As a generic mode of address, "commander" was appropriate to many military officers. Almost anyone in command of a distinct ship, outfit or taskforce could be called "commander" of the unit. Examples of these commanders were found within all military branches. They ranged from Fleet Commanders, Field Commanders, and Flight Commanders to more prestige full titles such as Force Commanders and High Commanders. It must be noted though, that the commanding officers of naval capital ships usually preferred to be addressed as "Captain". According to Emperor Palpatine in the Imperial Handbook: A Commander's Guide, the official field manual for officers within the Imperial Military, a commander within the Empire was required to excel, which requires that they fight and if need be die in the service of the Empire, and also indicating that the commander won't be defeated even if he fell in battle due to the various branches fighting on. The various commanders in the Imperial Military, who were largely formidable military talents, also were considered the true holders of power within the Empire, even though they technically only carried out the orders of the Emperor.
"Commander" was also a more specific rank within many military hierarchies. In some ranking systems, this title would rank just above captain while in others it would rank just below it. The Commander was in some cases the closest superior to a Lieutenant Commander in the same ranking system. The militaries of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, both had ranking systems where Commanders were ranked above captains. But at the same time, there were numerous examples of the same militaries having other hierarchies placing Commanders below Captains. Evidently there were different ranking systems depending on specific service branches or institutions.
|Commander||(post-Battle of Yavin)|
The Imperial Navy used three parallel rank grading systems, in which Commander was used differently. A a position, the officer's current assignment to a specific ship or unit, rather than permanent rank, Commander ranked alongside Commodore or Admiral, above Captain and below Fleet Admiral. As a line rank, held by officers in the Line Branch, the ranks of Senior Commander and Junior Commander ranked above Senior Lieutenant and below Senior Captain. As a specialist rank, held by officers in the Flight, Support, and Engineering Branches, Commander ranked above Captain, below Major.
In the ex-Imperial naval forces loyal to Thyferran Chief of State Ysanne Isard, there was a second usage of Commander described by Fliry Vorru as being greater than that of "a mere Captain," but this second rank is rarely attested, and may have stemmed from a confusion with the Imperial Navy's rank of Captain of the Line. Other officers like Commander Gherant were known at the height of the Empire to have been inferior in rank to Captains like Firmus Piett, and such commanders also existed in the New Republic military.
Within the Galactic Empire, specifically the Imperial Army, a commander was responsible for setting the terms of the battle, and then moving swiftly and decisively once the parameters of engagement have been outlined. In addition, the commander's ability to follow protocol was often the deciding factor on how orders transmitted from the Army Command, including what units a commander deploys into battle or how the units are to be used, with set objectives and available resources being a determining factor. Aside from monitoring the presence of the Rebel Alliance on a given world, an Imperial Army Commander was also cognizant of the criminal underworld, as many of them (which included Hutts, smugglers, bounty hunters, and others who live in civilization's fringes), even if they technically have no formal membership with the Rebel Alliance, are still enemies all the same. An Imperial Army commander was also required to respond to threats with the appropriate amount of forces, and as such, assessing what a situation requires (such as escalation, additional units, special units, etc., etc.) was a central part of a commander's duties.
In Rebel Alliance and New Republic Starfighter Command organizations, references exist to a rank of Commander, between Colonel and Captain, and the positions of Flight Commander (a Lieutenant or Captain), Squadron Commander, and Wing Commander (Colonel). By the time of the Galactic Alliance, these titles had apparently been replaced by Major and Lieutenant Colonel. Pre-Battle of Hoth, the rank insignia was between Captain and General, while post-Battle of Hoth, it was between Captain and Lieutenant Commander. In the former instance, its design was a silver patch showing four yellow bumps, covering all but the upper right corner of the patch in a near-X-formation, while in the latter instance, the design was that of a gold-trim patch possessing three red bumps, two with each being on the lower corners of the patch, and one being at the topmost center of the patch.
