Air Force pilots can now earn up to $50,000 a year in bonus pay under a pair of programs designed to keep aviators in uniform.

The military’s perennial pilot shortage is pushing the Air Force’s monetary bonuses to new heights as it tries to reinforce its aviation corps in anticipation of a potential war with China.

Under the newest version of the bonus program, eligible aviators who sign a new contract this year will receive between $15,000 and $50,000 annually for three to 12 years, Air Force spokesperson Capt. Rachel Salpietra said. In total, airmen could see a windfall of $45,000 to $600,000 in bonus pay over the course of their new commitment. Some can earn lump-sum payments of $100,000 or $200,000 up front, depending on their job and how long they remain in the service.

The deal applies to pilots of manned and drone aircraft, air battle managers and combat systems officers whose initial service commitments expire in fiscal 2023, which ends Sept. 30. Pilots must serve for 10 years after finishing undergraduate training; air battle managers and combat systems officers are in for six years. The service will accept applications starting Tuesday and continuing through Sept. 15.

Later this summer, the Air Force also plans to launch a new initiative known as the “Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Program.” That offers pilots another option: If their contracts are set to end between fiscal 2024 and 2026, they can tack another four years onto the end of that commitment and nab $50,000 in bonuses per year — or $200,000 in total.

Starting next year, the maximum $50,000 annual sum will only be available to active duty pilots of manned aircraft who re-sign with the Air Force during the eighth or ninth year of their initial 10-year contract.

Congress created the program late last year to lend more predictability to the Air Force’s aviation workforce. When people renew their commitments sooner, it shrinks the number of those who could decide to exit at the last minute — making the Air Force scramble to fill those billets. The program expires at the end of December 2028.

Those who don’t participate in the congressionally mandated program and wait to renew until the year their contract expires will get a smaller amount in bonuses each year. That amount has been capped at $35,000 annually in recent years.

It’s unclear how many airmen opted to take the money and extend their Air Force careers in fiscal 2022. The service is asking Congress for $250 million to fund aviation-related bonuses in fiscal 2024.

The Air Force has nibbled at the edges of a 2,000-pilot shortage for years. Each year, it hopes to employ about 13,000 active duty pilots overall, plus another 8,000 or so in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

A web of factors that include commercial airline hiring, military flight instructor shortages, aircraft maintenance slowdowns, changes in the U.S. war footing abroad, and the Air Force’s shrinking fleet has created the long-running shortfall that makes the service more vulnerable in a potential crisis.

U.S.-run military simulations have predicted vast losses in an air war with China, which the Pentagon calls its “pacing challenge,” or the main military competitor that threatens to outrun the U.S. in technological and tactical advances.

Bonus pay is one lever the military has tried to avoid the harshest consequences, as well as an initiative to keep pilots out of office jobs and other quality-of-life improvements.

“Our experienced aviators are uniquely qualified to succeed in a combat environment,” Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, the Air Force’s training and readiness director, said in Monday’s release. “These incentives are necessary to maintain that talent and competitiveness with our pacing challenge.”

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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