As I mentioned in our article about the Army Enlisted Promotion System, Congress sets the size of the active duty force for each branch of the service, and sets the percentage of the enlisted force that is allowed to service in each paygrade, above the grade of E-4. That means, for someone to be promoted to E-5 or above, there must be a "vacancy," or "slot." Such vacancies are created with someone separates, retires, or gets promoted to the next higher grade.
The Air Force has 288,720 enlisted members on active duty. Here's how it breaks down, by enlisted rank:
- Airman Basic (E-1) - 13,693 (4.7%)
- Airman (E-2) - 12,712 (4.4%)
- Airman First Class (E-3) - 53,094 (18.3%)
- Senior Airman (E-4) - 53,223 (18.4%)
- Staff Sergeant (E-5) - 72,388 (25.0%)
- Technical Sergeant (E-6) - 43,992 (15.2%)
- Master Sergeant (E-7) - 31,061 (10.8%)
- Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) - 5,681 (2.0%)
- Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) - 2,876 (1.0%)
Airman (E-2) to Senior Airman (E-4) Promotions
Just like the Army, the unit commander is the promotion authority for promotions to Airman (E-2), Airman First Class (E-3) and Senior Airman (E-4). As long as a person doesn't get into trouble, and does their job satisfactory, promotions up to E-4 are automatic, based on Time-in-Serve (TIS) and Time-in-Grade (TIG).
The TIG/TIS requirements are:
- Airman (E-2) - Six months TIG as an Airman Basic (E-1)
- Airman First Class (E-3) - Ten months TIG as an Airman (E-2)
- Senior Airman (E-4) - 36 months TIS with 20 months TIG, or 28 months TIG, whichever occurs first.
Just like the Army, the Air Force offers programs for selected enlisted personnel to enlist at an advanced rank, for things such as college credits, participation in Junior ROTC, etc. The highest advanced rank one can enlist with under these programs is Airman First Class (E-3).
The Air Force is the only service that gives accelerated promotion for those who agree to enlist for six years. Under this program, enlistees are enlisted as an Airman Basic (E-1), are promoted to Airman (E-2) when they graduate basic training, and then are advanced to Airman First Class (E-3) when they graduate technical school, or 20 weeks after graduation from basic training, whichever occurs first.
Senior Airman (E-4) Below-the-Zone
The Air Force has a special program where commanders can promote a limited number of outstanding Airman First Class (E-3) to Senior Airman (E-4) six months before they would otherwise be eligible. This program is known as the Senior Airman Below-the-Zone Promotion Program.
Only 15 percent of eligible Airman First Class (E-3) can be promoted under this program. Primarily, commanders decide who will be promoted under the program by means of a promotion board. Large units (those with 7 or more eligible for promotion) can conduct the promotion boards "in-house" and select up to 15 percent for early promotion. Small units (6 or less eligible) are combined into one pool of eligible to form a central base board (CBB).
Staff Sergeant (E-5) to Master Sergeant (E-7) Promotions
Unlike the Army, Staff Sergeant (E-5), Technical Sergeant (E-6), and Master Sergeant (E-7) promotions in the Air Force do not involve a promotion board. In the Air Force, selections for promotion are made using what the Air Force calls the "Weighted Airman Promotion System," or WAPS.
The Air Force is the only service that does not base E-5 and above promotion percentages on the job. The other services base their NCO promotions based on how many vacancies exist in the person's job. The Air Force, on the other hand, gives the same promotion percentage to all of their AFSCs (jobs). (Well, there's a minor exception, which we'll cover shortly).