The Air Force announced Wednesday that it had promoted 21% of eligible airmen to become staff sergeants -- the lowest rate since 1997 -- as the service continues to slow noncommissioned officers' movement up the ranks.
The service selected 9,706 senior airmen out of nearly 46,000 this year to become staff sergeants, a selection rate of around 21%. The rate hasn't been that low since 1997, when 18.6% were selected, according to data from the Air Force Personnel Center.
"This promotion cycle selection rate was impacted by enlisted grade restructuring, a leveling-off of end-strength growth, and high retention levels," Staff Sgt. Kiana Pearson said in a news release. "These changes are part of long-term efforts to increase experience levels within the noncommissioned officer corps."
In July, the service announced that promotion opportunities for enlisted troops would significantly decrease, delivering a crushing blow to new airmen who were hoping to climb the ranks in the near future.
"Although this news may be discouraging for some, this revision is absolutely needed and allows us to grow the Air Force our nation needs," Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, said in a July statement.
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 only a small amount of 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.
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 service said.
Katherine L. Kuzminski, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who researches military culture, said the Air Force was previously putting a lot of emphasis on technical skills instead of experience, leading many newly enlisted airmen to rapidly rank up.
"The Air Force in particular values technical expertise, and have given airmen a chance to prove it and promote faster than usual," Kuzminski told Military.com in an interview. "But they may have not had the experience to lead at the echelon they are being promoted to."
From 2010 through 2021, promotion percentages to staff sergeant hovered anywhere from a high of 51% to 25%, typically well above this year's rate.
Details of how the decrease in promotions will unfold haven't been revealed by the Air Force, but photos of PowerPoint slides leaked online last month show deep cuts to the number of noncommissioned officers over the upcoming years -- especially staff sergeants.
Air Force spokeswoman Laurel Tingley confirmed the authenticity of the slides to Military.com and said they were "generated to inform discussions among Air Force leaders."
The number of airmen with the rank of staff sergeant, which now hovers around 27% of the total enlisted force, will dip to 22% -- a loss of roughly 14,000 of the enlisted corps by 2023, according to the slides.
By 2025, the service hopes to have 49% of the total enlisted force be noncommissioned officers and 51% consist of junior enlisted, the slides show.
While the news of the slowed promotions was criticized by many new airmen online, Kuzminski said it allows troops who have been in the ranks for a longer period of time a chance to show their leadership skills.
"This is, in part, a growing pain," Kuzminksi said. "It's systematically allowing everyone to achieve the same level of experience in order to lead."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.