Do You Know the Major Differences Between the Army, Navy, and Air Force?

By: Torrance Grey
Image: Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

About This Quiz

The U.S. military has five branches: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Some date back to before America's independence; one was only created in the 20th century. (When you think about the essential piece of equipment it uses, you'll realize which one). They're all old enough, though, to have grown apart from each other in their traditions, terminology and their general way of doing things. 

In this quiz, we're going to focus on just three branches of the US military: the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. These three branches do have a lot in common. They share many names for things, especially ranks (e.g., "captain"). They all put their recruits through a basic training program, and they all have a strict, hierarchical structure. But beyond that, there are many differences.

For example, do you know which of the three has a rank called "ensign"? Or in which service a new commander is welcomed to a base by a "roof stomp"? (Yes, it really does involve jumping up and down on a rooftop). Or which branch's largest subdivision is called its "infantry"? We'll test you on all these things and more. And, just to keep you on your toes, occasionally the answer will be "none of these" or "all of these." So think carefully, and good luck!

Which is the largest branch of the U.S. military?

It probably doesn't surprise you that this is the Army. Including the National Guard and the Army Reserves, the U.S. Army is about a million personnel strong.

In which service are the highest-ranking officers called "admirals"?

"Admiral" is the Navy's equivalent of the Army's "general," and like that term, it has various grades. The word is believed to derive from an Arab term meaning "commander of the sea," not the Latin "admirabilis" (the root of English's word "admire.")

Which branch grew out of the U.S. Army?

Obviously, when the Army was first established (as the Continental Army during the American Revolution), there were no airplanes. In the early 20th Century, the flying wing of the Army was called the Army Air Service or the Army Air Corps, until the US Air Force officially became its own branch in 1947.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates under the auspices of which branch?

The Coast Guard is not under the control of the Navy (which is what some people mistakenly believe). Instead, it's directly under the Department of Homeland Security.

The highest rank in which service is "general?"

The Air Force's hierarchy largely follows that of the U.S. Army. But one difference is that Air Force's enlisted people start out as "airmen" (whether male or female), while in the Army they are "privates."

The backbone of which service is its infantry?

Infantry is a fancy term for "foot soldiers," the guys who march instead of being on horseback, in jeeps, or tanks, or in planes. So, naturally, they're part of the U.S. military's land force, the Army.

Technically, the Marines are under whose authority?

The Marines are the ground force, or "away team," of the Navy. Naval operations are, otherwise, ship-based.

Which branch has a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

The Joint Chiefs are the most senior uniformed personnel in the U.S. military and advise the president. All three of the above services send a representative to the council, and the Marine Corps does too.

Musicians Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley both served in the...?

Presley's service is well-known; he was drafted in 1957. Other celebrities who served in the U.S. military's largest branch include Pat Sajak and Laurence Tureaud, better known as "Mr. T."

"Ensign" and "midshipman" are ranks in which service?

These are both junior-officer ranks in the Navy. A basic enlisted sailor is known as a "seaman" (regardless of gender).

Which branch has an elite sub-group called the Rangers?

Of course, we're talking about the Army Rangers. Their slogan is "Rangers Lead the Way," which they adopted after a general, on Omaha Beach, shouted "Rangers, lead the way!" to a group of them during the dangerous Normandy invasion.

The famous SEALs are part of which service?

It seems like "all of them" should be the right choice - the name stands for "Sea, Air, and Land," and they do operate in all those environments. But this elite force is the exclusive province of the Navy.

If you want to be an astronaut, what's the best place to sign up?

The Air Force is the branch of the military that is involved with all of America's military efforts in space. This makes it the obvious "feeder" system for the space program. This isn't to say that personnel from the other branches don't apply and succeed, however.

Which branch runs Fort Hood in Texas?

Fort Hood is an Army outpost in Killeen, Texas. Unfortunately, it is named for a Confederate general, John Bell Hood. But a re-naming effort would probably touch off a lot of controversy, so the name stands.

Which branch is NOT under the control of the Department of Defense?

All three of these branches, and the Marines, are under the auspices of the Department of Defense. Only the Coast Guard is not - it's under the Homeland Security Department.

Which of these trains and employs fighter pilots?

Several branches of the U.S. military use fighter jets and pilots. Of course, the Air Force does, but the Navy has a proud tradition of air combat too (just think of "Top Gun"), and this extends to the Marines. But the Army, having "spun off " the Air Force in 1947, does not. If you're Army, you might fly choppers, but not fighter jets.

