Facing booming retention, the Air Force let hundreds of airmen get out early in 2021. Now the service must stabilize its workforce amid conflicting fiscal and personnel issues.

The active duty Air Force had around 334,600 people as of December 2020, about 900 more than it wanted by September 2021. It let about the same number leave or join the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve ahead of schedule.

When Sept. 30 rolled around, the active duty Air Force totaled nearly 330,700 airmen. That’s about 3,600 more than Congress funded in 2021 and 2,400 more than the service requested for 2022.

Paradoxically, the Air Force hit its service-wide staffing goals for the first time in five years, while still falling short in specialties like pilots.

Officials are juggling the concerns of staffing undermanned fields, staying within their congressionally funded means and booting unvaccinated troops.

About 6,900 active duty airmen and guardians who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 faced discharge as of Dec. 21, 2021. More than half were awaiting religious exemptions, though none of those waivers had been granted as of Jan. 4.

Others asked to leave rather than roll up their sleeves. Service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the Air Force doesn’t track requests to separate or retire, only actual departures.

About 5,700 active duty airmen separated or retired in September and October 2021 — after the vaccine mandate took effect, according to data Air Force Times obtained in November. But there’s no clear trend when comparing that number with the same months each year since 2018.

It remains to be seen how many of the 6,920 unvaccinated, nonexempt members will get inoculated or ejected. The service said it won’t be a problem.

“We continue to meet our recruiting goals and do not expect mission impact as a result of the refusals,” Stefanek said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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