Facing Recruiting Struggles, Air Force Seeks More Money for Pay Incentives

Oath of enlistment at the Shaw Air and Space Expo at Shaw Air Force Base.
Capt. (Dr.) Travis Grindstaff, a flight surgeon for the U.S. Air Force aerial demonstration team “Thunderbirds,” issues the oath of enlistment to a group of Air Force applicants at the Shaw Air and Space Expo at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, April 2, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Conroy)

The Air Force is seeking increases for retention and recruitment bonuses in its 2024 budget request as the service grapples with a pilot shortage and struggles to fill its ranks with new airmen.

As part of the Air Force's more than $185 billion fiscal 2024 budget request, unveiled Monday, it is asking for more than $648 million in bonuses and retention efforts for 65 specialty positions, according to details released by the service.

Among those bonuses being requested are $250 million related to aviation careers, $45 million in initial recruitment bonuses for new airmen, and $12 million-worth of retention incentives for cyber-related jobs. Overall, the budget request represents a 4% increase over funding for the department as a whole for 2023.

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"The Air Force side increases [bonuses] by about 5.5%. ... It allows us to increase the pilot retention bonus from $35,000 per year to $50,000," Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. Mike Greiner told reporters in a briefing ahead of the budget release. "As we look for ways to incentivize and to get after our recruiting challenges, you can see we've got $45 million there in initial recruiting bonuses."

The 2024 budget request comes one week after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced the service was projecting it would likely miss its active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard recruiting goals this year by about 10%.

Last year, the service barely made its active-duty goals and missed its numbers for the Air National Guard and Reserve.

Overall, the Air Force is projected to have an end strength of 324,700 personnel under the 2024 budget request, a decrease of a little more than 600 people from last year. The Air National Guard aims to have the same numbers at 108,400, and the Air Force Reserve is anticipated to see 400 fewer people than 2023 with an end strength of 69,600.

In recent years, the Air Force has experienced a wide-ranging pilot shortage; Kendall said during a budget briefing with reporters that the service is working on that issue from several different angles.

"We do have a [pilot] shortage," Kendall said. "We're having to try to improve the efficiency of the pipeline to get more people in. The reserve and Guard equation is a little more complicated, but we do have some shortages there that we're trying to address as well."

There are 1.1 million flying hours allotted in the 2024 budget request, which Greiner told reporters was in line with 2022 and 2023. There is also a $64 million ask for additional undergraduate and advanced pilot training for fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, according to budget documents released by the service.

The Department of the Air Force has also requested a 5.2% increase in pay for airmen, a 4.2% raise in the Basic Allowance for Housing, and a 3.4% bump in the Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

The majority of the Air Force's $181.5 billion budget request, about 40%, is focused on operation and maintenance costs for the service's bases and aircraft with a focus on the Pacific.

It includes $453 million improvements toward protecting bases in the Pacific and $361 million for updating the service's information technology infrastructure to protect it from cyberattacks.

Other requests in that category include efforts to make installations more energy efficient, such as a $731 million ask for climate adaptation and energy developments, $368 million to sustain current buildings, and $73 million for improvements to child development centers and youth programs for military families.

It also includes $3.8 billion worth of construction requests for projects across 17 states, including $229 million in housing improvements at bases such as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and $57 million for child development centers at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas and Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

Overall, the $3.8 billion ask is a decrease in construction projects compared to the $5.2 billion enacted in fiscal 2023.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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