RPA pilots are among those not eligible for the Air Force's voluntary separation programs. (Air Force)
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Fighter, rescue or remotely piloted aircraft pilots hoping for an opportunity to retire early or take other voluntary separation measures in the coming drawdown are going to be disappointed.
A list of career fields and ranksthat will be eligible for those programs, obtained by Air Force Times, provides a window into the Air Force’s priorities and needs. The Air Force is preparing to cut as many as 25,000 airmen over the next five years to deal with the sequester’s across-the-board budget cuts, and has unveiled a slate of voluntary programs — such as 15-year retirements, time in grade and limited active-duty service commitment waivers, voluntary separation payments, and an expanded Palace Chase program allowing airmen to serve out the rest of their time in the National Guard or Air Force Reserve — and involuntary programs to start trimming the ranks this year.
According to the charts, there will be no year groups for officers who are fighter, rescue or RPA pilots or combat systems officers who will qualify for voluntary force management programs.
The Air Force is currently struggling to hold on to those pilots. The Air Force has offered staggering $225,000 retention bonuses to get fighter pilots to stay for nine more years instead of bailing out to become airline pilots. The attrition rate for RPA pilots remains much higher than those of other pilots, and their ranks are undermanned. And rescue pilots consistently end up on the Air Force’s list of the most stressed career fields.
Special tactics, combat rescue and air liaison officers — all of whose field are also stressed and dealing with high operational demands — will likewise be shut out of the voluntary programs.
But in the officer ranks, voluntary separation or retirement programs will be available for 14 other career fields, regardless of year group. Those include officers in the airfield operation, weather, cyberspace operations, aircraft maintenance, munitions and missile maintenance, logistics readiness, security forces, public affairs, personnel, chemist/biologist, contracting and financial management/cost analysis career fields, as well as members of the line of the Air Force-judge advocate and nurse corps.
On the enlisted side, most of the voluntary separation or retirement options will be available for senior airmen, staff sergeants, tech sergeants and master sergeants. Voluntary programs will be available for senior airmen in 119 career fields, staff sergeants in 116 career fields, tech sergeants in 96 career fields, and master sergeants in 100 career fields. Senior master sergeants in only 47 career fields will be eligible for voluntary programs, as will chief master sergeants in 43 career fields.
But as with the officer ranks, airmen in many of the most crucial enlisted career fields — jobs that continually land on the stressed lists — will find voluntary separation or retirement programs off limits to them. Airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance superintendents and operators, as well as airborne crypto language analysts, will not be eligible for those programs in any ranks. The only airborne ISR managers who will be eligible will be chief master sergeants.
Airmen in other heavily stressed fields — tactical air control party; combat control; command and control battle management operations; fusion analysis; survival, evasion, resistance and escape; pararescue; special operations weather; and explosive ordnance disposal — will likewise be ineligible at all ranks.
And airmen who maintain remotely piloted aircraft, fighters such as F-22s and F-35s, helicopters, and bombers will have either no voluntary options available, or will find those programs only open to one or two ranks.
But other enlisted career fields will have voluntary retirement or separation options available for multiple ranks. Those include airmen in the flight engineer, airborne mission systems and airborne operations, flight attendant, nuclear weapons, munitions systems, security forces, and financial management and comptroller career fields.
Security forces, for example, have been overmanned since 2011 and facing extremely high retention rates. The increased competition has meant many security forces airmen have had to retrain into other jobs and face tough competition for re-enlistment slots. And security forces airmen are making up a greater percentage of airmen involuntarily separated through date-of-separation rollbacks.