KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- The Air Force's current round of unprecedented voluntary and involuntary personnel cuts won't be the last, but airmen who survive the scrutiny of retention boards this year won't be up again for compulsory separation next year, officials say.
Those airmen not wanting to take their chances still have the opportunity to opt out by choice this year, if eligible. The Air Force announced Saturday that it would resume processing most voluntary applications for separation and early retirement. The move follows a brief pause the service took earlier this month to review the program.
The Air Force has said it needs to cut 25,000 airmen over the next five years as part of an effort to balance deep military spending cuts against readiness.
While the service says it remains committed to using voluntary measures first to reduce the force to targeted end-strength numbers, retention boards are still planned for later this year and will likely need to be held again next year, according to the Air Force.
"One item assessed during the pause was the pace of the programs and whether or not the Air Force could achieve required reductions on the original schedule," Saturday's release said. "The analysis revealed the need to include a second round of programs in 2015."
But the Air Force wants to ensure that well-performing airmen are not subject to multiple involuntary programs, said Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, in the release.
"Airmen who were eligible for programs during the first round in 2014 will not be eligible for the retention boards in 2015, unless they have specific negative quality force indicators," Cox said. Those can include anything from an Article 15 or failed physical fitness test to a "driving while under the influence" charge.
It appears the bulk of cuts will need to come this year and next. The Air Force needs to slash nearly 17,000 personnel to meet the fiscal 2015 active-duty end strength of 310,900, down from this year's end strength of 327,600, Rose Richeson, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said in an email.
To that end, the Air Force has introduced more than a dozen voluntary and involuntary separation programs this year for both enlisted members and officers. The programs are designed to rid the force of low performers and offer eligible members options for early retirement and waivers for remaining service commitments, according to the Air Force.
"The Air Force is using every available force management tool and doing everything we can to reduce the force," Richeson said in the email. "We are maximizing voluntary programs, to include offering monetary separation incentives; however, it is likely that we will need to use involuntary programs to meet projected manpower requirements."
The service has so far this year has received slightly over 10,000 applications for voluntary separation, a number that "continues to change daily," Richeson said. Of those, almost half are ineligible for voluntary separation for reasons that include not having enough years of service to quality for early retirement, she said.
The brief halt in processing voluntary separation applications earlier this month did not change application timelines or scheduled board dates, Richeson said. Air Force officials stopped the process to consider how best to approve certain applications that require additional waivers. "For the first time, our force-management programs include categories of officers who have not been eligible in the past, mainly some rated and some medical specialties," she said.
To ensure the service can offer volunteer separation to these airmen, it is pursuing additional authority to waive undergraduate pilot training, professional school commitments and other requirements that would generally exempt certain airmen from separation eligibility, she said.