How do promotions work in the Air Force? Air Force promotions work differently depending on whether you’re gonna be in the Air Force enlisted ranks, officer ranks, reserves, or Air Nation Guard. Each has their own set of promotion requirements.

In general, Air Force promotions and gaining rank is going to depend on a few factors like time in grade, time in service, and promotion testing. In some higher ranks promotion boards are used, peers make the decision whether or not you should tack on the next stripe.

Understanding The Basics

When joining the Air Force, your focus isn’t going to be on how to make it to the highest rank in the Air Force. It’s gonna be on the first few ranks you’ll advance through.

So let’s get you through some of the basic terms to understand what you need to make rank.

What Is Time In Grade?

Time in grade (TIG) is the total amount of time in your current Air Force rank. Time in grade doesn’t roll over with a promotion. When you get promoted to a new rank the time restarts all over again for that specific rank. If you’ve been an Airman First Class for a year, your time in grade would be 12 months. If you just gained rank yesterday, your time in grade would be one single day.

What is Time In Service?

Time in service (TIS) is the total amount of time in your military career. Regardless of current rank or gaining promotions, the total time continues year after year. If you’ve just been in the Air Force for 3 years, then your time in service is 3 years.

Enlisted Active Duty Promotions

General enlistment promotions are divided into three sections, an airmen tier, non-commissioned officer tier, and senior non-commissioned officer tier.

Each tier has different Air Force promotion requirements.

  • There’s roughly 259,083 Active Duty Enlisted Airmen

Airmen Tier

The airmen tier gets promoted by time in grade/time in service. Promotions are automatic, nothing special has to be done to obtain the next rank besides wait for time to pass. That’s the easy stuff.

Airmen tier Air Force promotion requirements.

  • To Gain Airman Basic (E-1) Stripes – It’s the initial starting rank when arriving at Air Force basic training, unless certain conditions are met to be promoted beyond Airman Basic.
  • To Gain Airman (E-2) Stripes – 6 months time in grade as an Airman Basic.
  • To Gain Airman First Class (E-3) Stripes – 10 months time in grade as the rank of Airman.
  • To Gain Senior Airman (E-4) Stripes – 36 months time in service with 20 months time in grade as an Airman First Class, or 28 months time in grade as an Airman First Class. Whichever happens first.
Non-commissioned Officer Tier

The NCO tier consist of Staff Sergeant and Technical Sergeant.

Starting in the NCO tier (non-commissioned officer) is when you have to study and pass a waps test to gain rank, two test to be exact.

Both a SKT (specialty knowledge test) and a PDG (professional development guide) test. Each test will be 100 questions. The SKT test questions are related to your specific Air Force job and the PDG test questions are about the Air Force in general. It’s history, organization, management skills, and everything else in between.

Senior Non-commissioned Officer Tier

Making it into the senior non-commissioned officer ranks E-7 to E-9 is when the promotion process splits.

In order to gain the rank of Master Sergeant E-7, the waps test is taken, and both the SKT and PDG tests have to be passed.

However, to gain the rank of Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) or Chief Master Sergeant (E-9), two separate promotion requirements have to be met. A 100 question Air Force Supervisory Exam has to be passed, instead of the waps test. Also, a board of peers on a promotion board becomes a deciding factor for tacking on the next stripe.

Officer Active Duty Promotions

Officer promotions are divided into three sections, company grade officers, field grade officers, and general officers.

When joining the Air Force, there are ten ranks to progress through as an officer stepping up the rank ladder.

  • There’s roughly 62,361 active duty officers
Company Grade Officers

Just like the enlisted airman tier, company grade officers ranks are achieved by time in grade/time in service. Nothing special beyond that, promotions are automatic in the lower ranks.

However,  Air Force officer ranks are slower to progress through then enlisted ranks.

In the Air Force officer promotion timeline, from the first rank of Second Lieutenant to the next rank of First Lieutenant it takes 2 years. If that’s an indication of anything.

Company grade officer Air Force promotion requirements.

  • To Gain Second Lieutenant (O-1) – Starting rank, bachelor’s degree required.
  • To Gain First Lieutenant (O-2) – 24 months time in grade as a Second Lieutenant.
  • To Gain Captain (O-3) – 24 months time in grade as a First Lieutenant.

By the time Captain rank is reached, expect to be proficient in your given Air Force job and taking a leadership role. Gaining the next rank won’t be automatic.

