Historically Low Number of Staff Sergeants Are Getting Promoted by the Air Force

Technical sergeant selects salute the flag during promotion ceremony
Technical sergeant selects salute the flag during the playing of the national anthem July 14, 2023, at a promotion ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class James Johnson)

Only 17% of airmen were promoted to staff sergeant this month, marking the lowest promotion rate since at least 1996 as the service pushes to cut the number of noncommissioned officers in its ranks.

Air Force officials selected 9,000 senior airmen for promotion to staff sergeant out of 51,717 eligible, for a selection rate of 17.4% in the 2023 promotion cycle, a new press release said.

It's a notable departure from last year's staff sergeant promotion rate of 21% and comes almost a year after the Air Force announced it would be significantly reducing the number of noncommissioned officers in the ranks in hopes of getting more experienced airmen into leadership roles.

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The 2022 selection rates were "impacted by enlisted grade restructuring, a leveling off of end strength growth, and high retention levels," officials said last year. When asked about the 2023 dip, Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman, a Department of the Air Force spokesperson, said the service is continuing its efforts to restructure the enlisted ranks.

"The Air Force is still undergoing an enlisted grade restructure, impacting promotion rates in the grades of E-5 through E-7 until FY25," Heitzman said.

The 17% selection rate for 2023 marks the lowest promotions rate for staff sergeant since 1996, when it was 16.6%, according to data provided by the Air Force Personnel Center.

Many service members eagerly wait to see whether they've been promoted, not only for the increase of rank but also for the increase in pay that comes with it. Offering fewer promotions for the enlisted ranks often hurts morale, as well as some pocketbooks.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Eric Benken, who served as the Air Force's top enlisted leader from 1996 to 1999, told Military.com that promotions were more of a numbers game during his tenure than a detailed look at the individual leadership experiences of those seeking to climb the NCO ranks.

"We never had philosophical discussions about experience and things like that," Benken said. "That was never in the equation. It was strictly based on the number of staff sergeants you can have."

Last year, the Air Force announced that it was planning to restructure its ranks to offer fewer opportunities for promotions among the rank and file.

From 2015 to 2021, enlisted end strength grew by nearly 16,000 airmen, which brought increased opportunities for promotion, the service said. This led to a large number of noncommissioned officers with little experience in the military advancing up the ranks in a short period of time.

The Air Force's 2023 budget, however, has reduced the active-duty enlisted force to 257,856 from the 265,658 requested in 2021.

Col. James Barger, who commands the service's Manpower Analysis Agency, said last year that the "majority of the experience decline was attributable to the Air Force trying to achieve an enlisted force structure with too many higher grades."

That means "higher promotion opportunity is no longer available and will be further constrained as strengths drops [sic] by 3,000 into FY23 from its high in March 2022," the press release said.

It's not clear when or what staffing level needs to be achieved to increase the promotion rate again.

"Over the next several years, and as retention levels may be expected to normalize, increased promotion opportunities may be expected," the press release said.

Last year, photos of PowerPoint slides -- which the service confirmed as being authentic -- leaked online and showed deep cuts to the number of NCOs over the upcoming years, especially staff sergeants.

By 2025, the service hopes to have 49% of the total enlisted force made up of noncommissioned officers and 51% consist of junior enlisted, the slides showed.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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