The Air Force is also putting limits on how many senior noncommissioned officers can be endorsed for promotion by their senior raters through so-called restricted stratifications. These will go into effect July 31, when senior master sergeant EPRs close out.

Previously, said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, there were no limits on how many people could get endorsements, as long as they met their education requirements, which created an inflation effect similar to the firewall 5s. This also made it difficult to differentiate between SNCOs' performance.

Under the new system, only the top 10 percent of master sergeants eligible for promotion to E-8, and the top 20 percent of senior master sergeants eligible for promotion to E-9, will be able to get promotion endorsements. Kelly said these groupings will be done at the wing level or higher.

And Kelly said senior raters have the option of going further and ranking the SNCOs within those top 10 or 20 percent stratifications — essentially designating who is the best of the best.

Being in the top 10 or 20 percent and getting a recommendation will help give an SNCO's promotion chances a boost, Kelly said. But not making that cut doesn't necessarily doom you.

The reason, Kelly said, is because each Air Force specialty code is given a certain number of promotions each year. But the SNCO endorsements are not required to be distributed across AFSCs. That means if a commander hands out most of his endorsements to SNCOs in a particular career field, it's possible some of those endorsed SNCOs won't make the cut for promotions. And at the same time, some SNCOs in other career fields that didn't get an endorsement will get promoted.

Receiving an endorsement "gives you an advantage, to give a signal to the promotion board, that the commander has valued your performance, and you should be looked at as somebody who's performing above your peer level," Kelly said. Endorsements go "to your best performing airmen. So the commander's going to look across their entire wing and say, 'Here are my top 10 percent. Here are my best performing airmen.' Regardless of what their specialty is."

Kelly said the Air Force set the 10 percent and 20 percent limits to be roughly in line with historical senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant promotion rates. Senior master sergeant promotion rates have fluctuated between 6.74 percent and 13.78 percent over the last decade, and E-9 promotion rates ranged from 16.8 percent to 22.92 percent.

But for NCOs, promotions won't be restricted to just those getting the top two ratings, Kelly said.

For example, 23.55 percent of eligible airmen were selected for promotion to tech sergeant earlier this month. If the forced distribution quotas had been in place, and if all of the "promote now" and "must promote" staff sergeants were selected for promotion, that would have meant 8.55 percent of airmen who were rated "promote" would also have been selected.

And that means airmen should not give up, and should continue working hard on things such as their specialty knowledge tests, even if they didn't get one of the top two recommendations."

"Just because you got a "promote" recommendation doesn't mean you won't get promoted," Kelly said. "It still provides you the motivation and the encouragement to test well and to continue performing at a high level. There will be a significant number of people who are promoted with the 'promote' category. [Airmen shouldn't think], 'Oh, I didn't get one of these two, so I'm going to cash in,' and now you're down here" in the "not ready now" or "do not promote" categories.

The Air Force also previously announced that to be eligible for promotion to senior and chief master sergeant, airmen now must have finished their Community College of the Air Force degree and their Senior NCO Academy education by the closeout date.

Kelly said that previously, that level of education was only required to receive promotion endorsements.