we see is commanded by a Captain. From what I know of modern navies: Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders, and Commanders can also command ships. I'm just curious as to why, in starfleet, we never see this.

EDIT: I was obviously a little hasty in saying 'all' but what I meant was ships like USS Brattain and USS Lantree, Both have crews of less than 50 which seems very small for a captain to command.

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    I can't think of any TNG counterexamples, so not posting as an answer, but in DS9 the Defiant is usually commanded by Sisko, who is a Commander at first and only promoted to Captain later in the series. It's also commanded by Commander Dax a few times. One of those times someone even explained to a cadet that they're supposed to address Dax as Captain in spite of her actual rank.
    – Ixrec
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 22:44
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    In regards to TNG, there are a several instances where ships are temporarily given to commanding officers below the rank of Captain. In fact, there's an episode where Lt. Cmdr. Data and his ability to command a ship is a pivotal ethical concern for some human officers who don't know him personally.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 22:46
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    Two words: Commodore Decker. Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 0:36
  • I thought my answer to this one was pretty comprehensive. Is there anything else you think I should address before considering an acceptance?
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 23:04
  • 1
    I downvoted this question because the cases of non-Captain rank holders commanding ships is nearly too numerous to count, and thus demonstrates lack of research. Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 11:24

4 Answers 4


The Memory Alpha article on Starfleet Captains makes several references to Junior Captains, those who've commanded a Starfleet vessel but don't yet hold the rank of 'Captain'.

In short, you don't have to be a captain to captain a vessel, but when you do, you're referred to as "captain" regardless of rank. On top of that, most captains are ranked as captains as a recognition of their status within Starfleet and in general recognition that they're competent to lead a large team, head up an important project or be in charge of a vessel.

On a similar note, there are also Senior Captains, those of flag rank who choose to take over a single vessel. Again, these individuals are referred to as "captain" for the duration of their command.

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    this is true for our RN, RAN, and RNZN - Commanders are titled Captain when on board the vessel they command. i think this is also true of the USN, where Roddenberry served, but not 100%
    – HorusKol
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 23:35
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    I'd add that there's a distinct absence of Star Trek episodes (or TV/movies/fiction novels) about the boring day-to-day routine of the ordinary people who command cargo ships and construction vessels and border patrol boats. The stories about the adventure of the more interesting people commanding bigger ships in no way implies that the rank of the guy in charge of any ship should be the same across the board. Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 1:04
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    @HorudKol Yes, also true in USN. See title v. rank
    – bishop
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 2:20
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    Did or did not Commodore Decker captain both Starships in the Doomsday Machine? Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 4:53
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    @MajorStackings - Damn. I need to add a section for Senior Captains like Decker and Admiral Kirk.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 7:33

The ranks in Star Trek are taken from the Navy ranks. In the Navy a Captain is not only a rank but also a title. Someone does not have to be a Captain to command a naval ship. But any officer commanding a naval ship is considered the Captain of that ship regardless of their rank. That's why a Commander can be considered a Captain if they command a ship. While on that ship you would be accurate to refer to that commanding officer as "Captain" when addressing them. But on land you would refer to them by their rank.

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    Possibly correct IRL. But Do Star Trek Military traditions inherit from ours?\
    – Aegon
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 8:22
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    @Aegon I don't see why not, and even if not something similar would be in place. OOC of course an explanation is simply that the authors used the terminology they're familiar with, which is to describe anyone commanding a vessel as its captain, whether they hold that military rank or not (and that includes civilians with no rank).
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 8:43
  • @jwenting It wasn't meant as critique. I was genuinely asking that as I know nothing about the Franchise :P :D
    – Aegon
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 8:56
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    For other media that somewhat uses this convention, see Mass Effect. The Quarians refer to Commander Shepard as Captain, as in their culture anyone who commands a ship is a Captain regardless of rank.
    – SGR
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 10:55
  • Is it true that in the USN, there can only be one Captain of a ship, so if a another person with the rank of Captain boards, they are temporarily promoted to the next rank?
    – PhasedOut
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 14:20

The other answers address officers below the rank of Captain commanding ships. We can also go the other way, though: James T. Kirk was an Admiral when he commanded the Enterprise in Wrath of Khan.

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    And Riker was an Admiral in charge of the Enterprise during 'All Good Things'
    – SGR
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 10:55

I vaguely remember an episode of TNG where a Starfleet ship was hailed and that person addressed himself as the captain of that vessel, however, the rank on his collar was that of a commander. I'm not quiet sure which episode it was but I'm 75% positive I saw it. Now, whether or not he was the highest senior officer or just filling in for him, I don't know, but all I remember is that he addressed himself as the captain and no person of captain rank was mentioned. From what I remember the part was really small, a single 20-second conversation between the Enterprise and some random other vessel.

Despite there being no proof to actually back this up, the scene stuck in my mind because it made me think of the USN where people who hold the rank of commander are captains of some vessels. However, maybe this is proof that this tradition does exist in star trek. Also if you recall in DS9, Sisqo held the rank of Commander for a while. It would be interesting if Star Trek ever actually adopted this tradition because it would open up a whole new type of command structure concerning vessels deemed less important by the federation.

  • 3
    Welcome to SciFi.SE! I think I might be worth you posting an episode-identification question to see whether anyone can track down the episode you're vaguely remembering. If it exists, and your memory is correct, it would make a strong answer.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 10:21
  • And then there's the issue when marines are aboard a navy vessel. A marine captain (allegedly) has to be addressed as Major until he leaves the ship, there can only be one person of authority with the title 'Captain' - I don't know if this is actually true, I just heard it somewhere
    – Danny Mc G
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 23:12

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