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A question I’m asked a lot and a question that I see asked on other web sites a lot is if a person should enlist for four or six years. This can depend a lot on each person’s individual situation and what their goals are, but I will try to outline the pros and cons so you can at least make an informed decision.
What’s the difference?
When you enlist in the USAF you are given the option of enlisting for 4 or 6 years. There is one other option called National Call to Service that is a roughly two year enlistment, but that is only for certain jobs and very difficult to get, so I’ll focus on four or six.
First of all, regardless of if you enlist for two, four or six years, your actual commitment to the AF is eight years. If you enlist for four years and get out, they can technically call you back for another four years if they need you. You are just in the Inactive Ready Reserve. So keep that in mind before you enlist.
Currently if you enlist for six years, you will start basic training as an E-1 (Airman Basic) or E-2 (Airman) and then upon graduating tech school or after 20 weeks from graduating basic training, you will be promoted to Airman First Class (E-3). Your date of rank will then be back-dated to the day you finished BMT (but you don’t get any back-pay).
If you enlist for four years, you will follow the normal promotion cycle, which is to start out as an E-1, then after six months in that grade be promoted to E-2, then 10 months after that be promoted to E-3.
Basically, enlisting for six years could get you promoted to E-3 up to 14 months sooner than you would normally be promoted to that rank. Great, right? More money! Well let’s see…
Other forms of advanced promotion
There are other ways to be promoted more quickly in the Air Force. If you meet these other requirements, then you may already come in as an A1C, and enlisting for six years would be pointless. Or you may qualify to come in as an Airman, and you would only be promoted eight months sooner.
The most common ways to be promoted are having a little college credit. You can be promoted to E-2 if you have 20 credit hours or more of college credit, or E-3 if you have 45 semester hours. For more info on other ways that you could be come in at an advanced rank, read about it on About.com.
If you meet the requirements to come in as an E-2 or E-3 already, then there is even less incentive to enlist for six years.
Some career fields have enlistment bonuses that can be about $3,000 for four years and $17,000 for six years. That is a pretty good incentive, but those bonuses are only offered for jobs like Airborne Linguist, Explosive Ordinance Disposal, pararescue, Combat Controller, etc. In other words, the jobs that are deployed all the time, and that involve getting shot at or blown up on a regular basis. For a full list, check out about.com. Keep in mind, that list changes all the time and those bonuses can be pulled at any time.
Re-enlistment bonuses are another thing you need to consider, even though you are just now thinking about joining. When you re-enlist after your first enlistment is up, some jobs are eligible for a re-enlistment bonus. This re-enlistment bonus is much larger than the enlistment bonuses that are offered. For some jobs they can be up to $90,000. They take your base pay for your rank, multiply it by the number of years you re-enlist for, then multiply it again by this special number that they give to each job that is between a 0 and a 6. If you get a bonus you get half of it up front, and the rest divided over your re-enlistment anniversary date for the rest of your enlistment. This is all taxable unfortunately unless you re-enlist in a combat zone. They adjust this list every year based on what jobs they need the most and which jobs they have trouble keeping people in. There are a lot more jobs that have re-enlistment bonuses than those that have enlistment bonuses.
If you enlist for four years, your window to re-enlist opens up two years sooner than if you enlist for six years. That means you could get that big check two years sooner.
On the other hand, having an extra two years would give you more time to achieve a higher rank, which would contribute significantly to the size of the bonus you got. If you re-enlist as a Staff Sergeant rather than Senior Airman, it could be thousands of dollars difference.
What if you hate it?
This is a big one. What if you get into the Air Force and hate it? What if the stuff on the disadvantages list gets to you and you want out of there as soon as possible? Two years is a very long time to do something you hate. I know a few guys that wish they had enlisted for four so they could have gotten out sooner.
Promotion to Staff Sergeant
This is one of the biggest reasons to enlist for six years in my mind, but it is also almost impossible to have any control over how all of the timing works out.
Promotion from E-1 to E-4 is automatic. As long as you don’t get in trouble in some way, you will be automatically promoted all the way up to E-4 without really having to do much of anything. It’s all based on the amount of time you are in the military, and the amount of time you are in each rank.
Staff Sergeant is different. For Staff Sergeant they use a much more complex formula that takes into account the time you’ve been in the Air Force, the time you’ve been a Senior Airman, your yearly performance reviews (a scale between 1 and 5), any awards or medals you’ve received, and then your percentage score from two knowledge-based exams. One about general Air Force knowledge, and one about your specific job. This test is only given once a year. If you enlist for six years and get promoted to A1C faster, it would mean that you’d put on Senior Airman faster and may end up testing for Staff Sergeant an entire year before someone that enlisted for four years.
