Air Force Enlisted Force Structure

Ranks and Responsibilities for Enlisted Members of the Air Force

United States of America armed forces patch with American flag in the background
•••   GWImages/Getty Images Plus 

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 three tiers.

Senior Noncommissioned Officers (SNCO)

The top three ranks of the enlisted force structure are a chief master sergeant, senior master sergeant, and master sergeant.

Within this tier, personnel transition from craftsmen and supervisors to leadership and managerial positions.

SNCOs are assigned duties commensurate with their skill levels and ranks. Their primary leadership duties are as superintendents, supervisors, or managers of flights, functions, or activities. They usually serve 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 staff sergeants and technical 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 senior airmen, airmen first class, airmen, and basic airmen.

It is the initial tier of the three-tier enlisted force structure. A member progressing from airman basic to senior airman acquires the discipline, skills, and education 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:

Airman TierPosition
Airman Basic (E-1)Apprentice
Airman (E-2)Apprentice/Worker
Airman First Class (E-3)Apprentice/Worker
Senior Airman (E-4)Journeyman/Supervisor
NCO TierPosition
Staff Sergeant (E-5)Craftsman/Supervisor
Technical Sergeant (E-6)Craftsman/Supervisor
Senior NCO TierPosition
Master Sergeant (E-7)Craftsman/Supervisor/Manager
Senior Master Sergeant (E-8)Superintendent/Manager
Chief Master Sergeant (E-9)Superintendent/Manager

Air Force Enlisted Ranks and Responsibilities

The rank of chief master sergeant (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.

  • Official term of address: chief master sergeant or chief
  • Average active duty time for promotion: 22.6 years

Senior master sergeants (SMSgt) 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.

  • Official term of address: senior master sergeant or sergeant
  • Average active duty time for promotion: 19.1 years

Master sergeants (MSgt) 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.

  • Official term of address: master sergeant or sergeant
  • Average active duty time for promotion: 16.1 years

    Technical sergeants (TSgt) 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 should continuously strive to broaden and perfect their professional expertise and supervisory techniques.

    • Official term of address: technical sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 14 years

    Staff sergeants (SSgt) 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.

    • Official term of address: staff sergeant or sergeant
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 6.9 years

    The rank of senior airman (SrA) is a transition period from journeyman to NCO. Development of supervisory and leadership skills through professional military education (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. SrA must present the image of competence, integrity, and pride at all times.

    • Official term of address: senior airman or airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 36 months

    An airman first class (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.

    • Official term of address: airman first class or airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 16 months

    An airman (Amn), while still primarily an apprentice, is expected to understand and conform to military standards.

    • Official term of address: airman
    • Average active duty time for promotion: 6 months

    An airman basic (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.

    • Official term of address: airman basic or airman

    Rank and Precedence

    Within the same rank, precedence is determined in the following order:

    1. Date of rank
    2. Total active federal military service (TAFMS) date
    3. Total military service date
    4. Date of birth