The Air Force is slated to grow its end strength for the second year in a row. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress calls for 4,000 more airmen, bringing active duty end strength up to 321,000.

The growth in airmen will come as a relief to the Air Force. All year long, outgoing Secretary Deborah Lee James has been sounding the alarm about the White House's plan to keep Air Force end strength flat at 317,000 in the coming year. The service is already stretched thin and overburdened, James said repeatedly, and needs to grow — especially in areas such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber, maintenance and battlefield airmen.

"We're just too small," personnel chief Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso said in September. She said it would take about $145 million to add the requested 4,000 new airmen.

The plan to grow comes as Air Force recruiting has been on a roll. The service brought in 33,645 new airmen in fiscal 2016, including 31,761 enlisted recruits, the most since the Vietnam era. That is a 32 percent growth in enlisted recruitment over the previous year, and even surpassed the Air Force's original goal of recruiting 28,000 new enlisted airmen.

The Air Force also plans to continue a broad array of retention incentives, such as high-year tenure extensions and re-enlistment bonuses, to hold on to experienced airmen in crucial fields like maintenance and ISR while it recruits and trains new airmen. For example, the Air Force is particularly concerned with shortages of some 5- and 7-skill level maintenance crew chiefs.

In a September interview, outgoing Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said those retention programs will stay in place for the time being, though the service will reassess them each month to see if some career fields need to be taken off the list or others might need to be added.

The Air Force is still rebuilding after the steep drawdown of 2014 that cut about 19,300 airmen, voluntarily and involuntarily, due to sequestration's budget cuts. At the beginning of fiscal 2014, the Air Force had an active duty end strength of about 330,700 airmen, and 311,000 when fiscal 2015 closed.

James said at the Air Force Association's September conference in Maryland that the cuts went too far. The budgetary plan to move ahead with steep personnel cuts was already essentially in place when she took charge of the service in December 2013, she said, and made sense at the time — "at least it made pretty good sense on paper."

But as she traveled to bases over the following months and spoke to rank-and-file airmen, James said she realized the service was short everywhere and airmen were feeling significant strain.

"I began to see that some of these Powerpoint presentations that we were receiving in Washington, they just didn't seem to be adding up anymore," James said.

Under James' tenure, the original plan to cut roughly 25,000 airmen over five years was also greatly accelerated, so nearly all the cuts took place in 2014.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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