U.S. Air Force Ranks and Insignia

Updated: April 4, 2023
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    The Air Force is the second-youngest of the six military branches, with only the Space Force being newer. According to the Air Force’s website, they have five core missions: “Air superiority; global strike; rapid global mobility; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and command and control.”

    There are two categories of Airmen within the Air Force: Enlisted (E-1 through E-9), which include noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers (O-1 through O-10). The Airman’s title and pay grade are represented by the letter and number, while rank is indicated by the corresponding insignia. 

    Enlisted Airmen

    The Air Force has three tiers of enlisted airmen: Airmen (E-1 through E-4), noncommissioned officers (E-5 and E-6) and senior noncommissioned officers (E-7 through E-9).

    Airman Basic (E-1)

    A newly enlisted service member’s career begins as an airman basic. In this training role, which includes basic training, Airmen learn about the culture and procedures of the Air Force under the mentorship of more senior members.

    Airman (AMN/E-2)

    Following graduation from basic training, most airmen enroll in a duty specialty school, which will take up to one year to complete. With additional training, an AMN can later fulfill other specialties.

    Airman (A1C/E-3)

    In this role, they should be well adjusted to military life and have the ability to easily execute their duties. They should be well aware of the expectations of the Air Force and continue their education.

    Senior Airman (SrA/E-4)

    At this level, the senior airman is expected to be proficient in their specialty area and to take on a leadership role in preparation for their next promotion. Their duties may include basic instruction at basic training. In addition, these airmen continue their post-secondary education and their leadership training through a six-week airman leadership program.

    Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs)

    Noncommissioned officers are senior enlisted Airman (E-5 through E-9) who demonstrate strong leadership skills.

    Staff Sergeant (SSgt/E-5)

    The staff sergeant displays their professionalism, leadership skills and technical expertise while mentoring other Airmen. Their duties may include acting as supervisors within their departments, collaborating with other officers or writing performance reports while continuing their education.

    Technical Sergeant (TSgt/E-6)

    The technical sergeant must be proficient in their areas of expertise and demonstrate strong leadership skills. Their duties include supporting the mission of their departments and commanding a flight unit of two or more airmen.


    Master Sergeant (MSgt/E-7)

    Master sergeant is a leadership position requiring attention to detail and strong technical skills. Master sergeants support the welfare of their units in roles such as flight chiefs or section chiefs. Most master sergeants have earned their undergraduate degrees, and continuing education focuses on developing leadership and other skills.


    First Sergeant (E-7 to E-9)

    The first sergeant is chosen from the senior NCOs (E-7 through E-9). This is a special assignment role reporting directly to the deputy commander.


    Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt/E-8)


    Senior master sergeant is an operational leadership role. They are usually assigned to high-level units, where they mentor junior NCOs and may be responsible for training enlisted airmen. They also support the senior officers . They will also continue their professional and leadership development.


    Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt/E-9)


    The chief master sergeant is responsible for creating and implementing policies within their units. As such, they support the mission and improve efficiency. They mentor company-grade and field-grade officers and may act as advisors to commanders or general officers.

    Command Chief Master Sergeant (E-9)

    A command chief master sergeant is a chief master sergeant with a special role. They carry out the same duties and have the same responsibilities. They also act as advisors to the top commanders of the largest Air Force units.


    Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF/E-9)

    The chief master sergeant acts as a direct advisor to the Air Force chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force and assumes responsibility for the enlisted airmen, including their conduct and training.




    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 acts as advisor to the chairman and as a spokesperson about issues affecting enlisted personnel and the communication channel for the enlisted members. This is the most senior enlisted rank in the Air Force.

    Commissioned Officers (COs)

    Commissioned officers are divided into three tiers: Company-grade, field-grade and general officers.

    Company-Grade Officers (O-1 to O-3)

    Second Lieutenant (2d LT/O-1)


    Newly commissioned officers begin as second lieutenants. They may train in a rated (flying) capacity, including as a pilot or combat system officer, or in a non-rated (non-flying) capacity, such as in intelligence or cyber operations.


    First Lieutenant (1st Lt/O-2)

    A first lieutenant has similar duties as a second lieutenant but has more experience and training.




    Captain (Capt/O-3)

    The rank of captain is usually attained within four years of becoming a commissioned officer. Captains may serve as flight commanders due to their experience and expert knowledge. They may also be found in administrative positions. Captains can be senior or junior captains (holding smaller leadership roles).


    Field-Grade Officers (O-4 to O-6)

    Major (Maj/O-4)

    Majors usually serve at a squadron or wing level. Their responsibilities become more administrative and managerial. In flying units, they may serve as a flight commander or a squadron commander in a non-flying unit. Majors are expected to continue their post-secondary education, usually toward a master’s degree or higher.

    Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col/O-5)

    Lieutenant colonels serve as assistants to the colonel. They mentor junior commissioned officers, and majors and captains often report directly to them. This is a leadership role, and lieutenant colonels often serve as the squadron commander in a group, which may be flying, non-flying or medical.


    Colonel (Col/O-6)

    Colonel is a leadership and operations role responsible for improving services at the base. They are typically group or wing commanders, leading 1,000 to 4,000 airmen. They may also lead training schools. As such, they are expected to hold graduate degrees.

    General Officers (O-7 and Higher)

    Brigadier General (Brig Gen/O-7) 


    Brigadier generals usually command larger wings and bases or high-level staff, such as those at the Pentagon or at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Their duties include administrative, operational and leadership functions, including participating in motivational and morale events.

    Major General (Maj Gen/O-8)

    Promotion to major general, which is a two-star general officer rank, is highly competitive. They serve in high-level leadership roles, such as joint force commanders or senior directors on joint staffs. They often command about 10,000 airmen.

    Lieutenant General (Lt Ge/O-9) 

    Similar to a major general, a lieutenant general is involved in all aspects of administration and operations, as well as in leadership and morale issues. Roles include high-level command positions such as at a major command.

    General (Gen/O-10) 

    General is a four-star general officer rank, the highest rank in the Air Force. They hold the highest-level positions at the Pentagon and at organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

    General of the Air Force (GAF/O-10) 

    This five-star general rank exists only in wartime, and it has only been granted once. General Henry. H. Arnold received the honor in 1949, three years after his retirement.

    Written by Tamila McDonald

    Tamila McDonald is a U.S. Army veteran with 20 years of service, including five years as a military financial advisor. After retiring from the Army, she spent eight years as an AFCPE-certified personal financial advisor for wounded warriors and their families. Now she writes about personal finance and benefits programs for Veteran.com.