Field Grade Officers

Field Grade Officers are promoted differently than company grade officers. These ranks aren’t simply given out by obtaining time in grade. A promotion board is the deciding factor whether or not the next rank is achieved.

If you get passed up by the promotion board twice to make the next promotion, you’re subject to separate from the active duty Air Force or retire depending on current grade and time in service.

Field grade offices can be promoted a few different ways, IPZ or BPZ.

IPZ refers to in-the-promotion zone, which is the normal time an officer can be promoted.

BPZ refers to below-the-promotion zone, which allows certain Air Force jobs to promote officers 1 to 2 years before the original promotion period.

Field grade officer Air Force promotion eligibility requirements.

  • To Gain Major (O-4) – Must complete Squadron Officer School beforehand, 8 years TIS, 4 years TIG as a Captain.
  • To Gain Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) – Must complete professional military education courses and upgrade training, 16 years TIS, 3 Years TIG as a Major.
  • To Gain Colonel (O-6) – Must have a masters degree and completed a senior developmental education course.
General Officers

General officer ranks O-7 to O-10 become very selective for the promotion process. A promotion board is used, and further section and approval beyond the board is required.

The promotion board recommends officers for promotion and sends the list of potential names up through the channel to members of government leadership. The senate has a majority vote to approve selected nominees to gain a general officer rank.

General officer ranks below.

  • Brigadier General (O-7)
  • Major General (O-8)
  • Lieutenant General (O-9)
  • General (O-10)

With there being multiple General ranks it can become hard to keep them straight. Here’s a little trick to remember all the general officer ranks in order. Say “Be My Little General”.

  • “Be” is for Brigadier General.
  • “My” is for Major General.
  • “Little” is for Lieutenant General.
  • “General” is for General.

Reserve Promotions

Air Force Reserve promotions are handled in a different manner then active duty promotions.

The reserves have some time on grade/time in service requirements. However, largely reserve members are promoted by other means like unit vacancy.

Except for these ranks, reserve promotion requirements from the ranks of Airman (E-2) to Staff Sergeant (E-5) don’t depend on unit vacancy.

Initial ranks promoted by time in grade/time in service.

  • To Gain Airman Basic (E-1) – Starting rank in enlisted reserves.
  • To Gain Airman (E-2) – 6 months time in grade as Airman Basic.
  • To Gain Airman First Class (E-3) – 6 months time in grade as Airman.
  • To Gain Senior Airman (E-4) – 8 months TIG as Airman First Class, complete 3 skill level.
  • To Gain Staff Sergeant (E-5) – 12 months TIG as Senior Airman, complete 5 skill level.

Beyond initial ranks, the Air Force Reserve uses these means of promotion and requirements.

Unit Vacancy

Each Air Force Reserve base has a set number of people they can have for a given rank in a given job. When an airman in that rank leaves the base, then the rank slot becomes available for other airman to be promoted into if they meet requirements for that given rank.

Sometimes it can seem impossible to gain the next rank if no one rotates through a base.

Another way to make rank if you meet basic requirements, is to seek out another Air Force Reserve base where your next rank has an open slot in your Air Force job. Sometimes in order to make rank you have to move around or be willing to drive longer for weekend duty.

Other Means Of Reserve Promotion

The Reserves uses different forms of a promotion program know at STEP, Stripes for exceptional performer.

Air Force Reserve Stripes of Exceptional Performers has two levels.

STEP I is for promoting airman to the rank of Technical Sergeant (E-6).  Current Staff Sergeants are considered for this rank promotion to Tech Sergeant.

STEP II is for promoting exceptional airmen one grade above their current rank. This promotion board is held once a year, and is used for reserve enlisted and officers. To be considered for the STEP II program an immediate supervisor has to nominate you and also have an endorsement from the unit commander.

One requirement of STEP I and STEP II, have zero unexcused absences in the previous 12 months.

Air National Guard

Air National Guard promotions are limited to the total amount given for each state’s specific assignment. There’s no exception for going over each state’s total allotted amount.

In the ANG (Air National Guard) even if you’re eligible for promotion, it doesn’t mean ranks are given.

Airman’s total performance is evaluated and considered, all the way down to attendance at unit training assemblies and annual training.

Each promotion to Technical Sergeant or above must show willingness to accept more responsibility and leadership, and fall in line with unit and state force management plans.

Air National Guard promotion eligibility requirements.

  • To Gain Airman Basic (E-1) – Starting rank in enlisted ANG.
  • To Gain Airman (E-2) – 6 months TIG as Airman Basic, complete 3 skill level.
  • To Gain Airman First Class (E-3) – 12 months TIS, 6 months TIG as Airman.
  • To Gain Senior Airman (E-4) – 24 months TIS, 12 months TIG as Airman First Class.

