Airmen flying remotely piloted aircraft who agree to re-up for five more years will soon be eligible for Aviator Retention Pay bonuses of $35,000 per year — or $175,000 in all.

For many RPA officers, that's a considerable increase from the $25,000 per year bonus they previously have received for agreeing to a five-year extensions. But some RPA airmen will no longer be eligible for nine-year, $25,000 per-year bonuses that totaled $225,000, which had been an option til now they previously could receive.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced the expanded RPA retention bonuses — which are expected to be in place no later than Oct. 1 — during her State of the Air Force news conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday. Congress ordered the Air Force to increase the bonuses as part of the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama last November.

The Air Force will now offer the $35,000 bonus to all officers who help fly RPAs — 18X pilots who flew RPAs from their first day as aviatorsday one, 11U pilots who started on manned aircraft and permanently transitioned to RPAs, 12U combat systems officers for RPAs and 13U air battle managers for RPAs.

The law now only allows these retention bonuses to be paid to officers, meaning enlisted airmen who were just recently approved to allowed to become RPA pilots aren't eligible today, said an Air Force official said on background. But the Air Force wants to expand the retention bonus to enlisted RPA pilots, and will try to convince Congress to allow this change, the official said. But because enlisted airmen are only now starting the process to become RPA pilots, it will be at least seven years before this becomes an issue problem. It takes about one year to train an airman to fly RPAs, and then another six years before their first active-duty service commitment expires.

RPA pilots will not be eligible to receive a lump sum payment of 50 percent of the total value of their bonus up front, as the Air Force has offered certain other pilots.

An RPA pilot who has already signed up in a previous year for a nine-year contract extension at $25,000 per year will still receive the nine years of bonuses promised to him, the official said. And he will have the option of upping his annual bonus from $25,000 a year to $35,000 a year for five years of that contract extension. But someone who takes that option will have to agree to serve another year in the Air Force, resulting in a full 10-year added commitment.

At the Wednesday news conference, James outlined some of the Air Force's other efforts to bolster the ranks of RPA airmen, which have been stretched thin as operations against the Islamic State and in other areas of the world have resulted in an insatiable demand for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and strike capabilities, they provide.

James said the Air Force is well on its way towards achieving 100 percent manning at RPA training units, which will help it produce more RPA pilots. James said tThe Air Force expects to roughly double the undergraduate and graduate pilot output of its RPA training units between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2017.

"Producing more pilots, of course, means a better quality of life for all of our RPA airmen," James said. "It gives them more family time, and more opportunities for development."

James also said the Air Force is mobilizing more Air National Guard units to supplement the active-duty RPA enterprise, providing an additional three combat air patrols. And the Air Force is relying more heavily on contractors to help fly non-lethal reconnaissance drone missions.

And the Air Force tThis fall, service leaders will announce which bases are candidates to become the homes to of a new RPA wings, which would likely be split between two bases. One base will host its operations group, including mission control elements, and the other will host a full MQ-9 wing, James said.

The Air Force is also hoping to up its retention bonus for manned aircraft pilots — especially fighter pilots — to $48,000 per year. The service is concerned that it won't be able to hold on to valuable, experienced pilots with a $25,000 per year bonus, which hasn't been raised since 1999,  and has seen its value eroded by inflation.

The retention problem is growing, officials said, as the commercial airline industry increases its efforts to recruit experienced Air Force pilots to replace its retiring pilots.

Service officials The ir Force is are similarly also concerned that private contractors could lure away its RPA pilots if the Air Force it can't offer enough financial and quality-of-life incentives to hold on to them.

To be eligible for aviator retention pay, officers must be lieutenant colonels or below, qualified for operational flying duty and receiving monthly flight pay.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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