Air Force Enlisted Promotions Made Simple

There are a few paths to advancement in the Air Force

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.

Such vacancies are created when someone separates, retires, or gets promoted to the next grade. Depending upon the defense budget in a given year, it can be easier or more difficult to join the military or advance in rate.

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 satisfactorily, 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.

The Air Force offers programs for selected enlisted personnel to enlist at an advanced rank, for things such as college credits or participation in Junior ROTC. 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 an accelerated promotion for those who agree to enlist for six years.

Under this program, a recruit joins as an Airman Basic (E-1), is promoted to Airman (E-2) after graduating basic training, and advances to Airman First Class (E-3) upon graduation from 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 fewer 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

In the Air Force, selections for promotions at these ranks are made using a weighted airman promotion system or WAPS.

The Air Force is the only service that gives the same promotion percentage to all of its AFSCs (jobs), rather than basing it on existing vacancies.

The Air Force is allowed to award five extra percentage points to AFSCs it considers critically-manned. So, if the overall promotion rate for E-5s is 25 percent, the Air Force could promote 30 percent of any AFSC it considers to be seriously undermanned.

After the Air Force determines what the promotion-rate is going to be overall, airmen have to be eligible for promotion, based on TIS, TIG and the skill-level they've received in their jobs. Skill levels are based on On-the-Job (OJT) training requirements, completion of job-school, and/or completion of a job correspondence course.

Air Force Skill Levels

  • 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 in the Air Force

Assuming the individual is eligible for promotion, based on TIS/TIG/skill level, and is 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 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 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. 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. The maximum number of TIG points is 60. Time-in-Service (TIS) - Members are awarded two points for each year they have in the military. The 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 in the Air Force

    At least once per year, enlisted members are rated by their supervisors 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 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 in the Air Force

    Once the Air Force has decided 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.

    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 of slots for a STEP promotion. The slots are usually distributed to the various major commands, who then distribute them to the wings.

    There are generally only two or three STEP allocations given to each wing per year. Wing commanders can then use these allocations to promote outstanding individuals to Staff Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, and Master Sergeant.

    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. The test consists of 100 questions and is worth a maximum of 100 points.

    Air Force Promotion Board

    The biggest factor for Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant promotions, however, is the centralized promotion board. Twice per year, the Air Force convenes a promotion board. The board is divided into several panels, with each panel examining the promotion records for specific AFSCs. So 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 performance, professional competence, leadership, job responsibility, breadth of experience, specific achievements and 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.