The “E-4 Mafia” is about to get a few new members.

Senior airmen are set to make up the Air Force’s single largest enlisted group — growing from 19% to 25% of all enlisted billets — by 2025 as a result of the service’s short-term plan to curb midlevel promotions.

They would replace staff sergeants as the enlisted rank with the most job billets, according to workforce data provided to Air Force Times. The E-5 corps is projected to shrink from nearly one-third of the force’s jobs to about one-fifth.

E-4s are currently overstaffed compared to the number of jobs they are allocated, while E-5s are understaffed. The plan would flip that: Senior airmen wouldn’t fill all of the available jobs and staff sergeant slots would be slightly overmanned.

The shift marks the first major change to how enlisted airmen are spread across the ranks in nearly 20 years. It’s split into two initiatives: one, to change how many funded jobs are available to airmen; and two, to change how airmen are promoted to fill those slots.

The Air Force has around 262,000 active duty enlisted billets in 2022, and wants to downsize to about 257,000 next year. Overall, it requests 323,400 positions for active duty airmen in 2023.

One career field will not see deeper cuts to its upper enlisted ranks than others, service spokesperson Laurel Falls said. Rather, billets are changing proportionally across all jobs.

“We value the experience airmen bring to their work centers,” Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller said in July. “Although this news may be discouraging for some, this revision is absolutely needed and allows us to grow the Air Force our nation needs.”

More people than usual are staying in the military, but the number of jobs has remained essentially flat, according to the Air Force. Without airmen leaving to make room for more junior troops to rise, the workforce stagnates. And without more jobs in the pipeline, the Air Force needs to shrink its cohort of midlevel enlisted so that higher tiers aren’t overwhelmed by demand.

The service wants to use the predicament to its advantage by keeping more airmen at their current grade for about a year longer than usual.

It argues that would allow senior airmen to build more job and leadership experience before they are considered for promotion to staff sergeant, which carries a greater level of responsibility as the first of five noncommissioned officer ranks.

On average, airmen typically spend about four years in uniform before reaching E-5. The Air Force’s promotion plan will give them a bit longer to mature into supervisors.

Asked to address some airmen’s complaints that promotion delays means people will wait longer for higher pay, the Air Force said it expects E-4s will spend an extra six to 12 months in grade before reaching staff sergeant.

“The AF acknowledges that compensation is key in recruiting an all-volunteer force and retaining top talent,” service spokesperson Tech. Sgt. Deana Heitzman said. “Additionally, continued engagement among supervisors and their airmen ensures we have all the tools necessary to take care of the needs of our airmen and their families.”

The service also plans to expand its three lowest ranks — airman basic to airman first class — to grow its bench amid a severe shortage of maintainers and other workers. Combined, those airmen would comprise 26.5% of the force rather than 25%.

“Since the Air Force does not use quotas to promote from E-1 through E-4, there should be no ripple effects to airmen below E-5,” Falls said.

Technical sergeant and master sergeant billets (E-6 and E-7) would stay essentially flat, planned for 15% and 9.5% of the enlisted force, respectively. The pool of master sergeants who are eligible for promotion to senior master sergeant (E-8) will shrink by about 3%, as long as workforce trends hold steady, Falls said.

Airmen are already seeing the plan’s impact in the 2022 promotion cycle.

Just 21% of senior airmen were picked for promotion to staff sergeant, the Air Force said Aug. 17, a steep drop from 38% in the previous year. That begins the process of shrinking the E-5 corps to about one-fifth of the enlisted force.

As for staff sergeants, 16 percent were tapped to become technical sergeants, the service said July 20, down from 27% in 2021. The proportion of technical sergeants chosen for master sergeant fell from about 19% to 15%, according to a May 31 release.

It was also the first time the Air Force used a new set of so-called “promotion recommendation scores” when vetting senior airmen and staff sergeants. Airmen are rated based on their performance at work and their time in uniform, to incentivize good conduct and prevent rising stars from progressing too quickly.

“When retention is lower, it creates more opportunities for promotion, and higher retention reduces the promotion opportunity. However, this does not necessarily mean there is a lack of upward mobility,” Heitzman said. “The promotion recommendation score and enlisted grade restructure changes will be evaluated in the coming months to determine any upward mobility impacts.”

Despite some airmen’s concerns that the changes will put more pressure on a smaller number of noncommissioned officers who will oversee more troops than in the past, the Air Force said the initiative isn’t broad enough to produce those ripple effects.

“While there may be some areas that need adjustment, on average, E-5s and E-6s [staff sergeants and technical sergeants] supervise less than three airmen,” Falls said. “This change will not increase the average supervisor-to-subordinate ratio to more than 1:3.”

For example, an average fighter maintenance squadron with 75 E-5 jobs will fill those with 54 staff sergeants as expected, plus 21 senior airmen to make up the difference, she said.

By 2025, that squadron would downsize to 61 available E-5 positions, and 14 of those original jobs would change to E-4 openings. That means more senior airmen would be filling jobs tailored to their skill set instead of taking on the responsibilities of a staff sergeant.

And because of fewer available promotions, more staff sergeants would stay in the remaining E-5 billets instead of leaving for a technical sergeant job.

“At the unit level, the reduction in assigned E-5s should only be in the range of 1%-5%,” Falls said. “We do not anticipate this [will] have a significant effect on routine daily operations.”

The shuffle isn’t expected to affect the Air Force’s recruiting targets.

“We will continuously assess resources and policies to determine if adjustments are needed,” Heitzman added.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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