The Air Force enlisted force structure is unique among the services. The pay grades are the same, but the names of the ranks are different. There are also unique positions in the Enlisted Force Structure that warrant mention in this guide. While we primarily focus on USAF officer topics on this website, it is essential to understand the Enlisted Force Structure. You will be charged as a supervisor and leader of the enlisted members in your unit and you need to understand their ranks, skill levels, and what they bring to the table. At some point in your career, you may also be honored with the opportunity to administer the Oath of Enlistment, which is taken by enlisted members when they enlist in the USAF, and upon each subsequent reenlistment.
It’s also important to know that the enlisted force is where most of your subject matter experts work. Your job as an officer is to focus on leadership and ensuring your enlisted members have what they need to accomplish the mission. Your enlisted members’ job is to be the technical expert and complete the mission.
Table of Contents
USAF Enlisted Rank Structure
The timelines listed below are for a general overview only. Each career field promotes based on need and there may be additional opportunities to promote based on needs of the Air Force, opportunity, and other factors. Advancing faster than, or slower than the listed time frames is not always indicative of one’s performance, but may indicate factors beyond the Airman’s control.
|Chief Master Sergeant
of the Air Force
Three Tiers of the USAF Enlisted Force Structure
The USAF enlisted force structure is broken into three unique tiers. Promoting into a higher tier represents an important career milestone for the member, and should be recognized accordingly. These tiers are the Airman Tier, Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Tier, and the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SMCO) Tier.
Each Airman is assigned a Skill-Level, commensurate with their skills in their Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC).
- 3-Level: Apprentice. Usually assigned to E-1 through E-3.
- 5-Level: Journeyman. Usually assigned to E-4 – E-5.
- 7-Level: Supervisor. Usually assigned to E-5 through E-7.
- 9-Level: Manager. Usually assigned to E-8 and E-9.
Note: It is possible for a member to fall outside the above scale, especially when the individual cross-trains into a new career field. It takes time to learn the skills of a new career field, and receiving the skill-level rating requires a certain amount of On the Job Training (OJT).
The Airman Ranks include pay grades E-1 through E-4. Most Airmen graduate Basic Military Training (BMT) as an E-1, unless their contract states they would either come in the Air Force, or graduate BMT, at a higher pay grade. The highest pay grade upon graduating BMT is usually E-3, which can be awarded for having a qualifying number of college credits, signing an extended contract, having earned Eagle Scout, or for other reasons. It can be possible, in some circumstances to have a higher pay grade upon graduating BMT, but these circumstances are rare and will not be covered here.
Skill Level and Duty Requirements in the Airman Ranks: Airmen in the pay grades of E-1 and E-2 are apprentices who are generally still learning their craft. In many cases, these individuals are still in their Technical School (tech school) and are learning their career field. They will continue their training upon graduation and arrival at their first duty station. This is an intense period of acclimation for the Airman.
Airman First Class is when many Airmen have become acclimated to life in the Air Force and are becoming more knowledgeable in their career fields. Senior Airman are becoming subject matter experts and begin taking a larger leadership and mentoring role in their units. This is the preparation stage to becoming a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO).
Promotion through the Airman Ranks: Promoting through the Airman ranks is usually through time in service, provided the Airman meets Air Force standards for performance and behavior.
- Airman Basic (E-1): Normally 0 – 6 months time in service.
- Airman (E-2): Promotion is usually automatic at 6 months Time in Service (TIS).
- Airman First Class (E-3): There is no TIS requirement to reach E-3. Members can be an E-3 upon entry to the USAF. However, there is usually a 10 month Time in Grade (TIG) requirement for members who promote from Airman (E-2).
- Senior Airman (E-4): Members are required to have 36 months TIS and 20 months TIG for promotion from A1C. The average promotion time to SrA is 36 months. Exception: Senior Airman Below the Zone (E-4). A small percentage of Airman First Class can promote to SrA Below the Zone, which is a competitive advancement to SrA, 6 months ahead of the normal promotion schedule. Commanders are limited to promoting up to 15% of eligible A1C to SrA BTZ. However, in practice, it is often less.
Non-Commissioned Officer Ranks
The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) ranks include NCOs in pay grades E-5 and E-6. These are the ranks of Staff Sergeant (SSgt) and Technical Sergeant (TGgt). Promotion into these ranks requires Airmen to meet TIG and TIS requirements, as well as score well enough on the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS). The WAPS System combines the scores from two promotion tests, Points derived from Medals and Awards, TIS and TIG, and Performance Evaluations.
The two tests are the Promotion Fitness Examination (PFE), which tests the member on Air Force knowledge, and the Specialty Knowledge Test (SKT), which is a career-field specific exam. In most cases, the WAPS scores are graded, then compared against all other promotion eligible members within their specific Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). In some cases, members are testing against a group of mixed career fields.
