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Harry has been in command of Voyager during non crucial times (the long stretch of "the void" comes to mind but I am sure there are others. I recall him being in charge during a night shift). In that case, where literally all higher ranking officers are on board, what authority did he actually have? Could he change course? Fire a torpedo? Or was he just keeping the seat warm and in case of any real decision have to call someone higher up?

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    AFAIK, in current-day navy, it works the same. Whoever is in command has full command, delegating the authority of whoever gave them that command, and everyone - including officers higher in rank - have to follow their orders. They can also fire weapons, etc, within the rules of engagement, but those will likely only be for "imminent threat" situations, and otherwise they will likely consult or relinquish command to the captain or first officer. May 9, 2023 at 14:08

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Harry deals with a distress call in Voy: Warhead. He changes the ship's course as well as responding to a hail.

KIM: Report.
JENKINS: It's an automated distress call.
KIM: Origin?
JENKINS: A class M planet, range point seven three light years, bearing two six one mark one five.
KIM: That would be a significant course change.
JENKINS: The burden of command is on your shoulders, sir. Of course, we could always wake Commander Chakotay.
KIM: No. Alter course.
(They arrive at the planet.)
KIM: Open a channel. This is Ensign Kim of the Starship Voyager. Can we be of assistance?

He contacts Chakotay to wake him up at the point at which he needs to draw in resources from other departments. Chakotay praises him for this decision and rewards him with command of an away mission.

KIM: I hope I made the right decision.
CHAKOTAY: About changing course or waking me up?
KIM: Sorry, sir, but I thought
CHAKOTAY: Relax, Harry, you did the right thing on both counts.


Based on what we see, we can assume that Kim and other OODs are trusted to deal with situations that are within the ordinary (e.g. navigating the ship in largely the right direction) and are expected to contact a senior officer if a situation arises that is out of the ordinary, such as significant deviations from the assigned course, astronomical phenomena, 'first contact' situations, the need to deploy away teams, and so forth.

Starfleet evidently practices the same sort of informal notification procedures you find in the British Navy. You should contact your superior if you feel that you've come across something they would want to know.

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    You would probably see similar situation in any military organization and it gives young officers a chance to learn how to be in command.
    – Styxsksu
    May 9, 2023 at 16:54
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    @Styxsksu - Precisely this. In the navy you don't give command to someone you don't feel could cope with most situations they're likely to encounter, up to and including defending the ship against enemies
    – Valorum
    May 9, 2023 at 20:42

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