U.S. Air Force ranks are comprised of three categories within the chain of command: Enlisted (E-1 through E-4), Non-Commissioned Officers (E-5 through E-9), and Commissioned Officers (O-1 through O-10.) The letter and number represent the title and paygrade of the Airman. Rank is different from the paygrade. It represents job duties and leadership responsibilities, as indicated by the corresponding insignia. Each airman commits to the core missions in air and space authority, with diverse options for career advancement. The second youngest (Space Force is now youngest) of the 6 military branches, the U.S. Air Force has evolved to meet the advancement of technology and is seen as the most superior in aerial, space, and cyberspace superiority.
Enlisted Airmen are broken down further into three tiers by title followed by the parenthetical paygrade level: Airmen (E-1 through E-4), Non-Commissioned Officers (E-5 and E-6), and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (E-7 through E-9). The Air Force is the only branch that offers NCO status in grade E-5.
Airman Basic (E-1)
Airman Basic is the entry-level rank for newly enlisted members. During this stage, the airman enrolls in basic training and becomes ingrained in the culture of the Air Force. The main duty of the airman is to learn the customs and procedures while in training, and shadows under the expertise of more experienced enlisted members.
AMN is the next entry-level rank directly above Airman Basic. This is a period of adjustment as the Airman graduates from basic training and continues orienting themselves to the Air Force. A majority of airmen are qualified to enroll in a duty specialty school based on the results from aptitude and skill tests acquired during training. Most duty specialty schools take up to one year to complete. An AMN can go on to fulfill other specialties during their career span with proper training.
A1C is considered a junior rank and is also known as Airman First Class. The A1C has fully adjusted to the Air Force life and is well-suited to carry out leadership duties, which may include mentoring younger Airmen during basic training. A1Cs are competent in their job duties and specialty areas. At this point, the airman is expected to move forward with undergraduate studies as education influences promotion status later in their career.
Senior Airman (SrA/E-4)
SrA is the highest enlisted rank before advancing to a non-commissioned officer (NCO). The SrA is expected to perform effectively and has obtained proficiency in their specialty area. Most Senior Airmen will fulfill a supervisory or leadership duty to prepare for their role as NCO. Some duties include recruiting or basic instruction at basic training.
The SrA is enrolled in post-secondary education and is expected to supplement their leadership training at a six-week course school called Airman Leadership.
NCOs are considered senior enlisted officers (E-5 through E-9.) They demonstrate effective leadership skills with mentorship, continuing education, and training. Non-commissioned officers differ from commissioned officers by rank and authority.
Staff Sergeant (SSgt/E-5)
The SSgt exhibits professionalism and expertise as mentors to other airmen. During this time, Staff Sergeants may become supervisors within their department, collaborate with other officers, and write performance reports and other professional documents. The SSgt continues to pursue their educational objectives.
Technical Sergeant (TSgt/E-6)
The Technical Sergeant is the second non-commissioned rank officer. As its name denotes, the TSgt is highly-skilled and adept in performing several responsibilities to support the mission of their department. Due to the demands of this position, the rank is given to those who have served for over ten years in the USAF. Many TSgts serve as NCO-in charge of a flight unit defined as two or more airmen, although the range can total to over one hundred airmen.
Master Sergeant (MSgt/E-7)
The MSgt move toward head leadership roles such as superintendents, flight chiefs, section chiefs, and non-commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC). The MSgt is expected to be detail-oriented and competent. Their duties include writing professional documents such as memorandums and reports, and they support the welfare of the unit. Many MSgt’s have earned their undergraduate degrees.
First Sergeant (E-7 to E-9)
A Master, Senior, and Chief Sergeant may be selected to be First Sergeant. It is not considered a rank, rather a special assignment role for a senior-NCO. The First Sergeant is typically assigned to a flight unit and reports directly to the deputy commander.
Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt/E-8)
The Senior Master Sergeant is the operational leader in their unit. An SMSgt is expected to fulfill a managerial role, mentoring junior NCOs and other junior officers. They often provide administrative support to senior officers at high-level units in the Air Force. Most SMSgts attend professional development and training to advance their careers during this time.
Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt/E-9)
A CMSgt is a senior NCO and works in the capacity of the director within the unit. Their primary duty is to implement policies to create a functional and professional environment. Company grade and field grade officers mentor under their command. The CMSgt may also serve as staff in high-levels units.
Command Chief Master Sergeant (E-9)
A Command Chief Master Sergeant is considered a special title and role. Their responsibilities are similar to Chief Master Sergeants, mentoring junior officers and assuming leadership of all personnel in their unit. Unlike the Chief Master Sergeant, they have additional assignments such as acting top commander to Wings, Number Air Forces, and Major Commands. These are larger units that provide operation and mission support.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF/E-9)
The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is a senior enlisted rank, responsible for the morale, conduct, and training of all enlisted personnel; under the core missions of the USAF. A CMSAF works as an advisor to the Air Force Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force, as well as a counsel to senior non-commissioned officers. The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is the highest rank one can achieve as an enlisted member.
Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/ SEAC
The Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the main advisor to the chairman and plays a pivotal role in decision-making for the enlisted joint force. The role was originally created in 2005.
COs are the senior leaders in the USAF and acting commanders to all enlisted airmen. There are three tiers: company-grade officers(O-1 to O-3), field grade officers(O-4 to O-6), and general officers(O-7 and above.) Commissioned officers are appointed by the Senate, and usually, decide to pursue a long-term military career.
Second Lieutenant (2d LT/O-1)
A Second Lieutenant is the lowest rank given to newly commissioned officers. The USAF offers an array of career fields, and to that end, the responsibilities of the 2d LT depend primarily on the officer’s specialty duty. 2d LTs can expect to invest time in training as a pilot, combat system officer, or air battle managers. Other opportunities include intelligence, cyber operations, and special investigations. A Second Lieutenant may become a flight or deputy commander upon completion of training duties, supervising a flight of approximately 100 airmen.
First Lieutenant (1st Lt/O-2)
A First Lieutenant is a junior rank officer directly above Second Lieutenant. There isn’t much of a difference between the two ranks in responsibility and training. The rank is used to recognize years of experience.
A Captain in the Air Force typically achieves rank within four years as CO. The Captain is the highest rank as a company-grade officer. A Capt is highly-qualified and may serve as a flight commander or head of the department. All personnel rely on the guidance from the Captain. Those who wish to commit to furthering their military career may assume field grade officer (FGO) responsibilities such as serving as an instructor at a training facility (ROTC.)
A Major is the lowest field grade officer rank. Responsibility shifts to fulfill more of an administrative role at a squadron or wing level under the direction of their superior. In flying units, a Major may be considered a flight commander or director of operations, or a squadron commander in non-flying units. MAJs focus on the managerial aspects, serving as a counselor to young lieutenants and captains, as well as the liaison between staff and high-ranking officers. Continuing education requires Majors to enroll in a master’s degree or higher.
Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col/O-5)
At this point, a Lieutenant Colonel has completed twenty years of service and is near the end of their military career. A Lt Col serves as a squadron commander in a group, a unit made up of several flights for operations, logistics, support, and medical. Additionally, the Lt Col supports the Colonel and works under their guidance to prepare for wing-level command positions.
A Colonel is the highest field grade officer rank, directly below the General. Most Colonels have demonstrated strong leadership abilities throughout their military careers. They are capable of the prodigious task as wing commander, roughly between 1,000 to 4,000 airmen. Most of their time is spent making decisions for the betterment of the operations and conditions of the base. Colonels may also lead ROTC training schools or military colleges. During this time, the Col is expected to hold a graduate degree and attend Air War College (AWC), a professional military college.
Brigadier General (Brig Gen/O-7)
A Brigadier General in the USAF is the lowest general officer rank. They typically serve as a wing or base commander. Their duties may extend beyond base duty that include assignments at the Pentagon, joint bases overseas, or in high-level organizations such as North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD.)
Staff Officers are considered to be those at Brigadier General rank and beyond (O-7 to O-10.) They are central to administrative and operational decisions within the USAF. Representation is a critical job aspect for SOs and may include hosting morale events, visits to squadrons and wings, and motivational speeches.
Major General (Maj Gen/O-8)
Major General in the U.S. Air Force is a two-star general officer rank. The vetting process for general officers becomes selective as the officer progresses. No more than 25% of officers may have more than two stars. Most MAJ GENs achieve high-level command of about 10,000 airmen which include positions such as Number Air Force (NAF) commanders, joint force commanders, air operations centers, training programs, or logistics operations centers. Additionally, a Major General can serve as senior directors on joint staffs or the vice commander to a lieutenant general.
Lieutenant General (Lt Ge/O-9)
The Lieutenant General in the Air Force holds three-stars and is directly under the General. Positions involve administrative and operational decisions. Some job roles may include command of a management headquarter known as MAJCOM or serving the Pentagon.
By this time, a General considers themselves to be a career officer. Gen is the highest-ranked officer in the USAF and holds four stars. They are the principal leaders of NAF or assigned other duties such as treaty organizations such as NATO, and as the Chief of Staff.
General of the Air Force (GAF/O-10)
The General of the Air Force is the five-star general rank reserved for wartime only. The GAFs purpose is to oversee to wartime operations and missions of the Air Force. As it stands in history, the rank is retired and no officer has worn the five-star rank while on active duty.
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