National Guard is great if you live near a base, but if you expect to advance through the ranks, you have to be willing to move around or drive further for duty activities.

Promotion Shortcuts

Sometimes the time between promotions can be long. For exceptional airmen there are ways to achieve rank faster.

6 Year Active Duty Enlistment

Deciding to join the Air Force enlisted ranks for 6 years instead of 4 means you’d be an Airman First Class (A1C) instead of Airman Basic (AB) or Airman (Amn) at your first duty station.

6 year enlistees gain the rank of Airman First Class after completing tech school or 20 weeks of tech school training, whichever comes first.

It generally takes close to two years for someone to start at the lowest rank and reach Airman First Class. Enlisting for 6 years skips the first two ranks essential and starts you out at an E-3.

They make around $300 more a month then an E-1 who enlisted for 4 years.

So over nearly the first two years you could make a few thousand dollars more as an A1C that signed a 6 year contract.

Another advantage to doing this is that those who do go for 6 years usually get to test for Staff Sergeant faster.

Below The Zone

Below the zone promotions are merit based promotions to gain the rank of Senior Airman.

Outstanding A1C airmen that go above and beyond are selected and awarded below the zone by a board of peers from multiple AFSC’s.

Achieving BTZ means you’d put on Senior Airman six months earlier then you normally would, instead of having to wait and make time in grade.

In order to be considered for this, expect to do volunteer work, take college courses, and score 5’s on your EPR’s (enlisted performance report).

If you decide to go for this promotion be sure to talk to your shop supervision. They will get you on the right path to succeed.

STEP Promotion

Base Commanders have the ability to promote top performing active duty enlisted airmen to the rank of Staff Sergeant and Tech Sergeant. As well as there are other STEP programs for reserves members.

A specific and limited amount of stripes are given out and awarded each year.

Allowing the selected airman to increase their rank by one additional stripe. A Senior Airman (SrA) can get jumped up to Staff Sergeant (SSgt) without testing. The same is true for a Staff Sergeant getting step promoted to Tech Sergeant (TSgt).

The step promotion is instantaneous.

What Rank Will You Be When You Enlist?

Typically in the Air Force enlisted ranks, your first rank will be Airman Basic (E-1).

Unless you are enlisting in the Air Force with college credit, have JROTC experience in high school, or have experience as a kid in the Eagle Scouts or Girl Scouts.

How many college credits for E-2 in the Air Force? 20 college credits to enlist as an Airman.

How many college credits for E-3 in the Air Force? 45 college credits to enlist as Airman First Class.

Remember, depends on the years of service to your enlistment contract, you can jump start your rank faster. Enlisting for 6 years over 4 years let’s you tack on E-3 after completing tech school or 20 weeks into tech school, whichever is first.

Becoming an Air Force officer, your first rank will be Second Lieutenant (O-1).

Joining the Air Force with an associates degree isn’t enough to become an officer. To be an officer you must have a bachelor’s degree.

What Happens When You Put On Rank?

After you arrive at your first duty station and begin to put on rank expect to have a few things happen.

Air Force promotion ceremonies will be held, and in certain cases, flights put on a gauntlet.

For the promotion ceremony everyone is called on stage in front of the squadron or wing and awarded their new rank. Peers from your flight attach stickers of the new rank on your arm in a commemorative fashion. Moments later, pictures of the occasion are taken and your flight peers punch you in the arm to tack the rank in celebration. Some will punch hard and some will just give you a tap. Getting punch when gaining rank is a running theme throughout the Air Force.

Some flights perform a gauntlet. The entire flight lines up in two rows side by side, whoever is getting promoted walks down the row of airmen while fists are throwing punches in a celebratory fashion at your arms where rank insignia’s are located. After walking through the gauntlet both arms will be sore from the punches. It’s all fun and games, no harm will actually be caused.

Just remember you could be on both sides of that. The one getting punched being promoted, and the one throwing punches to someone walking down the gauntlet.

To Wrap It Up

Now that you know what rank you’ll be if you decide to enlist, find out what basic training is like.

Corey Porter

Corey Porter

Air Force Veteran

Corey is an Air Force veteran and the lead writer at Basic to Blues. He refueled fighter jets as a young airman and deployed twice to the Middle East. Now Corey can be found hiking in the Pacific Northwest.

Who the hell… POL!

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