The Air Force said Tuesday it is offering a series of voluntary force management programs to some officers and enlisted airmen in a variety of career fields, as part of an effort to fix a coronavirus-driven overmanning problem.

The voluntary programs include an expanded Palace Chase program, which allows active-duty airmen to serve out the rest of their service commitment in the Air Force Reserve, and limited active-duty service commitment waivers, the Air Force Personnel Center said in a release.

AFPC said the window to apply for these programs opens Wednesday, and will run through April 2.

“Voluntary force management programs provide airmen with flexible options to retire, separate or affiliate at times that suit their personal circumstances and allow the Department of the Air Force to balance certain specialties to ensure we meet the needs of the high-end fight,” Col. Richard Cole, chief of the Military Sustainment and Transition Program Division, said in the release.

The Air Force was unable to provide by press time additional information as to how many airmen might leave under these programs.

The Air Force is rolling out these voluntary programs to help it lessen a serious overmanning problem, which it believes was caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In December, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly told reporters the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic likely led to the greatest spike in retention rates in nearly two decades.

Kelly said that as unemployment rose sharply in the pandemic’s early days, hundreds of airmen who were planning to retire or separate may have decided it was safer to stay in uniform a little longer.

But this meant that when fiscal 2021 began, the Air Force had already surpassed its year-end active-duty end strength goal of 333,700, which would have been an increase of 900 from fiscal 2020. Kelly said Dec. 1 that the Air Force was already more than 900 airmen over where they had hoped to be at the end of the year.

Kelly said then that no involuntary programs were being planned for 2021.

Airmen who are eligible for the active-duty service commitment waivers would be able to retire no later than Sept. 1, or separate no later than Sept. 29.

To retire, airmen eligible for those waivers must have at least 20 years of total active federal military service before their requested retirement date. Officers also must have at least 10 years of total active federal commissioned service.

For enlisted airmen, the waivers could allow them to lessen their service commitments incurred due to permanent change-of-station moves, date estimated return from overseas curtailments, and senior noncommissioned officer promotions, AFPC said. For officers, waivers would also apply to PCS moves and DEROS curtailments, as well as tuition assistance, direct accession and extended active-duty ROTC and Officer Training School service commitments.

The expanded Palace Chase program would allow certain airmen, in selected specialties and grades, to apply to transfer from active duty to an Air Reserve component position, the release said.

Typically, an enlisted airman transitioning under Palace Chase has to serve two years in the Reserve for every year remaining on his or her service obligation, and officers have to serve three years for every one remaining.

Under the expanded program, the Air Force will allow eligible airmen to serve one reserve year for every remaining active-duty year.

But there’s a catch: Airmen whose service commitments are being waived will be required to repay unearned portions of bonuses, special pays, education assistance and other incentive payments.

Palace Chase airmen, however, will not be made to return the unearned portion of their bonuses, AFPC said. Recoupment of education costs will be deferred, as long as those airmen finish their Palace Chase obligation.

AFPC said it will process applications on a first-in, first-out basis — but even if someone meets the basic eligibility criteria, that airman may not be guaranteed approval. Airmen who are in a specialty that is not on the list of eligible jobs can apply on a case-by-case basis.

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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