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Leaders push voluntary exits to trim force

Dec. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
(Staff)
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On the way out

Important dates for voluntary retirement and separation programs:

ProgramApplication window:Selected airmen retire or separate in:
Chief Master Sgt./Senior NCO Voluntary PhaseDecember through MarchJanuary 2015
Temporary Early Retirement Authority (Enlisted)January through AprilAugust
Temporary Early Retirement Authority II (Officer)January through AprilAugust
Enlisted Voluntary Separation PayJanuary through AprilSeptember
Officer Voluntary Separation PayJanuary through AprilSeptember
Enhanced Selective Early Retirement Board Voluntary PhaseJanuary through AprilJanuary 2015
The dates for involuntary programs:
ProgramReview boardmeets:Selected airmen retire or separate in:
Selective Early Retirement BoardDecemberJuly
Date of Separation Rollback IJanuary through FebruaryMay
Quality Force Review BoardMaySeptember
Date of Separation Rollback IIMay through JuneSeptember
Chief Master Sgt. Retention BoardJuneNovember
Senior NCO Retention BoardJune through JulyDecember 2014
Enhanced Selective Early Retirement BoardJune through JulyDecember 2014
Tech. Sgt. Retention BoardJune through JulyJanuary 2015
Staff Sgt. Retention BoardJune through JulyJanuary 2015
Senior Airman Retention BoardJune through JulyJanuary 2015
Reduction in ForceJune through JulyJanuary 2015
Force Shaping BoardJulyDecember 2014
Source: Air Force

The most sweeping force cuts since the end of the Cold War have begun. And airmen must start thinking right away about whether they want to leave voluntarily or risk getting caught up in an involuntary reduction.

The most sweeping force cuts since the end of the Cold War have begun. And airmen must start thinking right away about whether they want to leave voluntarily or risk getting caught up in an involuntary reduction.

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The most sweeping force cuts since the end of the Cold War have begun. And airmen must start thinking right away about whether they want to leave voluntarily or risk getting caught up in an involuntary reduction.

The Air Force on Dec. 11 announced a broad list of 18 voluntary and involuntary force management programs it hopes will reduce the ranks throughout 2014. The force reduction measures are being put into place to help the service adjust to steep budget cuts known as sequestration.

“This has pretty much every tool in our toolkit at our disposal, both voluntary and involuntary,” said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, director of force management policy, in an interview. “Our strategy is to use the max use of voluntary programs that we can. Everywhere where we’ve been able to incentivize people to leave monetarily, we’re going to.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has repeatedly warned that sequestration, if left in place, could force the service to cut roughly 25,000 total force airmen over the next five years. Grosso could not say exactly how many airmen the Air Force plans to cut under the 2014 force reductions because a final budget has not been passed for the year, but said the number could be in the thousands. The latest fiscal 2014 budget deal — if it passes — would leave the Air Force with an end strength of nearly 1,900 fewer billets than it had in fiscal 2013, Grosso said. The resulting end strength of 327,600 would match the administration’s proposed 2014 budget.

“We’d love to get all this done by voluntary force shaping measures over a period of time. If we have the leeway based on budget decisions to do that, we’ll go that route,” Welsh said Dec. 13. “If we don’t, and we have to take involuntary measures, I would like everyone to have at least six months of time to talk to their family to think about the impact this could have on them ... and have that conversation with someone in their immediate chain of command, so they have people talking to them, giving them facts so they can make a fact-based decision instead of an emotional one.

“I hope that something changes in the budget environment and three months from now we put out a note saying, ‘Never mind, don’t do any of that.’”

According to a timeline provided by the Air Force, the 18 programs will include reductions in force beginning in June, two rounds of date-of-separation rollbacks in January and May, and 15-year retirements for both officers and enlisted beginning in January. A selective early retirement board for colonels and lieutenant colonels is underway. The retirements and separation dates for the voluntary and involutary programs would occur through January 2015.

The Air Force also is rolling out several new involuntary force management programs for the first time as part of this effort.

A new authority called the enhanced selective early retirement board, or E-SERB, will consider even more officers than under the regular SERB process. The E-SERB, the authority for which was granted in the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, will meet in June and consider colonels with two to four years time in grade, lieutenant colonels who have been passed over for promotion once, and retirement-eligible active-duty officers between the rank of captain and colonel.

The regular SERB applies to colonels with at least four years time in grade and lieutenant colonels who have been passed over at least twice. And under the regular SERB, officers can only be considered once during any five-year period, but the E-SERB has no such restriction.

