New Air National Guard second lieutenants pass in review in their 2009 graduation parade at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. The Air Force says the number of officers would have grown even more if it hadn't delayed several hundred ROTC cadets from commissioning, among other methods. (Air Force)
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More than 3,000 enlisted airmen received their walking papers in the last fiscal year while the number of officers grew by 700, personnel statistics show.
The jobs lost are a few hundred fewer than what the Air Force expected to cut during an 18-month drawdown announced in late March. The plan, though, also called for separating 1,400 second lieutenants through colonels.
Despite the swelling officer ranks, the Air Force insists the number would have been far higher if it hadn't delayed the commissionings of several hundred ROTC cadets, reduced the number of Officer Training School accessions and held early retirement, force-shaping and reduction-in-force boards.
On the enlisted side, the measures included service commitment waivers, discharges for airmen who washed out of their initial skills training and new high-year tenure limits.
"Without fiscal 2010 force management actions, the officer force could have been 3,200 over strength and the enlisted force could have been 6,000 over strength," spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek said in a statement.
The Air Force targeted nearly 6,000 active-duty airmen in the drawdown, which it deemed necessary to meet the fiscal 2011 cap of 332,200 set by Congress on the advice of the Defense Department.
So few airmen were leaving the service willingly because of the tough civilian job market that the Air Force said it had no choice but to start handing out pink slips.
On March 25, when Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz announced the drawdown to airmen, the Air Force had 266,137 enlisted members and 65,051 officers, excluding roughly 300 generals and 4,000 Air Force Academy cadets. Counting everyone, end strength stood at about 335,500.
As of Oct. 22, the number of officers had grown by 754, to 65,805 — about 2,000 more officers than what the Air Force figures it needs. The enlisted number stood at 263,100, a loss of 3,037. Adding in the general officers and cadets, end strength totaled about 333,200. The figure is still about 1,000 over the mandate.
The reduction came mainly from the enlisted ranks because the quickest way to shrink the force was bringing in fewer recruits, Stefanek said.
Instead of 31,750 new enlistees, the service recruited 28,215, Air Force figures show.
"We reduced accessions significantly as one of the only definite, quick-response actions we could take," she said.
Slowing the number of new officers was more difficult because the service had promised commissions to the 3,033 Air Force Academy and ROTC cadets graduating in 2010.
Incentive programs to convince officers already in uniform to leave, such as voluntary separation pay or ordering officers to leave through selective early retirement boards, requires a lengthy process, one that is still going on.
For example, only 20 of 386 captains and majors who accepted voluntary separation pay had left as of Sept. 30. The 497 lieutenant colonels and colonels who volunteered to retire early don't have to leave until May. Another 245 lieutenant colonels and colonels being forced to retire have until early next year to pack up, according to Air Force projections.
Even when all the separations and retirements are in place, the Air Force will still be faced with a national unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent and airmen — even those eligible to retire — who don't want to let go of their job security.
Air Force officials declined to talk with Air Force Times about specific goals or program details for a drawdown in the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.
"We will be providing a 2011 force management update to Air Force leadership soon, and can provide additional insight following that update," Stefanek said.
In September, a top personnel official told Air Force Times that enlisted airmen with six to 12 years of service in overmanned career fields would be vulnerable in 2011. If an airman in an overmanned career field declines a request to retrain into an undermanned career field, the Air Force can discharge him.
And the service will keep hurrying along those airmen who already are intending to leave, according to the official, Brig. Gen. Sharon Dunbar.
"For enlisted, we will continue to do date-of-separation rollback," Dunbar said in an interview two months ago. "For the most part, these are airmen who already indicated their intention to not continue to serve or have had disciplinary issues and are not as competitive to stay in the Air Force."
As for officers, Dunbar said, there would be no involuntary separation in 2011.
The service hopes to control its junior officer ranks with more restrictive guidelines for promotion to captain and major, she said. Only 95 percent of eligible first lieutenants, not the 99 percent rate in place for several years, will make captain. Only 90 percent of eligible captains will move up to majors, down from 95 percent.
The service also intends to limit the number of recruits again. The goal is 28,315 airmen, not the 31,405 first projected.
For ROTC cadets graduating in 2011, the Air Force is offering the option of joining the Reserve or Air National Guard.