Skill Level and Duty Requirements in the NCO Ranks: Staff Sergeants and Tech Sergeants are expected to be the technical experts in their career fields. They handle and supervise much of the day to day operations within their specific career field. They often report to their Senior Enlisted NCOs and Company Grade Officers. In addition to their duties within their career field, NCOs are often required to handle additional supervisory duties, including being a supervisor, rater, trainer and other special additional duties.
- Staff Sergeant (SSgt): Usually holds a skill level rating of 5-level or 7-level in their career field.
- Technical Sergeant (TGgt): Must hold a 7-skill level (unless recently cross-trained into the career field).
Promotion through the NCO Ranks: Promoting to SSgt and TSgt is through testing and meeting other qualification standards.
- Staff Sergeant (SSgt): Promotion to SSgt requires the Airman to have a minimum 5-skill level, three years TIS and six months TIG, in addition to scoring well enough on the WAPS Test. Airmen must also attend Airman Leadership School before promotion to SSgt. The average promotion time to SSgt is 4 years.
- Technical Sergeant (TGgt): Promotion to TSgt requires the SSgt to have a 7-skill level, five years TIS and 23 months TIG, in addition to scoring well enough on the WAPS Test. The average promotion time to TSgt is 12 years.
Senior Non-Commissioned Officer Ranks
The Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) ranks include SNCOs in pay grades E-7 through E-9.
Skill Level and Duty Requirements in the SNCO Ranks: MSgts a usually Craftsmen, who hold a 7-skill level. They are subject matter experts who are skilled at their career field tasks, but also handle a wide variety of supervisory and leadership roles within their unit. SMSgts perform as a Superintendent within their career field. This requires broad technical, supervisory, and managerial skills. CMSgts are the highest ranking enlisted members and serve as senior enlisted managers. CMSgts are awarded a Chief Enlisted Manager (CEM) code and are often utilized as managers in a variety of career fields.
Promotion through the NCO Ranks: Promoting to MSgt, SMSgt, and CMSgt is a combination of the WAPS system and being selected through the Central Evaluation Board (CEB). Professional Military Education (PME) is required for advancement to these positions. (more reading on USAF PME).
- Master Sergeant (MSgt): Promotion to MSgt utilizes a combination of the WAPS System and a competitive selection board. The minimum service requirement are 8 years TIS and 24 months TIG and completion of the NCO Academy. The member must hold a 7-skill level in their Primary AFSC. The average promotion time to MSgt is over 17 years.
- SeniorMaster Sergeant (SMSgt): Promotion to MSgt utilizes a combination of the WAPS System and a competitive selection board. The minimum service requirement are 11 years TIS and 20 months TIG and completion of the SNCO Academy. The member must hold a minimum 7-skill level in their Primary AFSC. Public law limits the number of SMSgts to 2% of the total enlisted force. The average promotion time to SMSgt is 20 years.
- Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt): Promotion to CMSgt utilizes a combination of the WAPS System and a competitive selection board. The minimum service requirement are 14 years TIS and 21 months TIG and completion of theChief Leadership Course. Public law limits the number of CMSgts to 1% of the total enlisted force. The average promotion time to CMSgt is over 22 years.
Special Enlisted Ranks
There are several special enlisted ranks that fall outside the tiers mentioned above. These ranks have the same pay grade, but the duties are often greater or more specialized. These are highly competitive positions, and often require additional schooling prior to selection, or require the member compete against other members on a selection board. These include, but are not limited to:
- First Sergeant (E-7 – E-9): The First Sergeant, or First Shirt, is special duty assignment held by a SNCO. The First Shirt is responsible for the morale, welfare, and conduct of all the enlisted members in a squadron. He or she is the “eyes and ears” of the squadron commander and advises the commanded on enlisted matters. Most units have a MSgt in this position, though larger units will have a First Sergeant that is an E-8 or E-9. Requires attendance of the USAF First Sergeant Academy at Maxwell AFB-Gunter Annex, AL.
- Command Chief Master Sergeant (E-9): The Command Chief Master Sergeant was formerly known as the Senior Enlisted Advisor, a title that still accurately reflects the role of this position. The CCM is a liaison between the enlisted force and the commander of a high level, including a Base Command, Wing, Numbered Air Force, Field Operating Agency, and Major Command (MAJCOM).
- Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (E-9): The CMSAF is the highest enlisted member in the USAF. The CMASF is appointed by the Air Force Chief of Staff and serves as the senior enlisted advisor to the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force on all issues regarding the enlisted force.
More information on the USAF Enlisted Force Structure:
More information can be found in Air Force Instruction 36-2618.