When I first began work on the Battlecruiser Alamo series, one of the most important steps was to come up with a crew roster, at the very least, a list of officer roles and responsibilities. (And as I warm up to begin work on Starcruiser Polaris, I'm doing this all over again in a slightly different way, but I'll get to that in a future blog post.) I think it critical to make a science-fictional universe seem to be real, and that, in this case, meant extrapolating into the future current trends, as well as using a leavening of logic to smooth things over. I've thrown around these terms often enough that it seems sensible to actually define them for the benefit of the reader; hence this post, which looks at the key officer roles on a starship in Triplanetary service, essentially a list of job descriptions. Naturally, this is taken from the point of view of a capital ship, a battlecruiser or a battleship – I've had most experience with ships of this type...
Starting at the top, we deal with the Captain, the commanding officer of the ship. Capital ship commanders, especially battlecruiser commanders assigned on long patrols, have extraordinary latitude in decision-making, given the extensive communications lag. When operating months from home, it isn't practical to contact home; hence a capital ship commander is empowered to promote officers, or even to grant commissions in rare cases, and to enlist new crewmembers if necessary. (This is a holdover from the Interplanetary War, and perpetually resisted by the Admiralty; nevertheless, it is an ability that capital ship commanders will attempt to keep until the end.)
A Triplanetary starship commander, on the frontiers, is the Confederation, and acts in a political as well as a military role, though all of his actions are subject to later ratification. He can initiate treaty negotiations with foreign powers, sign ceasefire agreements (again, time lag makes this a necessity) and hold Admiralty courts. In essence, he bears far more resemblance to a ship captain of the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy than to a modern warship commander.
The Executive Officer is far more than just a commander-in-waiting; indeed, there have been circumstances when, upon the death of the commanding officer, a different officer of equal rank has assumed command. In essence, the Executive Officer is the ship's top administrator, responsible for seeing to the smooth running of the ship, for personnel-related affairs not important enough to refer to the Captain, and for liaising between the Department Heads. If the Captain is off-ship, the Executive Officer will assume temporary command, though commanding officers are encouraged to remain aboard their commands unless absolutely necessary.
The Operations Officer is, in many respects, a more focused version of the Executive Officer, and on smaller ships, the two roles are usually merged. His responsibility is on bridge operations, seeing to the assignment and training of bridge personnel, the most critical department on any capital ship. While his department is not the largest, it generally is deemed to be of the highest importance, and generally this officer serves as a top advisor to the Captain. Usually, he will not be present on the bridge in a battle, instead positioned in Auxiliary Control to assume command if needed. (The advice of the Executive Officer, it is usually felt, is considered essential during critical situations.)
The Systems Officer is responsible for the maintenance of the ship, as well as for all engineering functions. This is by far the largest department on a warship, usually consisting of more than half of the personnel complement. (On Alamo, for example, it is sixty-two out of a hundred-and-twelve, including the deck gangs.) This department is split into two roles; the bulk consisting of damage-control teams of four, a Petty Officer and three junior enlisted. In normal operation, they see to routine maintenance; in battle, they are positioned in strategic positions to handle key repairs where needed. The remaining personnel are specialists, trained for key systems such as the hendecaspace drive, the fabrication systems, and the communications hardware.
Combat is the sole purview of the Tactical Officer, and his responsibility is for the offensive and defensive systems of the warship. As such, this is a small but critical department, with a trio of damage-control teams permanently assigned for emergency repair and maintenance. Once again, this is usually one of the commander's top advisers, and is also a role often combined with that of the Executive Officer on smaller vessels. In addition to operating and maintaining the weapons systems, this officer has primary responsibility for the combat readiness of the crew as a whole.
With the major department heads dealt with, we can pass to the second-tier of officers, beginning with the controversial Security Officer, a role that has seen radical changes in recent years. Originally, this officer was solely responsible for internal security, considered an extremely junior role, but given the increasing range of activities of the Triplanetary Fleet, this officer has evolved to become a liaison for surface operations, prize crew commander, as well as retaining responsibility for internal security. From an assignment to be loathed, this has become a highly-prized role for junior officers on the fast-track. Usually, this officer reports to the Operations Officer, but some commanders prefer to have the Security Officer reporting directly to them.
A related role is that of Intelligence Officer, a role that has come to have two meanings. Normally, this is a junior officer responsible for the analysis of intelligence gathered by the ship during the course of a cruise, an essentially administrative role tasked with producing reports for the senior officers, as well as for the post-mission debriefings. Occasionally, however, this role will be taken by an operative from Triplanetary Intelligence, often assigned to a mission all their own, supplementary to the operations of the ship to which they are assigned.
The Political Officer is an experiment that doesn't seem to die, no matter how universally loathed they are by Fleet personnel. Technically, these are almost always civilians granted Warrant Officer status, though on occasion this role has been held by veterans returning to the Fleet, seconded by the Triplanetary Senate. Officially, these are on specific assignments related to areas of their ship's mission area; unofficially, they act as watchdogs for the Senate, monitoring and 'advising' their commander, to provide a voice that would otherwise be unavailable given the communications lag. As hated as this role is, it still keeps returning periodically.
A newly-created role, brought about buy the increased scope of Fleet operations, is that of the Science Officer, which has replaced the earlier title of Astrogator. Typically trained in one of the space sciences, this officer's role is to co-ordinate any scientific activities, with responsibility for astrogation and the sensor systems; as such, he reports to the Systems Officer. As a recently-created role, this has led to several young scientists being offered short-service commissions, while the Fleet Academy adapts to the changed strategic situation.
Perhaps the hardest-worked junior officer on a starship is the Deck Officer, responsible for the maintenance of the starship's shuttle fleet, as well as flight assignments. Though the shuttle complement of a starship can vary wildly, this usually involves working on six to twelve small craft of varying types, as well as a half-dozen pilots. Often, the Deck Officer will be promoted from the ranks; this is a common role for a Warrant Officer, or occasionally a Chief Petty Officer on smaller ships. This officer, naturally enough, reports to the Systems Officer.
Finally, we have the Weapons Officer, a recently-created title designed to give assistance to the Tactical Officer; typically a junior officer recently out of the Academy, this officer shadows the Tactical Officer, assisting with weapons maintenance, combat drills, and serving as a relief for prolonged combat situations. All signs are that this will be a highly-prized role for a junior officer, and replaces the 'Administrative Officer' in the ship's hierarchy, the responsibilities of that role being dispersed more widely.
Not covered here are other officers, largely because they fall outside the role of a major department head. All starships carry a Medical Officer, reporting to the Systems Officer, but it is rare that more than a doctor and a couple of paramedics will be on staff, occasionally a surgical aide; in wartime, this role is expanded. Fighter squadrons and Espatier platoons have their own hierarchy, those officers reporting to the Operations Officer and Security Officer respectively.