The Air Force is set to cut bonus pay for thousands of airmen in the service’s most demanding jobs by nearly $10 million in fiscal 2024, according to the service’s latest budget request.

If Congress approves the request in the service’s budget proposal, released March 13, the service would downsize its special duty assignment pay program from $101.7 million in 2023 to $92.2 million in the coming year.

Around 30,800 airmen currently earn special duty pay. That may rise to 33,500 or more by the end of September if lawmakers OK emergency funding for fiscal 2023, then fall to about 29,800 in fiscal 2024, after the defense policy bill is approved by Congress.

The potential change is jeopardizing bonuses for airmen who currently receive $75 to $300 a month in extra cash, but not those at the highest end. Jobs that would no longer qualify for special duty pay include enlisted pilots who fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, flight attendants, mission system specialists, loadmasters, contracting specialists and Air Force honor guardsmen.

That could mean they lose between $900 and $3,600 in 2024, depending on the program’s pay brackets under which they fall. SDAP offers payments of up to $450 a month for those at the highest level.

The list offers a snapshot in time of the Air Force’s priorities. Lackluster recruiting numbers have spurred the service to seek new incentives for those squadrons, who qualify for bonuses next year, and it is phasing out its enlisted pilot corps as it looks to retire the RQ-4s by the end of the decade.

It also comes amid a $648 million pledge to fund retention bonuses in 65 critical fields, including $250 million for aviation jobs and $12 million for cyber specialists, and $45 million in monetary perks for new enlistees.

This is the second consecutive year that the Air Force has sought to shrink special duty pay as it tries to reallocate money to its top priorities, like aircraft modernization.

The service spent $91.7 million on bonuses for nearly 31,400 people in fiscal 2022. Its fiscal 2023 request asked to cut the program to $90.2 million across 30,845 airmen — its lowest ask in at least two years.

Air Force officials have since asked Congress for an additional $11.5 million, spurred by inflation and other economic woes that are hurting airmen’s wallets.

If lawmakers agree, it would bring the total pool for SDAP funding to $101.2 million this year. It’s unclear how the plus-up would affect the number of airmen receiving bonuses in 2023.

“The past several months of inflation have put unique pressures on the finances of some of our airmen and guardians in critical specialties,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in September. “Our system to adjust special duty pay was out of sync with the rapid changes [in] our economy brought on by COVID and the invasion of Ukraine.”

But the $92.2 million request for 2024 would bring that spending back in line with prior levels. If the Air Force decides it’s not enough, it can again ask Congress to transfer money into that account later in the year.

Enlisted airmen who would qualify for special duty pay in 2024 include:

  • Recruiters
  • Basic military training instructors
  • Human intelligence debriefers
  • Combat controllers
  • Pararescuemen
  • Tactical air control party operators
  • Command chief master sergeants
  • Special reconnaissance operators
  • First sergeants
  • Defense attaché office liaisons
  • Airmen in the nuclear enterprise
  • Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents
  • Air traffic control supervisors
  • Enlisted weapons directors
  • Parachute instructors and those with the test parachute program
  • Phoenix Raven security forces defenders
  • Airmen who work with forward area refueling points
  • Flying crew chiefs
  • Defense couriers
  • Airmen who work at certain commands or government agencies
  • Airmen who work with certain federal panels
  • Public affairs airmen assigned to recruiting squadrons
  • Air transportation crews
  • Airmen who work on classified Air Force projects

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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