Air Force Warns of Lower NCO Promotion Rates in Coming Years

The Air Force is expecting lower promotion rates for some enlisted noncommissioned officers—and that drop could last several years, the service announced July 7.

In particular, grades E-5 through E-7 will be affected, according to a service press release, due to recent enlisted grade structure revisions and high retention.

The announcement from the Air Force comes just a few months after the service announced its lowest E-7 promotion rate in years—14.8 percent, down from 18.9 percent the year before and a decade-high of 29.6 percent in 2018.

At the time of announcing the recent E-7 rate, the Air Force Personnel Center noted that an enlisted grade structure revision had resulted in a 0.5 percent decrease in master sergeant authorizations, while the number of eligible technical sergeants increased. AFPC did not, however, give any indication as to whether other grades would also be affected or if the trend would continue over time.

E-5 and E-6 promotion rates for 2022 have not been released yet—AFPC took to social media July 11 to announce that the public release for E-6s is coming the week of July 18-22—but given the expected trends, they’ll presumably fall short of 2021’s numbers, a 35.06 percent promotion rate for E-5s and a 26.94 percent rate for E-6s. In recent years, those figures have regularly stayed above 25 percent.

A number of factors are likely to keep promotion rates low. In addition to the enlisted grade structure revisions, the Air Force saw retention spike amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the service’s end strength is projected to be mostly flat in the coming years, after rising modestly over the previous several years.

All of that combined will make for fewer opportunities for promotion—but the Air Force says that is necessary to combat a decline in experience among Airmen.

“The majority of the experience decline was attributable to the Air Force trying to achieve an enlisted force structure with too many higher grades,” Col. James Barger, Air Force Manpower Analysis Agency commander, said in a release. “We also found that experience levels would continue to decline unless the Air Force lays in more junior Airmen allocations and fewer E5-E7 allocations.”

The goal, Barger said, is to reach a “healthier” distribution of Airmen across grades by fiscal 2025—seemingly indicating that lower promotion rates could continue for another two or three years. Air Force leaders say such moves will ensure that Airmen gain valuable experience in their current grades before moving on to more supervisory roles—an average of one extra year each at E-5 and E-6.

“We value the experience Airmen bring to their work centers and we want to ensure we are aligning our enlisted force grade structure appropriately,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said in a release. “Although this news may be discouraging for some, this revision is absolutely needed and allows us to grow the Air Force our nation needs.” 

These moves coincide with other changes to Air Force personnel management, such as the introduction of the Airman Leadership Qualities, their incorporation into feedback forms, and changes to how Enlisted Performance Reports are scored in the Enlisted Evaluation System. The service also unveiled its new Enlisted Force Development Action Plan on Jan. 12, outlining 28 force development objectives to be completed over the next two years.

At the same time, the service’s recruiting leaders have started expressing concerns about the challenges of getting new Airmen—the Pentagon as a whole is facing a recruiting problem across the military. If the Air Force misses its recruiting goals in the coming years, that could make balancing the enlisted corps across grades even harder.

Air Force E-7 Promotion Rates Over the Years

YearEligiblePromotedPercentage Rate