Another new force management program, called a quality force review board, will meet in May. This board will consider separating enlisted airmen up to senior master sergeants who have a negative quality indicator code for absence without leave, receiving a referral on their enlisted performance report, or otherwise screwing up. Airmen who have between 18 and 20 years of service as of Sept. 30, 2014, will be excluded from the quality force review board.

Voluntary separation pay will not be offered to airmen meeting that board, but airmen with more than six and less than 15 years of service who are separated by the board will receive separation pay. Temporary early retirement authority — also known as 15-year retirements — will be offered to separated airmen with more than 15 and less than 18 years of service. Airmen with at least 20 years of service who are separated by this board will receive their normal retirement.

And the creation of the quality force review board will greatly change how the Air Force conducts its two rounds of DOS rollbacks in 2014, Grosso said. Rollbacks normally consider airmen who either have negative codes, or airmen who have refused professional military education, reassignment or retraining. But because the quality board will cover the misbehaving airmen, Grosso said, next year’s rollbacks will only cover the remaining airmen “that have indicated they no longer want to serve.”

“They haven’t done anything wrong, but they’ve decided, ‘I’m ready to do something else,’ ” Grosso said. “That turns out to be a pretty small number” of airmen likely to fall under next year’s rollbacks.

Grosso also said the Air Force is thinking about changing its personnel policies in the future to automatically roll back separation dates for airmen who refuse reassignment, retraining or education, or otherwise indicate they’re not interested in staying.

The Air Force also is, for the first time, planning to hold retention boards for chief master sergeants, tech sergeants, staff sergeants, senior airmen and senior noncommissioned officers to discharge them before their term of service expires. The Army and Navy have routinely conducted these boards, Grosso said, and the Air Force must do the same to shed airmen who are not top performers.

“As the force gets smaller, we won’t have the capacity anymore to have airmen that aren’t strong performers,” Grosso said. “So we’re going to transition to more of a performance-based personnel management system, as opposed to longevity.”

Other additional voluntary programs — such as limited active-duty service commitment waivers, an expanded Palace Chase program allowing airmen to serve out the rest of their active-duty service commitment in the reserve, commissioned service date waivers allowing officers to retire as an officer with eight years of commissioned service instead of 10, and time-in-grade waivers — are also still being offered on an ongoing basis.

Voluntary actions encouraged

Grosso is encouraging airmen who are interested in leaving to take TERA payments or other voluntary separation measures. Every airman who voluntarily leaves means one fewer airman will have to be involuntarily separated, she said, and the Air Force is willing to pony up to make that happen.

“If we had an airman that wanted to take early retirement, that’d be great, because that airman would save an airman who’s got less time in service,” Grosso said. “We have enough funding to pay for every voluntary loss, which is a significant amount of money, to be frank. We would love to see this program be met with volunteers.”

Grosso said the Air Force Personnel Center this month will email airmen who are eligible for most of these force management programs, except for the second round of rollbacks that will begin in May. She also urged airmen to keep checking the MyPers website as eligibility information will be rolled out throughout December. Those memos will include details on which career fields, ranks and year groups will be eligible for different programs. The Air Force will target for separation airmen who are in overmanned career fields, she said, but career fields that are chronically undermanned will be excluded.

“By the end of the year, other than that second DOS rollback, airmen will have [a] much more specific idea of how they’re personally impacted,” Grosso said.

She also said airmen should talk to their commanders, career assistance advisers and other mentors to find out whether they may be separated under one of these involuntary programs.

“Our goal is to make sure that every airman in the United States Air Force understands, if they fit into any of these buckets, and if I [do], how do I make a good decision for my family?” Grosso said. “Am I eligible for any voluntary programs, and which ones? We’d like for everyone eligible for these programs to immediately sign up for transition assistance. We think that will help them make a better life decision.”

Airmen also should check their personnel folders to make sure their duty history, medal records, deployment records and other information are up to date before separation boards begin reviewing them, Grosso said.

Grosso said the Air Force and Defense Department are preparing to handle increased numbers of airmen exiting the service. That could include approving overtime for civilian personnel employees and increasing the capacity of civilian transition programs.

Mixed reaction

Many dejected airmen went online to express their displeasure with the cuts, with one sarcastically writing, “Merry Christmas!” in response to a story on AirForceTimes.com.

“Feels like the Clinton days all over again,” a commenter said on Welsh’s Facebook post.

“It’s good to remember how they call you family and slap ya on the back and then knife ya when you’re just a number and always were,” one commenter on Air Force Times’ Facebook page said.

But some tried to look on the bright side.

“15 year retirement here I come!” anotherAir Force Times’ Facebook commenter said. “Better [to] have some than nothing at all.”

Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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