This fall, the Air Force will start allowing battlefield airmen to keep their monthly incentive pay even if they're on staff or instructor duty or are unable to do their duties due to medical issues.
The Battlefield Airmen Skill Incentive Pay pilot program will replace the old jump, dive, demolition and hazardous duty pay, Air Force spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder said in a Thursday briefing with reporters at the Pentagon. Previously, airmen had to be in an active duty status, performing duties as a battlefield airmen, to receive that monthly stipend of up to $615, Ryder said.
But if a battlefield airman became injured, for example, or was reassigned to the Pentagon, he would lose his eligibility for that pay, Ryder said.
The new system will view that compensation as proficiency pay, so airmen who are qualified for those jobs will continue to receive the payments, whether or not they are actually doing the jobs. Ryder said it will operate similarly to the payments offered to aviators or airmen with foreign language proficiencies. The value of the monthly payments will remain unchanged.
Battlefield airmen include pararescuemen, combat controllers, and Tactical Air Control Party airmen. They are highly trained and highly valuable, and the Air Force has long been concerned about problems with undermanning and retention in those fields. In recent years, the Air Force has expanded the retention and enlistment bonuses it offers to such airmen.
Ryder said the Air Force is taking this latest step to try to improve retention. But he said the Air Force is also concerned that some battlefield airmen have hidden injuries or not sought treatment for medical problems because they didn't want to lose money.
"We want to ensure that they don't lose their incentive pay when we mandate broadening tours to be instructors, or to go on staffs," Ryder said. "We also wanted to remove a financial disincentive to not seek medical care, whether that's for physical or mental injuries. The former pay structure restricted battlefield airmen with long-term physical injuries who would frequently lose pay prior to full recovery. It also would prevent some from self-identifying and seeking mental health treatment for fear of losing their pay."
The pilot program will last three years, after which the Air Force will take a look and see how effective it was at convincing battlefield airmen to remain in uniform, Ryder said.
The Defense Department this week authorized the Air Force to begin offering the program, Ryder said. The Air Force has not yet settled on the date it will launch in the fall.
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 Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.