There are many factors that come into play when an enlisted airmen is to be promoted. Promotions up to E-4 are automatic, based on Time-in-Serve (TIS) and Time-in-Grade (TIG). For someone to be promoted to E-5 or above, there must be a vacancy, or slot. Such vacancies are created when someone separates, retires, or gets promoted to the next higher grade. Below breaks down each enlisted rank.
The Air Force has 288,720 enlisted members on active duty. Here’s how it breaks down, by enlisted rank:
- E-1 Airman Basic (AB)
- E-2 Airman (Amn)
- E-3 Airman First Class (A1C)
- E-4 Senior Airman (SrA)
- E-5 Staff Sergeant (SSgt)
- E-6 Technical Sergeant (TSgt)
- E-7 Master Sergeant (MSgt)
- E-7 First Sergeant (E-7)
- E-8 Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)
- E-8 First Sergeant (E-8)
- E-9 Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)
- E-9 First Sergeant (E-9)
- E-9 Command Chief Master Sergeant (CCM Sgt)
- E-9 Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF)
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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).
However, the Air Force “rounds up.” So, it appears that some jobs have higher promotion percentages than others.
After the Air Force determines what the promotion-rate is going to be overall, how do they decide who, in each AFSC (job) gets promoted? First of all, one has to be “eligible” for promotion, based on TIS, TIG, and “skill-level” they’ve received in their job. “Skill Levels” are based on “On-the-Job” training (OJT) requirements, completion of job-school, and/or completion of a job correspondence course, called a “CDC,” or Career Development Course.
Air Force “Skill Levels” are:
- 1-Level. Untrained. Designates individuals who are in basic training and/or technical school.
- 3-Level. Apprentice. The 3-skill level is awarded after graduation from technical school.
- 5-Level. Craftsman. The 5-skill level is awarded after a period of OJT, and completion of CDCs, after arrival at the first duty assignment. While it varies based on the complexity of the job, it takes most people about 18 months to earn their 5-skill level.
- 7-Level. Supervisor. When a person is promoted to Staff Sergeant (E-5), then enter into 7-level training. This is accomplished via OJT, and (usually) graduation from a 7-level job-school. Sometimes, there is no available job-school, and upgrade is accomplished by completing 7-level CDCs.
- 9-Level. Manager. Skill-level assigned to E-8s and E-9s.
For promotions to the grades of E-5 to E-7, the TIS/TIG and skill-level requirements are:
- Staff Sergeant (E-5) – Three years TIS, six months TIG, and awarded the 5-skill level
- Technical Sergeant (E-6) – 5 years TIS, 23 months TIG, and awarded the 7-skill level
- Master Sergeant (E-7) – 8 years TIS, 24 months TIG, and awarded the 7-skill level
Assuming the individual is eligible for promotion, based on TIS/TIG/Skill Level, and are recommended for promotion by the commander, then the WAPS points come into play. Various factors concerning the member are worth “promotion points.” Those with the most “WAPS Points” within the AFSC are the one’s selected for promotion:
- Promotion Fitness Examination (PFE)
This is a 100 question test about Air Force general supervisory subjects, such as history, leadership, NCO responsibilities, first aid, customs and courtesies, etc. The questions are derived from the Air Force Promotion Fitness (PFE) Manual. The maximum number of points that can be awarded is 100.
- Specialty Knowledge Test (SKT)
This is a 100 question test about the individual’s job in the Air Force. Most questions on the SKT are derived from the Career Development Course (CDC) that the individual had to study to be awarded their 5-skill level. The maximum number of points that can be achieved from the SKT is 100.
- Time-in-Grade (TIG)
Air Force members are awarded one-half of a point for each month they have time-in-grade. Maximum number of TIG points is 60. Time-in-Service (TIS) – Members are awarded two points for each year they have in the military. Maximum number of TIS points is 40.
- Awards and Decorations
Just like the Army, Air Force members receive promotion points if awarded certain military decorations (medals):
Medal of Honor 15 Air Force/Navy Distinguished Cross 11 Defense Distinguished Service Medal 9 Distinguished Service Medal 9 Silver Star 9 Legion of Merit 7 Defense Superior Service Medal 7 Distinguished Flying Cross 7 Airman’s/Soldier’s/Navy-Marine Corps/Coast Guard/Bronze Star/Defense Meritorious Service Medals/Meritorious Service Medal 5 Purple Heart 5 Air/Aerial Achievement 3 Air Force/Army/Navy/Joint Services/Coast Guard Commendation Medal 3 Air Force Recruiting Ribbon 2 Air Force/Navy/Coast Guard/Joint Services Achievement Medal 1
The maximum number of decoration points is 25.
- Enlisted Performance Reports (EPRs)
At least once per year, enlisted members are rated by their supervisors (and the supervisor’s supervisor) concerning their duty performance, behavior, appearance, motivation, leadership abilities, communicative abilities, and conduct. Part of this rating includes a promotion recommendation from one to five (with one the lowest, and five the highest). Each report must then be reviewed/approved by the squadron commander. The WAPS system converts these ratings to promotion points. Only ratings for the previous five years are used, not to exceed ten reports. Additionally, the older a report is, the less it counts in determining EPR promotion points. The maximum number of promotion points for EPRs is 135.
Once the Air Force has decides (overall) what percentage needs to be promoted, it applies those percentages to each AFSC (job). The WAPS points for each eligible person in that job are totaled, and those with the most WAPS points are selected for promotion.
Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) and Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) Promotions
Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant Promotions in the Air Force are made using a combination of WAPS points and a centralized promotion board that reviews the individual promotion record.
To be eligible for promotion consideration, the member must meet the following TIS/TIG requirements:
- Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) – 11 years TIS and 20 months TIG.
- Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) – 14 years TIS and 21 months TIG.
The WAPS points are the same as used in E-5 through E-7 promotions, except, instead of two promotion tests, there is only one — The Air Force Supervisory Examination. Questions for this test are derived from two manuals: PROMOTION FITNESS EXAMINATION (PFE) STUDY GUIDE (the same manual that those going for E-5 to E-7 promotions study), and USAF SUPERVISORY EXAMINATION (USAFSE) STUDY GUIDE. The test consists of 100 questions, and is worth a maximum of 100 points.
The biggest factor for Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant promotions, however, is the centralized promotion board.
The panel examines the promotion records, and score them by considering the following factors: Performance, Professional Competence, Leadership, Job Responsibility, Breadth of Experience, Specific Achievements, Education. The maximum number of board points that can be awarded is 450, so you can see that the board is the most significant part of Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant Promotions. Visit Air Force Promotions – SMSgt and CMSgt to see how the scoring process works.
So, how long does it take to get promoted in the Air Force? On average, one can expect to be promoted after completing the following Time-in-Service.
- Airman (E-2) – 6 months
- Airman First Class (E-3) – 16 months
- Senior Airman (E-4) – 3 years
- Staff Sergeant (E-5) – 4.4 years
- Technical Sergeant (E-6) – 12.9 years
- Master Sergeant (E-7) – 16.9 years
- Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) – 19.7 years
- Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) – 22.1 years