In the United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard and the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, admiral (ADM) is a four-star flag officer, with the pay grade of O-10. Admiral ranks above vice admiral and below Fleet Admiral in the Navy; the Coast Guard and the Public Health Service does not have an established grade above admiral. Admiral is equivalent to the rank of general in the other uniformed services. Since the five-star Fleet Admiral grade is reserved for war-time use only, the grade of admiral is considered to be the highest appointment an officer can achieve in these three services.
The United States Navy did not have any admirals until 1862 because many people felt the title too reminiscent of royalty, such as the British Royal Navy, to be used in the country's navy . Others saw the need for ranks above Captain, among them John Paul Jones, who pointed out that the Navy had to have officers who "ranked" with Army generals . He also felt there must be ranks above captain to avoid disputes among senior captains . The various secretaries of the Navy repeatedly recommended to Congress that admiral ranks be created because the other navies of the world used them and American senior officers were "often subjected to serious difficulties and embarrassments in the interchange of civilities with those of other nations." Congress finally authorized nine rear admirals on July 16, 1862, although that was probably more for the needs of the rapidly expanding Navy during the American Civil War than any international considerations . Two years later Congress authorized the appointment of a vice admiral from among the nine rear admirals: David Farragut . Another bill allowed the President of the United States to appoint Farragut to full admiral on July 25, 1866, and David Dixon Porter to vice admiral . When Farragut died in 1870, Porter became admiral and Stephen C. Rowan was promoted to vice admiral . Even after they died, Congress did not allow the promotion of any of the Rear Admirals to succeed them, so there were no more admirals or vice admirals by promotion until 1915 when Congress authorized an admiral and a vice admiral each for the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic fleets .
There was one admiral in the interim, however. In 1899, Congress recognized George Dewey's accomplishments during the Spanish-American War by authorizing the President to appoint him Admiral of the Navy . He held that rank until he died in 1917. Nobody has since held that title. In 1944, Congress approved the five-star Fleet Admiral rank . The first to hold it were William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, and Chester W. Nimitz . The Senate confirmed their appointments December 15, 1944 . The fourth Fleet Admiral, William F. Halsey, got his fifth star in December 1945. None has been appointed since.
The sleeve stripes now used by admirals and vice admirals in the United States date from March 11, 1869, when the Secretary of the Navy's General Order Number 90 specified that for their "undress" uniforms admirals would wear a two-inch stripe with three half-inch stripes above it and vice admirals the two-inch stripe with two half-inch stripes above it . The rear admiral got his two-inch stripe and one half-inch stripe in 1866 .
The sleeve stripes had been more elaborate. When the rear admiral rank started in 1862 the sleeve arrangement was three stripes of three-quarter-inch lace alternating with three stripes of quarter-inch lace . It was some ten inches from top to bottom . The vice admiral, of course, had even more stripes and when Farragut became admiral in 1866, he had so many stripes they reached from his cuffs almost to his elbow . On their dress uniforms the admirals wore bands of gold embroidery of live oak leaves and acorns .
The admirals of the 1860s wore the same number of stars on their shoulders as admirals of corresponding grades do today . In 1899, the Navy's one admiral (Dewey) and 18 rear admirals put on the new shoulder marks, as did the other officers when wearing their white uniforms, but kept their stars instead of repeating the sleeve cuff stripes .
During the 20th century, the ranks of the modern U.S. Admiralty were firmly established. An oddity that did exist was that the Navy did not have a one-star rank except briefly during the Second World War when Congress established a temporary war rank of commodore. The one-star rank was later established permanently in 1986.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps, historically to date, has never had an officer hold the grade of admiral. However, of the U.S. Code establishes the grade for the NOAA Corps in the case a position is created, temporarily or indefinitely, that merits the four-star grade.
U.S. Code of law explicitly limits the total number of four-star admirals that may be on active duty at any given time. The total number of active duty flag officers is capped at 216 for the Navy. For the Navy, no more than 16.3% of the service's active duty flag officers may have more than two stars, and no more than 25% of those may have four stars. This corresponds to 9 four-star admirals.
Some of these slots are reserved by statute. For the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Vice Chief of Naval Operations are both four-star admirals. In addition, the Commandant of the Coast Guard is a four-star admiral; for the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the Assistant Secretary for Health is four-star admiral if he or she holds an appointment to the regular corps.
There are several exceptions to these limits allowing more than allotted within the statute. A four-star navy admiral serving as Chief of Staff to the President, or as Chairman or Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not count against the navy's flag officer cap. A navy admiral serving in one of several joint positions does not count against his service's four-star limit, but he does count against his service's limit on officers with more than two stars; these positions include the commander of a unified combatant command, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, and the deputy commander of U.S. European Command but only if the commander of that command is also the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Officers serving in certain intelligence positions are not counted against either limit, including the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The President may also add four-star admirals to the Navy if they are offset by removing an equivalent number of four-stars from other services. Finally, all statutory limits may be waived at the President's discretion during time of war or national emergency.
Four-star grades go hand-in-hand with the positions of office they are linked to, so these ranks are temporary. Officers may only achieve four-star grade if they are appointed to positions that require the officer to hold such a rank. Their rank expires with the expiration of their term of office, which is usually set by statute. Four-star admirals are nominated for appointment by the President from any eligible officers holding the rank of rear admiral (lower half) or above, whom also meets the requirements for the position, under the advice and/or suggestion of their respective department secretary, service secretary, and if applicable the joint chiefs. For some specific positions, statute allows the President to waive those requirements for a nominee whom he deems would serve national interests. The nominee must be confirmed via majority vote by the Senate before the appointee can take office and thus assume the rank. The standard tour length for most four-star positions is three years, bundled as a two-year term plus a one-year extension, with the following exceptions:
Note: Extensions of the standard tour length can be approved, within statutory limits, by their respective service secretaries, the Secretary of Defence, the President, and/or Congress but these are rare, as they block other officers from being promoted. Some statutory limits under the U.S. Code can be waived in times of national emergency or war. Admiral ranks may also be given by act of Congress but this is extremely rare.
Four-star admirals must retire after five years in grade or 40 years of service, whichever is later, and all flag officers must retire the month after their 64th birthday. However, the Secretary of Defense can defer a four-star officer's retirement until the officer's 66th birthday and the President can defer it until the officer's 68th birthday.
Flag officers typically retire well in advance of the statutory age and service limits, so as not to impede the upward career mobility of their juniors. Since there are a finite number of four-star slots available to each service, typically one officer must leave office before another can be promoted. Maintaining a four-star rank is a game of musical chairs; once an officer vacates a position bearing that rank, he has 60 days to find another job of equal importance before he must retire. Historically, officers leaving four-star positions were allowed to revert to their permanent two-star ranks to mark time in lesser jobs until statutory retirement, but now such officers are expected to retire immediately to avoid obstructing the promotion flow.
See also: U.S. Navy Officer Rank Insignia, List of United States four-star officers, List of United States Navy four-star admirals, List of United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps four-star admirals