Air Force Offers Early Outs, Pushes More Toward Reserve Amid Record-High Retention

Facing high retention rates, the U.S. Air Force is expanding its voluntary force management programs in an effort to transfer some airmen into the Reserve. The programs are available to officers and enlisted troops.

The service announced this week that it has opened the application process for the Palace Chase program, which gives active-duty airmen the opportunity to finish their careers in the Air Force Reserve. It is also offering the limited Active Duty Service Commitment waivers program, in which eligible airmen will be asked to retire no later than Sept. 1 or separate no later than Sept. 29, according to a news release.

Officials didn’t say how many airmen are eligible for these early-out programs.

"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," Col. Richard Cole, Military Sustainment and Transition Program Division chief, said in the release.

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"Air Force leaders are working hard to preserve the mission and care for the airmen who accomplish it," Cole said.

Last month, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said the Air Force would begin to move some troops voluntarily into other specialties or to the Guard or Reserve, because its retention rate in 2020 was the highest in two decades. The service had about 334,600 active-duty members at the time, exceeding its end strength goal of 333,700, he said.

Kelly attributed the retention gains to the downturn in the economy but also credited the service's efforts over the last five years to build up the force following congressionally mandated spending caps known as sequestration.

The programs are the service's initial steps to move airmen out of "overmanned" career fields; the Jan. 19 release did not identify those fields.

Applications for both programs will close April 2, according to the release.

The Palace Chase service commitment has been shortened.

Previously, enlisted airmen moving into the reserve component were required to serve two years for every year of service left within their commitment. Officers had to serve three years for every one year left. The expanded program now gives approved officers and enlisted members a 1:1 ratio -- serving one year for every year they had left in an active-duty capacity.

Those who finish out their careers under Palace Chase will not have to return unearned portions of their bonuses, officials said. And educational costs will be deferred until an airman finishes his or her commitment under Palace Chase.

To be eligible for the Active Duty Service Commitment waivers program, airmen must complete at least 20 years of total active federal military service; officers need at least 10 years of total active federal service as an officer before their requested retirement date, the release states.

Waivers for enlisted airmen would apply toward permanent change of station (PCS) moves, date estimated return from overseas (DEROS) curtailment, and senior noncommissioned officer promotions. Officer waivers will be considered for PCS, DEROS curtailment, tuition assistance, direct accession, and extended active-duty, ROTC or Officer Training School commitments, according to the release.

Airmen who receive a waiver will be required "to repay the government for related unearned portions of bonuses, special pays, education assistance and all other monetary incentives," the release states.

Applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Cole said.

"While an airman may be eligible, manning and mission requirements will be considered when evaluating applications," he said. "Airmen should consider their options and apply promptly if interested, as eligibility is subject to change quickly as applications are approved."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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