For the first time, the Air Force has announced promotions based on a quota system limiting how many airmen could get the top two performance ratings.

These quotas — also known as "forced distribution" — were put into place last year to once and for all kill the notorious grade inflation that became known in the ranks as the "firewall 5s." The quotas y first went into effect for 21,504 promotion-eligible technical sergeants last November, 5,109 of whom were selected for master sergeant, the Air Force said May 25Wednesday.

But a recent memo from Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the text of which was posted on the unofficial Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco on May 24Tuesday, contained some statistics that might come as a surprise for some airmen hoping to make E-7.

About 90 percent of airmen who received a top "promote now" rating from their commands were selected for promotion, and about 75 percent of those with the next-highest "must promote" rating were selected, Grosso said in the memo. The Air Force confirmed the text of the memo was genuine.

So why were hundreds of airmen dubbed "promote now" or "must promote" — presumably, some of the best their units had to offer — passed over?

"We won't know for sure exactly what caused those until we dive" into the records, said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, in a May 24 said in an interview Tuesday. "You almost have to go record by record through those ones that were non-selected. There won't be one exact reason that fits all, it'll probably be several reasons, and each record will require a review."

An airman places a master sergeant stripes sticker onto the arm of a technical sergeant before a promotion part in 2015. The Air Force selected 5,109 airmen, out of 21,504 eligible technical sergeants, for promotion to master sergeant this year. The selection rate, 23.34 percent, was the highest since 2012.

Photo Credit: Senior Airman Aubrey White/Air Force

But while the exact reasons aren't yet known, there are a few likely possibilities.

Despite the "promote now" language, which is somewhat confusing, the Air Force has never said getting one of the top two promotion quotas would translate to an automatic promotion.

As Kelly said in interviews last year, that gives you a boost — but it doesn't seal the deal. There are were a lot more factors that go into the decision-making process for deciding who gets promoted.

"If you get one of these 'promote nows,' you're going to have a very good chance of getting promoted, unless you don't score very well at all on your testing," Kelly said last June.

And that may be what happened for some. The Air Force last year put into place new minimum score requirements for specialty knowledge tests and promotion fitness examinations: at least 40 out of a possible 100 points on each individual test, and at least 90 points when the scores of both tests are combined. Airmen who didn't meet those minimum scores were deemed ineligible for promotion, and that could have happened to some airmen receiving top ratings.

Another potentially key factor: This was the second year that promotion boards met to decide who should make E-7. The scores handed out by boards range anywhere from 270 to 450 points, meaning the boards carry a lot of weight in deciding who gets promoted.

And the boards don't just rubber-stamp each airman's performance rating. The boards reviewed the last five years of EPRs, meaning it's possible that some airmen who did well enough over the plast year or so to merit a top rating also had some blemish something derogatory in their past performance, causing their board score to drop, Kelly said.

The Air Force also awarded points for decorations and, to a lesser extent, time-in-grade and time-in-service, although longevity is in the process of being phased out.

In a May 26 email, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said that "panel members are aware that these [promote now and must promote] recommendations provide significant insight into the airman's standing amongst peers within the commander's purview. It's an important and direct communication to the board on the airman's promotion potential."

In her memo, Grosso also said that nearly 41 percent of the overall number of airmen selected — or roughly 2,050 selectees — received a "promote" rating. In all, about 12 percent of the airmen with a "promote" rating from their command got selected for promotion.

"This should help eliminate concerns over not being promotable when not receiving a top rating," Grosso said.

Kelly said the results show the system is working as intended. It's giving the highest-rated people a leg up on promotion chances, he said, but also is not locking out people who weren't in the top two ratings.

"There was some concern, when we went around and did the roadshows [in 2015], that, 'Hey, if I get a promote [rating], then I won't have any chance,'" Kelly said. "That's not true, and that was a purposeful design of the system. And the results here are bearing truth to that. Those who get a 'promote' still have an opportunity. Those with a strong record and those who continue to perform well, test well and do those things still have a significant opportunity for promotion."

In a memo to airmen, Lt. Gen. Gina M. Grosso, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, noted that nearly 41 percent of the overall number of airmen selected for advancement to master sergeant — roughly 2,050 selectees — received a "promote" rating from their command. Many airmen had worried that failing to earn one of the top ratings from their command would doom their chances for promotion.

Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff

But Kelly also acknowledged some airmen will likely be disappointed.

"I'm sure there was a high expectation on their part that they would have had a high probability of promotion," Kelly said. "I'm sure there will be some — rightly so — disappointment.QUOTE BOX??/km Again, there will have to be a review of that record to determine why that was. And should we determine that any of those things I mentioned earlier — low test scores, or previous derogatory information — I'm sure it won't be a surprise to them that that was part of their total record."

The list of selectees can be found at  here.

The selection rate was 23.34 percent, the highest since 2012. Selectees had an overall average score of 543.6, an average time-in-grade of 4.04 years and an average time-in-service of 14.59 years. The average decorations score was 11.47, and the average Air Force supervisory examination score was 63.08. The average board score was 378.5.

The career fields with the lowest average cutoff scores, meaning competition was lightest, were 4N0X1B aerospace medical service neurodiagnostic medical technicians, 2T3X7 vehicle management and analysis, 2S0X1 materiel management, 4N1X1D surgical service otolaryngologists and 1N2X1C signals intelligence analyst communication specialists.

The highest average cutoff scores, where competition was toughest, were the 1C8X1 radar, 1C4X1 tactical air control party, 1A9X1 special missions aviation, 1T2X1 pararescuemen and 1N7X1 career fields.

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Stephen Losey covers personnel, promotions, and the Air Force Academy for Air Force Times. He can be reached at

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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