The promotion of Commander Eldo Davip to Major General after the Battle of Borleias suggests that in some elements of the New Republic or Galactic Alliance military, a rank of Commander may replace Brigadier.
The Mandalorians used the rank of commander.
Among the Yuuzhan Vong, most warship captains and a few task force commanders bore a rank of Commander, and superior officers were known as Supreme Commanders.
In the armed forces of the Chiss Ascendancy, variations on "Commander" were used as ranks or titles in a variety of different contexts. In the years before the Clone Wars, a frontier patrol group of the Expansionary Fleet could be commanded by an officer with the title of Force Commander, often simply styled "Commander" (Crahsystor in Cheunh). Much later, in c. 19–22 BBY, examples are also known of a Phalanx Commander leading a Household Phalanx and a Station Commander commanding a defense platform, while the title Cadet Commander was given to the senior cadet in a Chiss training squadron, who could also be addressed as "Lieutenant". By the time of the Swarm War in 37 ABY, the term "Commander" was used in Basic to translate the rank analogous to a naval Commander in the Galactic Alliance, one grade below Captain, but is not clear whether this usage corresponded to any of the earlier terminology.
The title "Commander-in-Chief" was used by some civilian heads of state in their capacity as head of their government's military forces - for instance, the Chief of State of the Alliance to Restore the Republic was also, ex officio, Allied Forces Commander-in-Chief.
Behind the scenes
The usage of "Commander" in Star Wars is complicated by the fact that authentic military usage treats "Commander" as a rank, a position, and a title. As a rank, in the English language it refers to a senior officer (NATO Code OF-4, US pay grade O-5) immediately inferior to a captain (NATO Code OF-5, US pay grade O-6); this usage is found in the Royal Navy (and its various Commonwealth descendants) and the United States Navy. As a position, it refers to the officer who literally commands a unit, installation, vessel, or formation. As a title, it typically refers to officers in positions of high responsibility whose command encompasses multiple independent commands. Although the title is related to the position, not all officers who are positional commanders are titular commanders, as other titles exist for the position (e.g., officer in charge, commanding officer, commanding general, etc.). It is possible and even common for officers holding the rank of commander not to hold the position or title.
The specific nature of "Commander," particularly as it is used in the Imperial Navy, is a subject of some controversy. Although the English-language model has clear dominance in the fictional reality of Star Wars, there are deviations from it, most notably the case of Commander Ait Convarion, who was described in X-Wing: The Bacta War as being "a Commander, not a mere Captain," and this has been used to support the existence of an Imperial rank of commander broadly comparable to a commodore (with proposed authentic support from such instances as the Dutch Commandeur and the Russian Imperial Navy's rank of Kapitan-Kommandor). At the same time, other commanders have been seen to be decidedly inferior to captains, such as Commander Gherant in the Dagobah Limited expansion set to the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, who was explicitly called a "deck officer" who had been "hand-picked by Captain Piett."
It must also be considered that Vorru was a politician, not an expert on naval protocol. Furthermore, if one hesitates to apply the model of authentic usage of English-language naval forces to the fictional Imperial Navy, one must also hesitate to use the rogue forces of ex-Imperial warlords as authoritative guides to the correct usage of the Imperial Navy. In any event, the matter is complicated by the imprecise use of "Commander" throughout the fictional Star Wars universe as a generic title of address for any officer in a position of responsibility, including Army officers (similar to the authentic usage of the French title of Commandant).
The analogous air force rank of "Wing Commander" (borrowed into the Royal Air Force from the Royal Navy) is also a source of some confusion, as the Alliance has been seen to use wing commander alongside "flight commander," which may be a rank, position, or title. It is possible that the difference in titles stems from the fact that the Alliance military and naval forces are heterogeneous in composition and background, and the parallel of wing commander and flight commander may reflect the imperfect combination of slightly different traditions (a similar problem arises regarding the specific rank of General Etahn A'baht in the New Republic).