Support our mission

Career enlisted members in the Air Force and Navy have drawn surprisingly near to their Army and Marine Corps peers in speed of advancement to higher grades and higher pay.

Enlisted promotion data gathered from the four services under the Defense Department show some remarkable changes from fiscal 2000 to 2005, the last year for which complete data is available. Average time in service for Air Force members, for example, as they advanced to pay grades E-6 or E-7 in 2005 was about four years faster than in 2000 (see chart at bottom of story).

Sailors, too, are being promoted quicker. Average time in service at advancement to E-6 in 2005 was two years faster than in 2000. And sailors advancing to E-7 in 2005, on average, do so almost four years sooner than shipmates did five years earlier.

Soldiers and Marines haven’t seen the same gain in advancements, yet they continue to make grade faster than sailors or airmen. Dramatic disparities in promotion pace, however, have narrowed noticeably.

(Data on enlisted advancement in the Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, was not immediately available.)

The Air Force and Navy, which strive to keep large numbers of high-tech specialists for full careers, took several intentional actions, starting in 2000, to improve enlisted advancements and to shore up career retention. The Air Force’s big move was to raise its proportion of career personnel.

For years it had capped total personnel serving in its top five enlisted grades, E-5 through E-9, to no more than 48 percent of its enlisted force. In 2000, the Air Force raised that cap to 50 percent and, in 2003, raised it again to 56 percent, said Chief Master Sgt. Trenda Voegtle, chief of Air Force enlisted promotions and evaluations policy. The impact was to expand advancement opportunities, most sharply in pay grades E-5 through E-7.

“The Air Force talked about getting more serious about midcareer retention problems when they saw some problems in the late ’90s and again after 9/11,” recalled a congressional staff member. “One of their solutions, in addition to [more bonus] money and other internal, no-cost kinds of initiatives, was to ramp up promotions and increase the grade table.”

The law limits the number of E-8s a service can have to 2 percent of its enlisted force and its number of E-9s to 1 percent. Otherwise, the services can control their own enlisted pay grades, limited only by a need to keep reasonable promotion opportunities at all grades and by the size of their personnel budgets. A more senior force costs more in pay, housing allowances, even in retirement trust fund contributions to cover future obligations. What a service hopes to buy with faster promotions is improved morale and career retention.

Because the Air Force grew the size of its career force grades of E-5 through E-7 by a full 8 percentage points from 2000 through 2003, its enlisted promotion pace rose sharply. By fiscal 2005, members being advanced to E-5 were spending 20 fewer months as E-4s, on average, than had those members advanced to E-5 in 2000. By fiscal 2005, members being advanced to E-6, or technical sergeant, had seen their time as E-5s lowered by almost 27 months. And time served as an E-6 awaiting promotion to E-7 dropped by another full year. The cumulative effect, on average, was to knock five and a half years off the pace at which Air Force personnel reached E-8.

Navy data shows similar changes. A sailor being advanced to E-6, or first-class petty officer, in fiscal 2000 served an average of six years, four months as an E-5. By fiscal 2005, that stint as E-5, or second class petty officer, had fallen to four years, six months.

In that five-year period, the pace of advancement didn’t change significantly for soldiers and Marines. Indeed, Marines advancing to E-6 in fiscal 2005 actually had served as E-5s three months longer than was necessary, on average, in the year 2000. Yet soldiers’ and Marines’ overall pace of promotions continued to outpace Navy and Air Force colleagues.

Rear Adm. Michael LeFever said improvements in the Navy’s advancement rate can be traced to policy changes aimed at accelerating promotion opportunities for outstanding performers. In January 2000, the Navy decreed that length of service no longer would be a factor in determining enlisted eligibility for promotion. Kept in place was the time-in-grade requirement only, LeFever said, allowing fast-burners to gain rank at an accelerated pace.

In September that same year, Navy again relaxed its advancement policy to allow more outstanding performers to take advancement exams earlier and thus to qualify for swifter promotions to the next higher grade.

The thinking was, said LeFever, “How do we reward those performers who are really doing exceptional and not restrict them to time waivers or time in the Navy … why not let them … compete into that [higher] grade and get paid for it accordingly?”

Both the Navy and Air Force are drawing down, LeFever noted. But the challenges of an improving economy and softening retention remain. Faster promotions, he agreed, serves to raise the overall value of a military career, which continues to be a real plus for retaining critical skills.

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or visit:

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up