Air Force Enlisted Force Structure

Ranks and Responsibilities for Enlisted Members of the Air Force

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It's been said over and over again, Noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, are the backbone of the Air Force. The organization's success or failure, strengths or weaknesses, can be directly related to the effectiveness of its NCOs.

The Air Force enlisted force is comprised of distinct and separate ranks. Each correlates to increased levels of training, education, technical competence, experience, leadership, and managerial responsibilities.

In 1977, the enlisted force structure was reorganized into the following three tiers.

Senior Noncommissioned Officer (SNCO) Tier

The top three ranks of the enlisted force structure are a master sergeant, senior master sergeant, and chief master sergeant. Within this tier, personnel transition from craftsmen and supervisors to leadership and managerial positions.

SNCOs are assigned duties commensurate with their skill level and rank. Their primary leadership duties are superintendent, supervisor or manager of a flight, function or activity. They usually serve in the role as one of the following:

  • Chief of a flight, section or branch
  • Superintendent of a division or unit
  • First sergeant
  • Detachment chief or commandant in special circumstances

SNCOs exercise leadership and manage resources under their control.

Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Tier

This tier is where technical sergeants and staff sergeants transition from workers and journeymen to craftsman and supervisory positions as they develop military leadership skills and attend Professional Military Education (PME).

Airman Tier

This tier consists of airman basic, airman, airman first class, and senior airman. It is the initial tier of the three-tier enlisted force structure. As a member progresses from airman basic to senior airman, he or she acquires the discipline, skills, and PME necessary to become eligible for NCO status.

The following table outlines the three tiers and their appropriate rankings, accompanied by the position giving to that ranking:

The Air Force Enlisted Force Structure

Senior NCO Tier
(E-7 through E-9)

Chief Master Sergeant (E-9)Superintendent/Manager
 Senior Master Sergeant (E-8)Superintendent/Manager
 Master Sergeant (E-7)Craftsman/Supervisor/Manager

NCO Tier
(E-5 through E-6)


Technical Sergeant (E-6)Craftsman/Supervisor
 Staff Sergeant (E-5)Craftsman/Supervisor

Airman Tier
(E-1 through E-4)


Senior Airman (E-4)Journeyman/Supervisor
 Airman First Class (E-3)Apprentice/Worker



Airman (E-2)Apprentice/Worker
 Airman Basic (E-1)Apprentice

Air Force Enlisted Ranks and Responsibilities

  • Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt)

    • Official term of address: chief master sergeant or chief
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 22.6 years
    • The rank of CMSgt is the highest Air Force enlisted rank, with the exception of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. CMSgts are superintendents and managers, and they provide senior enlisted leadership. They are assigned chief enlisted manager (CEM) codes upon selection to CMSgt and may fill any managerial-level position and perform all duties not prohibited by law or directive. CMSgts are advisors and enlisted force managers.
  • Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)

    • Official term of address: senior master sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 19.1 years
    • SMSgts perform as superintendents or managers. Broad management skills are essential to exercise the responsibilities of the higher leadership positions in which SMSgts serve. The 9-skill level "Superintendent" is awarded when SMSgts sew on E-8. SMSgts should continue their professional development to become viable candidates for unique assignment opportunities and future promotion selection consideration to CMSgt.
  • Master Sergeant (MSgt)

    • Official term of address: master sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 16.1 years
    • MSgts function primarily in craftsman and supervisory positions as they prepare for more advanced leadership positions. MSgts hold a 7-skill level. This rank carries significantly increased responsibilities and requires a broad technical and managerial perspective. MSgt selects should enroll in and complete the AFSNCOA correspondence course.
  • Technical Sergeant (TSgt)

    • Official term of address: technical sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 14 years
    • TSgts hold a 7-skill level and are qualified to perform highly complex technical duties in addition to providing supervision. They are responsible for the career development of all enlisted personnel under their supervision. They must obtain maximum performance from each subordinate and ensure the product or service is of the quality necessary for total mission effectiveness. TSgts will continuously strive to broaden and perfect their professional expertise and supervisory techniques.
  • Staff Sergeant (SSgt)

    • Official term of address: staff sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 6.9 years
    • SSgts are primarily craftsmen with certain NCO supervisory responsibilities. They may hold either a 5- (journeyman) or 7- (craftsman) skill level. SSgts must complete their 7-skill level through upgrade training to be promoted to TSgt. SSgt supervisory duties differ from those of the TSgt only in scope and span of control. SSgts strive for greater supervisory competence as they function in their technical capacity. They are responsible for their subordinates and the effective accomplishment of assigned tasks. They ensure the proper and effective use of personnel and material. SSgts must continuously strive to further their development as technicians and supervisors.
  • Senior Airman (SrA)

    • Official term of address: senior airman or airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 36 months
    • A SrA is in a transition period from journeyman to NCO. Development of supervisory and leadership skills through PME and individual study is essential. All SrA should conduct themselves in a manner commensurate with established standards, thereby asserting a positive influence on other airmen. The SrA must, at all times, present the image of competence, integrity, and pride.
  • Airman First Class (A1C)

    • Official term of address: airman first class or airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 16 months
    • An A1C must comply with Air Force standards and be a role model for subordinates. They are expected to devote efforts to mastering the necessary skills in the new career fields.
  • Airman (Amn)

    • Official term of address: airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 6 months
    • An Amn, while still primarily an apprentice, is expected to understand and conform to military standards.
  • Airman Basic (AB)

    • Official term of address: airman basic or airman
    • The AB is an apprentice who is acquiring and demonstrating knowledge of military customs, courtesies, traditions, and Air Force standards while learning both military and technical skills. The official term of address is airman basic or airman.

Rank and Precedence

The policy for rank and precedence stems from time-honored military customs and traditions. Within the enlisted force, NCOs take rank and precedence over all airmen and other NCOs according to rank. Within the same rank, precedence is determined in the following order:

  1. Date of rank
  2. TAFMS date
  3. Total military service date
  4. Date of birth

Responsibility and accountability increase commensurate with rank. Within each rank, responsibility for leading rests on the individual who is senior in rank.

Information derived from AFPAM 36-2241 Vol I, and AFMPC.