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Air Force retention is in its strongest place since 2002

Formation at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. (Mike Kaplan/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is enjoying its highest retention in nearly two decades, second only to shortly after 9/11 -so much so, that the service may no longer need all the retention bonuses it uses, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services said Tuesday.

Hundreds of members who were previously planning to retire or separate in 2020 withdrew or delayed their departures amidst the global pandemic, leading to fiscal year 2021 numbers that already exceeded projected end-of-year goals, said Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly.

“Congress delivered immense help, increased our numbers and helped us make real readiness improvements after sequestration reductions,” Kelley said in an Air Force statement. “Increased recruiting and retention efforts helped restore the size of the force by nearly 23,000 over the last five years.

As of Oct. 31, the Air Force had 329,839 active-duty members, 64,025 officers and 265,814 enlisted members.

The Air Force has 12,395 pilots, 3,313 navigators and 1,343 air battle managers in the grade of lieutenant colonel and below, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. The Air Force has 26,097 nonrated line officers in the grade of lieutenant colonel and below.

One of the largest Air Force bases, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has 30,000 military and civilian employees.

Now, the challenge for the Air Force is to keep the size of the force “balanced” for the future “high-end fight,” Kelly said.

There will be waivers of some active duty service commitments, focused on expanding opportunities to affiliate with the Guard and Reserve.

“We want Airmen to know their expertise is incredibly valuable, and we are reviewing steps to make it even easier to either transition to Guard or Reserve service or explore other career fields,” he said.

The statement said Space Force — the U.S. military’s newest branch, which is part of the Department of the Air Force -is still in a “purposeful phase of strategic growth.”

Space Force members will not be eligible for a voluntary ADSC waiver due to the required minimum two years to join the new service, the Air Force said.

An Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC) waiver is allowed in some cases to active duty Airmen who would like to retire or separate but have a commitment that prevents them from doing so.

“As we build the Space Force, our priority has been to do no harm and to communicate decisions with the maximum transparency possible as we transfer personnel from the Air Force into the new service,” said Patricia Mulcahy, U.S. Space Force chief human capital officer. “We remain committed to that goal as we work with our partners in the Air Force to find effective solutions in addressing these force management concerns.”

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