Enlisted Promotions Made Simple

Air Force Enlisted Promotions

108th Wing Quarterly Promotions
108th Wing - NJANG/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

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 serve in each pay grade, 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. Depending upon the defense budget any given year, it can be easier or more difficult to join the military or advance in rate.

The Air Force has nearly 300,000 enlisted members on active duty. Here is the breakdown of all the rank tiers. 

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-Service (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).

For example, if the Air Force decides that it needs to promote 25 percent of all of their eligible E-4s to the grade of E-5 during the next year, each and every Air Force AFSC (job) will promote 25 percent of the current force.

Another exception to the equal promotion rule is that the Air Force is allowed to award five extra percentage points to AFSCs (jobs) that they considered critically-manned. So, if the overall promotion rate for E-5s is 25 percent, the Air Force could promote 30 percent of any AFSC they consider to be seriously undermanned.

After the Air Force determines what the promotion-rate is going to be overall, 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" (OJT) training 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

WAPS Points

Assuming the individual is eligible for promotion, based on TIS/TIG/Skill Level, and are recommended for promotion by the commander (realistically, the commander never non-recommends unless the individual is in trouble), 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 ones 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, Air Force Manual 36-2241 Vol 1. 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.

Promotion Selection

Once the Air Force has decided (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.

For example, if the overall promotion rate to E-6 is 30 percent, then the top 30 percent with the highest total WAPS points in AFSC XYZ will be selected for promotion. The person selected with the lowest score determines the "cut-off" score for that AFSC, and the Air Force will announce that everyone in that AFSC with a cut-off score of that, and above will be promoted (of course, selectees are individually notified by their commanders and first sergeants, as well).

Promotion Line Numbers

The "Promotion Cycle" runs for 12 months. That means those selected for promotion are promoted, in increments for one year following. Not everyone is promoted during the same month. That's where "line numbers" comes in. The Air Force assigns promotion line numbers based upon time-in-grade, regardless of AFSC (job). So, the person (Air Force wide), selected for promotion with the most time-in-grade, would receive a line number of 001, the person with the next most time-in-grade a line number of 002, and so forth. The Air Force then (for the next 12 months) announces which line numbers will sew their stripes on the following month.

Palace Balance

So, if the Air Force gives an equal promotion opportunity to each career field using a program known as "Palace Balance." Each year or so, the Air Force looks at the rank-manning in each of their career fields, for each rank (E-5 to E-9). The first phase of Palace Balance is voluntary. The Air Force will release a general message, asking people in certain ranks, in certain overage jobs, to re-train into jobs that have shortages.

If they don't get enough volunteers, they will send individual letters to people in overage rank/jobs, and tell them that there were not enough volunteer during the first phase and that they have been identified as being subject to mandatory re-train. If they then volunteer, they usually have a wide choice of jobs to choose from. If, after this phase, there is still not enough volunteers to re-train, the Air Force will select individuals among the list for mandatory re-training (in which case, there is usually a very narrow, or no list to choose from).

Stripes for Exceptional Performers (STEP)

There is one final avenue for promotion to the ranks of Staff Sergeant (E-5) to Master Sergeant (E-7). Each year, the Air Force releases a limited number (usually less than 200, Air Force-wide), slots for a STEP promotion. The slots are usually distributed to the various MAJCOMS (Major Commands), who then usually distribute them to the Wings (Installations). There are generally only two or three STEP allocations given to each Wing (Installation) per year. Wing commanders can then use these allocations to promote OUTSTANDING individuals to Staff Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, and Master Sergeant.

The allocations are EXTREMELY limited and is not something that one should count on in the promotion process. The stated purpose of the STEP system is to allow Wing (and above) commanders a method to promote individuals who are outstanding performers but do not score well on promotion tests. However, commanders have a wide latitude on when/how to use their specific STEPS allocations.

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: Air Force Manual 36-2241 Vol 1 - PROMOTION FITNESS EXAMINATION (PFE) STUDY GUIDE (the same manual that those going for E-5 to E-7 promotions study), and Air Force Manual 36-2241 Vol 2 - USAF SUPERVISORY EXAMINATION (USAFSE) STUDY GUIDE. The test consists of 100 questions and is worth a maximum of 100 points.

Promotion Board

The biggest factor for Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant promotions, however, is the centralized promotion board. Twice per year (once for Senior Master Sergeant, and Once for Chief Master Sergeant), the Air Force convenes a promotion board. The board is divided into several 3-person panels, with each panel examining the promotion records for specific AFSCs (jobs). In other words, everyone eligible for promotion within a given AFSC will have their records scored by the same panel.

The board president is always a general officer, and each panel consists of two colonels (O-6), and one Chief Master Sergeant (E-9). 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.

For specifics about how the scoring process works, see Senior NCO Promotion Fact Sheet. 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.

Promotion Averages

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: (2013 statistics)

  • 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 years
  • Master Sergeant (E-7) - 17 years
  • Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) - 19.7 years
  • Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) - 22 years