The math is hard to explain, but basically it could work out that you could have the chance to advance to Staff Sergeant an entire year before someone that enlists for four years.
The problem is that all the timing would have to work out just perfectly for this to happen. It could be that you enlist for six years and still test these same time as the guy that enlisted for four years.
If you like the Air Force but just don’t like your specific job, you have the option of applying to retrain into a different career field. If you enlist for four years, you have the option to do this two years before someone that enlists for six years. This is kind of like the “What if you hate it?” section. What if you hate your job? You could potentially get a new one two years sooner if you enlist for four years.
Let’s do some math to figure out how much more you’d make by getting A1C sooner. This assumes that you have no college credit or anything to let you come in with advanced rank. These are rough estimates, the exact timing of everything is impossible to predict, but it gives a rough idea.
A person enlisting for four years in 2011 would make $1,467.60 per month for six months as an E-1 and then 1,644.90 for 10 months as an E-2, then they would receive E-3 pay.
(1,467.60 * 6) + (1,644.90 * 10) = $25,254.60 in 16 months
A person enlisting for six years in 2011 would make $1,467.60 for two months as an E-1 while in basic, and let’s assume that person’s tech school is four months long and then they graduate so they make the full E-3 pay after that.
($1,467.60 * 6) + ($1,729.80 * 10) = $26,103.60 in 16 months
That’s a difference of $849 for an additional two year commitment.
Now like I said, because of how the timing of everything works out, a person enlisting for six years could also make Senior Airman earlier, and they could also make Staff Sergeant earlier, and so on. Over a 20 year career that could add up to be a lot of money. Also depending on the length of tech school that number could be a couple hundred dollars higher (or lower!).
Based on this super simple example, the real value of a six year enlistment is any possible enlistment bonuses, and possibly over a longer career it could add up to be thousands of dollars in additional income, but that’s impossible to show in an example because everyone’s careers are different and a lot of different things can happen.
Pros for a six year enlistment
- You could get a $17,000 enlistment bonus (or smaller) if you want to do one of the dangerous jobs in the Air Force and sign up for six years. (Could change at any time)
- You could get promoted right after tech school to E-3. This would mean a little extra cash in your pocket, and if all of the stars align, could end up being a substantial additional amount of money over a long career, compared to someone that enlisted for four years.
- If you re-enlist after your initial six year enlistment, you could potentially have attained a higher rank than someone enlisting for four years, which would get you a larger re-enlistment bonus.
Cons for a six year enlistment
- You have to be in the Air Force for two years longer, an eternity if you don’t like it.
- You have to wait two additional years to re-enlist and possibly get a big bonus.
- You have to wait two additional years to retrain into another job.
- If you plan to get out after your first enlistment, the money difference will only be a couple thousand dollars at best.
Pros for a four year enlistment
- You can get out of the Air Force two years sooner if you don’t like it. You still get to keep your GI bill and could go to school full time sooner if you wanted.
- You can apply to retrain into another job two years sooner.
- You can re-enlist two years sooner and possibly get a big bonus.
Cons for a four year enlistment
- You would get a very small enlistment bonus, or none at all when a person enlisting for six would get a much larger one.
- You could get be delayed a year in testing for Staff Sergeant compared to someone enlisting for six years.
- Over an entire 20 or 30 year career you could be a year behind someone that had enlisted for six years.
So what should I do?
Here’s my advice, and this is only my personal advice based on my opinions. These are just a few random thoughts you may be able to apply to your situation.
If you have college credit or anything else that will qualify you to come in as an E-3, do not enlist for six years. The only way I’d say to do it is if you knew beforehand that you were going to get a huge enlistment bonus by going into pararescue or another job with a big bonus. But remember, to get that bonus, you have to actually complete the training, and those combat jobs have very high washout rates! Then you’d likely be retrained as a cop, get no bonus, and still have to serve six years.
If you have enough credit to come in as an E-2, I still wouldn’t do six years, again unless you are getting the big enlistment bonus. You’d only be about three to six months behind someone that did six years.
If you would otherwise be coming in as an E-1 and you are relatively sure you want to make a career of the Air Force, then it may be worth it to do six years. Over a long career the money difference could be more substantial.
If you just want to join the military to get the GI Bill, get out and go to school, do not enlist for six years. You get the same GI Bill benefits whether you do four or six years.