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The Air Force is looking for thousands of volunteers to separate or retire early, and all but 20 will come from the enlisted ranks.
The service must trim its ranks by 3,340 active-duty airmen by Sept. 30 to reach its congressionally mandated end strength of 329,460.
Enlisted airmen in 125 career fields can apply for waivers to their enlisted contracts, active-duty commitments, and time-in-grade waivers that allow master sergeants and senior master sergeants to waive up to 18 months on the commitments they made upon promotion. Eligible airmen may have as little as one year in the service or 29 years, depending on their Air Force Specialty Code.
Airmen have until Aug. 1 to apply for the waivers or the option of serving out their remaining time in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve under the Palace Chase program, committing to one year for every year left on their contract, instead of the usual three years for every one year owed.
Those who are approved must retire by Sept. 1 or separate by Sept. 29. Airmen who already have submitted retirement papers are not eligible.
The voluntary exit offers come six months after the Air Force notified 3,500 noncommissioned that they were on a "master vulnerability list" to retrain out of their overmanned specialties. The service sought 1,400 volunteers by Oct. 1.
Airmen who were on the August retrain list but chose to hedge their bets and wait for involuntary measures that would result in a cash payout, such as date of separation rollbacks, will have to wait a little longer.
So far, the service does not anticipate a need for any involuntary measures, said Lt. Col. Emi Izawa, military force policy division chief at the Pentagon. She said no decision has been made on whether the service will bring back the date-of-separation rollbacks — earlier exits for airmen who are ineligible to re-enlist, are not deployable or already are planning to leave the service.
"We're trying to max out all the volunteer programs," Izawa said. "The [National Defense Authorization Act] was approved so late in the year that it's very difficult to execute anything else."
Last year, the service forced out 2,200 with the DOS rollbacks. Affected airmen collected half separation pay, provided they made a three-year commitment to the Inactive Ready Reserve.
"We are still assessing the need for a DOS rollback program," Izawa said.
The Air Force also did not ask for the authority to implement 15-year retirements this year, she said. Previously, Air Force officials had predicted offering a small number of 15-year retirements to a targeted number of enlisted airmen and officers in 2013. In 2012, the service offered 15-year retirements to 250 noncommissioned officers in 39 overmanned AFSCs such as personnel, medical laboratory and vehicle maintenance. That announcement came in April.
With retention at an all-time high for 18 consecutive years, the Air Force has initiated some form of personnel cutbacks — voluntary or involuntary — for the past four budget cycles, asking 2,900 airmen on average to leave early.
Izawa said the Air Force's proposed budget and the budget authorized by Congress were in line with what the service anticipated it would need to shrink the force. The service had anticipated that it would need to reduce the force by about 3,900 airmen.
She said the service is under its target end strength for officers and is looking at early separation for about 20 lieutenant colonels in overmanned fields.
Those officers will be offered time-in-grade waivers, limited active-duty service commitment waivers, Palace Chase transfers to the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve and the 10 to 8 Commissioned Years of Service Waiver programs. Commitments incurred for undergraduate and advanced pilot training will not be waived, Izawa said.
Some airmen, however, may get to keep their bonuses and other benefits, said Maj. Michael Meek, chief of the Air Force Personnel Center's Retirements and Separation Branch.
"For example, airmen approved for Palace Chase transfers to the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve will not have to repay the service for such benefits as tuition assistance or transfer of post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits under most circumstances," Meek said in a Feb. 4 release. "But airmen need to carefully read the information on each program to ensure they understand which active-duty service commitment waivers require repayment."
A balancing act
Enlisted airmen will bear the brunt of this latest cutback, though that hasn't always been the case. In fiscal 2010, the service asked more than 2,000 officers to leave early, while more than 1,600 enlisted airmen were asked to leave voluntarily.
Service leaders build the budget plan on the premise that the Air Force gains, on average, 25,000 to 30,000 new enlisted airmen and loses roughly the same number.
In fiscal 2012, for example, the service gained 29,537 enlisted airmen and 23,702 left the service. In that same time frame, the service gained 4,657 new officers and 4,030 officers left the service.
This year, the voluntary early-outs are offered by AFSC and number of years served. Airmen in 12 career fields — 10 of which are considered overmanned — will see the highest number of eligibility options listed among the years served.
For example, materiel management and financial management comptroller have airmen who will be eligible for voluntary separation in 19 of the 29 years of service being considered.
Although airmen in aerospace propulsion, client systems, pavements and construction equipment, structural and security forces were deemed overmanned when retraining was announced in August, they were not included among the eligible career fields for voluntary separation programs.
The Air Force's 2013 budget plan calls for the service to have about 260,000 enlisted airmen. The numbers fluctuate throughout the year due to promotions and airmen leaving the service, but current personnel figures may offer some insight into which ranks will be most scrutinized as the Air Force downsizes.
According to the budget, each rank should break down like this:
• Airman basic — 9,439
• Airman — 5,743
• Airman first class — 50,382
• Senior airman — 49,881
• Staff sergeant — 69,590
• Technical sergeant — 41,624
• Master sergeant —25,511
• Senior master sergeant — 5,221
• Chief master sergeant — 2,609
As of the end of January, the Air Force's enlisted ranks were at 265,529. The service had about 5,800 more senior airmen than planned, 1,100 more master sergeants and 1,200 more airmen first class than it had budgeted.
The service will continue to monitor manning levels throughout the year, said Lt. Col. Letitia Marsh, chief of the Air Force's Separation and Retirement Policy Branch, in a release.
"As we execute this year's voluntary force management strategy, the Air Force will continue to assess the need for additional voluntary and involuntary force management measures in order to meet the authorized end strength levels in current and future fiscal years," she said.