Hoping to Retain Experienced Airmen, Air Force Tweaks 'Up or Out' Policy

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Col. Chad Ellsworth, installation commander, congratulates Tech. Sgt. Amos Hard, 66th Air Base Group Command Post controller, on his promotion during the September Enlisted Promotion Ceremony at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.
Col. Chad Ellsworth, installation commander, congratulates Tech. Sgt. Amos Hard, 66th Air Base Group Command Post controller, on his promotion during the September Enlisted Promotion Ceremony at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., Aug. 29, 2019, while Tech. Sgt. Emanuel Rivera, an enlisted recruiter for the 318th Recruiting Squadron, looks on. (Todd Maki/U.S. Air Force photo)

The Air Force is automatically adding two years to the length of time enlisted airmen can stay in the same rank before having to either leave the service or be promoted under a recently implemented change.

While airmen have been able to request extensions of the time they can stay in the same rank for the last year, the extension is being applied automatically this fiscal year, which ends in September, service spokesperson Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman confirmed to Military.com.

"Manning to end strength is foundational to outpace future pacing threats," Heitzman said in an emailed statement. "The Air Force is taking proactive action to fully leverage our congressionally authorized end strength, and [high year of tenure] extensions maximize the retention of experienced talent to enhance mission effectiveness."

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The high year of tenure policy, informally known as the "up or out" policy, tries to limit stagnating careers by forcing out service members who aren't promoted after a certain amount of time.

Under the new policy, which was outlined in a memo leaked on Reddit and became effective earlier this month, airmen in grades E-1 through E-8 will automatically be allowed to stay in uniform for up to two years longer than they otherwise would have.

Fewer than 2,000 airmen are expected to be affected by the change, Heitzman said.

Airmen who still want to separate under their original deadline must apply to opt out of the extension before their original separation date or Feb. 16, whichever comes first, Heitzman said.

The effort to increase retention of more experienced airmen comes at a time when the Air Force, along with most of the rest of the military services, has been struggling with recruitment. The Air Force fell short of its active-duty enlisted recruiting goal by about 10% in fiscal 2023, the first time since 1999 it failed to hit its target.

Amid the recruiting troubles, the Air Force is expected to shrink, with an authorized active-duty end strength in fiscal 2024 of 320,000 airmen compared to about 325,000 in 2023.

Despite the military-wide recruiting woes, officials have said retention remains high. The Air Force's enlisted retention rate in fiscal 2023 was 89%, Heitzman said.

The strong retention rate, coupled with an Air Force effort to restructure its enlisted ranks by cutting the number of noncommissioned officers, has in turn led to fewer promotion opportunities. The restructure is intended to help airmen build more experience before being promoted but has also caused more airmen to butt up against high year of tenure limits.

The service expects to evaluate late next year how automatically extending maximum times in rank went to decide whether to do it again in 2025, Heitzman said.

Related: Navy Modifies 'Up or Out' Policy by Giving Sailors Who Don't Advance an Option to Fill Critical Jobs

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