An airman 1st class with the 33rd Fighter Wing shows off a senior airman patch to indicate an upcoming rank advancement. 

An airman 1st class with the 33rd Fighter Wing shows off a senior airman patch to indicate an upcoming rank advancement.  (Joshua Hoskins/U.S. Air Force)

For fiscal year 2024, the Air Force, hoping to retain more of its experienced airmen, has automatically raised the maximum number of years enlisted members may serve at a given rank.

Eligible airmen may serve an additional two years without a promotion before they’re forced to exit the service, according to an Air Force spokeswoman. The maximum time an enlisted airmen may spend in a given rank is called high year of tenure.

The Air Force high year of tenure extensions apply to enlisted grades of airman basic through senior master sergeant to keep experienced service members in the ranks and keep the Air Force mission ready, Air Force spokeswoman Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman told Stars and Stripes by email Dec. 8.

The fiscal year 2024 Air Force high year of tenure program is the same as it was in fiscal year 2023, which is an extension up to 24 months, Heitzman said.

“The key change is [high year of tenure] is automatically extended up to 24 months for those it applies to,” she said.

This automatic extension will affect fewer than 2,000 airmen, Heitzman said.

Service members of ranks airman basic through airman 1st class may stay in for 10 years without promotion before they’re forced out of the Air Force, senior airmen have 12 years, staff sergeants 22 years, technical sergeants 24 years, master sergeants 26 years and senior master sergeants 28 years.

The Air Force will evaluate the program in late fiscal 2024 before deciding if it should continue into fiscal 2025, Heitzman said. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The Air Force last changed its high year of tenure program in 2019 to permit senior airmen through technical sergeants to serve longer.

Service members who do not wish to serve longer in their current rank may opt out of the automatic extensions, Heitzman said. 

Airmen with a high year of tenure now through Sept. 30, 2024, who intend to separate on their original date, must apply to opt-out and receive approval prior to their separation date or Feb. 16, 2024, whichever comes first, she said.

Last year the Air Force announced plans to promote fewer junior and mid-grade non-commissioned officers as a means of rebalancing its force structure.

“The Air Force is taking proactive action to fully leverage our Congressionally authorized end strength and [high-year of tenure] extensions maximize the retention of experienced talent to enhance mission effectiveness,” she said.

The fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that outlines defense priorities and spending, authorized a total end strength of 320,000 for the Air Force.

In fiscal 2023, the overall retention rate was 89%; the fiscal 2024 retention rate, so far, is 90%, Heitzman said.

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Jonathan Snyder is a reporter at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. Most of his career was spent as an aerial combat photojournalist with the 3rd Combat Camera Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He is also a Syracuse Military Photojournalism Program and Eddie Adams Workshop alumnus.

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