Air Force offering airmen a chance to leave service early in attempt to balance the force

In an attempt to deal with high retention rates due to COVID-19, the Air Force is implementing a voluntary retirement and separation policy, allowing airmen to leave the service early or move to the Air National Guard.

According to a Jan. 19 release from the service, airmen may apply for voluntary separation or the PALACE CHASE program between Jan. 20 and April 2.

The PALACE CHASE program allows airmen to convert the rest of their active duty commitment to the Air National Guard. Previously, enlisted airmen who wanted to join the PALACE CHASE program had to exchange one year of active duty service for two years in the Guard. That is now reduced to one year. For officers, the commitment is reduced from three years to one year.

“Voluntary force management programs provide airmen with flexible options to retire, separate or affiliate at times that suit their personal circumstances and allow the Department of the Air Force to balance certain specialties to ensure we meet the needs of the high-end fight,” said Col. Richard Cole, Chief, Military Sustainment and Transition Program Division.

The Air Force was supposed to grow by about 900 in 2020 to 333,700 active duty airmen. Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said last month that the service met that goal, and it actually ended up about 900 above that benchmark.

Service commitment waivers will allow eligible airmen to retire no later than Sept. 1 or separate no later than Sept. 29.

The expanded PALACE CHASE program and waiver program are available only to certain occupations. Members who are not in one of those occupations may apply on a case-by-case basis.

Airmen who apply will get waivers and PALACE CHASE program approval on a first come, first leave basis.

Service members who are approved and received bonus pay and other incentives will have to return the portions of those benefits they did not carry out in their contract.

The Air Force hinted earlier this year that it would be trying to balance its force in 2021 through retention bonuses.

“Overall retention levels are at record highs and manning within many of our career fields is healthy,” Kelly said. “This reduces our requirement and opportunity to utilize retention bonuses to the same extent.”

The service cut the number of occupations that would get incentive pay for renewing contracts this year. In 2020, 72 jobs within the Air Force were able to get some extra cash if they reupped their contracts. The number dropped to 37 this year.

In total, nine specialties were added and 40 were taken off the list.

“Manning levels have, in some cases, exceeded our requirements,” Kelly said earlier this month on a call with reporters. “In many areas, we probably don’t need as many offerings for the bonuses and opportunities for those retentions incentives as we’ve had in the past.”

The Air Force plans to spend about $55 million of retention bonuses in 2021.

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