Fewer than 1,000 Air Force majors were tapped to pin on the rank of lieutenant colonel last month, marking the most competitive round of on-time promotions to O-5 since the service overhauled its selection process in 2020.

Of the 1,311 airmen who were eligible for promotion to lieutenant colonel, 982 people — or 74.9% — made the cut, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. That’s 2 percentage points lower than last year’s selection rate.

When broken down by type of career, promotions were awarded to 74.4% of majors who work in air operations and special warfare; 71.4% of those in nuclear and missile operations; 74% of those in information warfare; 77.2% in “force modernization” jobs like acquisition; and 82.5% in “cross-functional” operations jobs, like foreign area officers or astronauts.

Those figures refer to “in-the-zone” promotions, or once someone hits the minimum amount of time in grade and service needed to move up. Majors need to have served in the military for at least 14 years, including at least three years in that grade, to qualify for promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Another 100 airmen — 11.4% of those who were eligible — were promoted “above the zone,” or later than usual.

Around 9,900 lieutenant colonels served in the Air Force in fiscal 2022.

In March 2020, the Air Force split its massive single group of officers, all of whom competed for promotion regardless of their profession, into several career-specific categories.

The intent was to promote people based on how well they met the requirements for their particular line of work, rather than judging everyone on a single set of standards that favored pilots and other combat jobs.

The Air Force is also rethinking what values and skills it wants its leaders to bring to the table. This is the first year since 2014 that the Air Force has factored airmen’s advanced academic degrees into their chances for promotion to O-5.

“We need leaders and supporting staff throughout the [Department of the Air Force] … who have deep expertise in emerging technologies and their applications to military operations. We must also have leaders with expertise in the cultures of our potential adversaries,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in December. “Such expertise and associated critical thinking skills are developed from many sources and experiences, including advanced academic degree programs.”

Enlisted promotions

On the enlisted side, the service on Wednesday published its list of nearly 5,000 enlisted airmen chosen to become master sergeants (E-7) in the latest promotion cycle.

About 17% of the pool of nearly 29,000 eligible technical sergeants were offered promotions, the Air Force said. That’s slightly less selective than last year’s promotions, when under 15% of eligible technical sergeants — around 4,000 airmen — were chosen to move up the ladder.

The newest senior noncommissioned officers have on average served as technical sergeants for just over four years, and in the Air Force for nearly 14 years.

The Air Force is in the process of growing its lower enlisted ranks to give younger airmen more job and interpersonal experience before they climb to midlevel management positions. To do that, the service has to shrink its cohort of master sergeants from 10% to 9.5% of the 261,000-member enlisted force.

Nearly 26,000 master sergeants served in the Air Force in fiscal 2022.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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