Which of these does its Basic Training at Lackland?

Lackland Air Force Base is outside San Antonio, Texas. It's the Parris Island of the Air Force, where their recruits go through basic.

Which branch launches the renowned Blue Angels?

The Air Force has to be a little embarrassed that the Navy's elite flight demonstration squadron is better known than theirs. Really, can you name the equivalent Air Force squadron? (It's the Thunderbirds).

With whom would you enlist in order to do basic training at West Point?

This was a trick question (sorry!) West Point is the home of the Army's military college. That's an elite school, and not to be mistaken for a basic-training camp.

Which service, more than any other, represents U.S. military interests outside America's borders?

By its nature, the Navy operates in international waters, and its ships are often stationed in foreign ports. It tends to be the "face" of the US military overseas - and a target for terrorists, as the USS Cole was.

Celebrities MC Hammer, Bob Barker, and Robert Heinlein all served in the...?

Famous people have served in every branch of the US military. The three mentioned above chose to do their service at sea.

A captain in which branch was the first to break the sound barrier?

We're talking about then-Captain Chuck Yeager, a proud member of the Air Force. He did this in 1947, the same year the branch separated from the Army. The fledgling service started off with a bang - or, rather, a sonic boom!

In which service are officers more likely to die in combat than the enlisteds?

What? We know this is the opposite of what you'd expect. However, in the Air Force, you have to be an officer to be a pilot. And pilots get shot down much more frequently that ground-based "wing wipers" get killed in combat. See how that works?

Which branch's military academy is at the mouth of Maryland's Severn River?

The U.S. Naval Academy is less formally called Annapolis. It's on the Maryland coast.

Which branch's military academy fields the football team called the "Falcons"?

This is the name for all the sports teams fielded by the U.S. Air Force Academy. They train (and study) at the Academy's campus outside Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Which branch has a cavalry (which, occasionally, still uses horses)?

"Cavalry" actually means soldiers on horseback; it's related to the Spanish word "caballo," for "horse." In the Army, the cavalry mostly uses motor vehicles, but recently found that, in parts of Afghanistan, it was actually more expedient to use horses.

Quantico, where the FBI Academy is located, is run by which branch?

Quantico is a Marine base. Yes, technically the Marines are part of the Navy, but they're not the same branch. Quantico is officially named "Marine Corps Base Quantico."

Two towns in Massachusetts claim to be the birthplace of which service?

Both Marblehead and Beverly, in Massachusetts, are coastal towns where the "Hannah," the schooner that was the first vessel in the Continental Navy, was sometimes docked. The U.S. Navy does not take a position on which town has the stronger claim to being its place of birth.

More than any other, which branch is involved in counteracting cyber-terrorism?

All three branches do a certain amount of work in cyber-intelligence. However, it's the Air Force that runs America's military satellites, which are a large part of cyber-defense.

Which branch is the only one to engage in direct combat with the former USSR?

Though the Cold War was mostly saber-rattling, a USAF fighter jet and a Soviet one fought an air battle over Serbia during WWII. Hey, weren't we supposed to be on the same side during that war?

In which branch are rules and regulations called "rocks and shoals"?

The name most likely derives from the fact that you can be tripped up by rules, or run afoul of them. In the same way, a ship can run aground on rocks and shoals.

Where do servicemen welcome new leaders with a "roof stomp"?

This is a uniquely Air Force tradition. Airmen climb on a new commander's roof and jump up and down on it, while others bang on the doors and windows. It's their way of rolling out the welcome mat!

Which service can claim the esteemed leader William "Bull" Halsey?

Admiral William Halsey was a hero of the Pacific theater in World War II. Fun fact: a character on the 2018 TV show "The Orville" is named for him, rank and all.

Celebs like Morgan Freeman, Chuck Norris and even Hunter S. Thomspon served in the...?

Chuck Norris developed his interest in the martial arts while serving in the Air Force in Korea. Hunter S. Thompson, the "gonzo journalist," best known for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," was discharged in 1957, "honorably" but a bit early, because he just didn't fit in with the Air Force way of doing things.

Whose official song is "The ______ Goes Rolling Along"?

The Army was late to adopt an official song. Even the much-younger Air Force had chosen "The U.S. Air Force" (better known as "The Wild Blue Yonder") before the Army took "The Army Goes Rolling Along" as its theme in the mid-1950s.

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