Airmen form as a flight during the reveille ceremony during the 40th anniversary of the Air Force Senior NCO Academy. As part of the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education, SNCOA is the gateway to the top of the enlisted ranks. Prior to being promoted to E-8, airmen must complete this course, or a sister service equivalent. (Airman 1st Class William Blankenship / Air Force)
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Lawmakers' failure to avoid massive cuts to defense spending could delay the promotions of 5,212 enlisted airmen and 2,412 officers, according to the Air Force.
On Feb. 22, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters the promotions could be delayed because the cuts would not leave enough money for airmen to travel for the professional military education classes they need to advance.
That means the Air Force would likely cancel PME classes scheduled for the rest of the fiscal year, said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, in a written response to questions.
The Air Force would likely have to cut 4,168 quotas for the Noncommissioned Officer Academy, which is required for technical sergeants to advance; 906 quotas at the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, which is required for master sergeants to be promoted; and 138 quotas at the Airman Leadership School, a requirement for senior airmen to advance, Tingley said.
The Air Force also would cut 2,172 quotas from Squadron Officer School for captains and 240 Joint Professional Military Education quotas for majors, lieutenant colonels and full colonels, she said.
If enlisted airmen's promotions are delayed for missing PME, their date of rank will officially be the original projected promotion after they complete the required course, Tingley said. That entitles them to all back pay and allowances.
Tingley said high-year tenure restrictions should not affect enlisted airmen whose promotions are delayed.
"Enlisted airmen's HYT is automatically adjusted to the later date upon selection to the next higher grade," she said.
But that does not address airmen who may bump up against high-year tenure limits during the delay. The high-year tenure rules require senior airmen to make staff sergeant by eight years or leave the service. Staff sergeants must make technical sergeant by 15 years; technical sergeants must make master sergeant by 20 years; and master sergeants must make senior master sergeant by 24 years.
The Air Force will look into whether some of the promotion requirements can be waived, Welsh said. But such a move would have drawbacks.
"For example, if we waive the requirement to have completed NCO academy before you're promoted to master sergeant, do we really want new master sergeants who are supervising more and more people not having completed NCO academy?" Welsh said. "We could probably waive it, but is that the wisest thing to do?"
It is not known how long airmen's promotions could be delayed, said a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command.
The automatic cuts to defense spending were triggered March 1 because Congress could not come to agreement on how to cut the deficit. But lawmakers have until March 27 — when a continuing resolution funding the federal budget at 2012 levels expires — to reach an agreement on spending.
After that, the cuts take effect.
If the Air Force has to delay promotions due to the spending cuts, affected airmen can avail themselves on "administrative remedies" to fix any damage done to their records, said retired Gen. Bill Boles, former commander of Air Education and Training Command.
"What's bothersome is the perception that nobody gives a big red rat's fanny," he said. "It's bad news."
The promotion delays would reverse Air Force efforts to move enlisted airmen through PME faster.
Last year, then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy told Air Force Times that many airmen believe they took PME too late in their careers to use the skills that they had learned. One reason is that enlisted airmen have to make a certain rank to take different levels of PME courses.
That prompted an effort known as EPME-Next, a three-year plan already underway that is intended to cut down on the time it takes enlisted airmen to move through the primary PME schools.
It calls for enlisted airmen to attend PME schools based on their time in the Air Force, not time-in-grade. Airmen will attend Airman Leadership School after three years in the Air Force, the NCO Academy after seven years and the Senior NCO Academy after 11 years.
"‘I wish I'd had this a few years ago,' is fairly common feedback in the NCO Academy and Senior NCO Academy, for example," Roy said. "Airmen can expect more compelling and more relevant PME experiences delivered at a more appropriate time in their careers."
Under EPME-Next, students will take an online learning program and the in-residence portion of PME will be reduced, saving the Air Force money, said Chief Master Sgt. Larence Kirby in a Jan. 3 Air Force news story.
"Just take Senior [NCO Academy] as an example — we're sending all selected individuals to one school for six weeks," said Kirby, the senior enlisted adviser at the Barnes Center for Enlisted Education. "We're automatically going to save money by reducing the school length to probably three weeks."
As the Air Force gets smaller under the relentless pressure of budget cuts, the service needs to give enlisted leaders the necessary development opportunities to retain quality noncommissioned officers, Roy said in a separate interview with Air Force Times.
"You can't buy them off the street. You gotta grow them," Roy said Jan. 16. "You grow them through those means of all the professional military education, all the off-duty education, all the training opportunities and all those experiences that they've been given throughout the years. That's how you continue to keep the cadre of senior NCOs we have today."