May 19, 2024

Air Force officials are reducing planned troop totals in their 2025 budget request, cutting the total number of airmen in the service after missing its recruiting goal last year for the first time in more than two decades.

During a roundtable on Friday, officials told reporters that the projected end strength in the 2024 budget request for the Department of the Air Force was 512,000. In 2025, the service is aiming for 504,000 people. The service also plans to continue pumping money into bonuses and incentives to attract and retain airmen.

“That was probably assuming some optimistic growth that just given the recruiting challenges that we’ve experienced the last year was unrealistic,” Maj. Gen. Michael Greiner, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said about the earlier 2024 end-strength number.

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The Air Force’s budget submission requested funding for 8,000 fewer airmen, Maj. Kaitlin Holmes, an Air Force spokeswoman, said — 4,700 less from active duty, 2,600 less from the reserves and 700 less in the Air National Guard. Due to last year’s shortfall, Congress reduced the end strength for fiscal 2024 in that year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

The budget request made public on Monday now goes to Congress, which will take it under advisement as lawmakers debate and craft their own budget plans for the Air Force and the rest of the military throughout this year.

Last year, the Air Force announced a 10% shortfall in its active-duty recruiting goals — marking the first time since 1999 the service missed its target numbers.

The Air Force said it is on better footing and is at about 101% of its month-to-month recruiting goals and has completely filled jobs for February, March and well into April, Military.com reported last month.

The last time the Air Force did not reach 100% of its recruitment goal, prior to 2023, was in 1999 when Millenials — who were born between 1981 and 1996 — first began to reach the age of service. In 1979, the Air Force also missed its goals when Gen X began to reach the age for military service, according to a 2002 research paper from Air University.

Now, all the services are working to recruit Gen Z — defined as those born between 1997 and 2012.

That has been a challenge during the past few years as the U.S. has seen some of its lowest unemployment rates in decades and civilian employers are offering higher-paying jobs with better quality-of-life benefits. Added to that, the Pentagon has released studies showing that only 23% of American youth are eligible to serve due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental or physical health problems.

The Air Force Recruiting Service has told Military.com in the past that less than 10% of the young population is interested in serving in the first place; 50% can’t even name all the military service branches.

In the Air Force’s 2025 budget request — which is seeking a little more than $188 billion overall for a modest 1.6% increase from last year’s ask of $185 billion — service officials are continuing to heavily fund various bonus and incentive programs to the tune of $1.1 billion.

Among those are $327 million for aviation bonuses, $91 million for initial enlistment bonuses, $21 million for cyber retention bonuses and $10 million for the service’s enlisted college loan repayment program.

“We really do continue to stay focused on our bonus and retention programs,” Greiner said. “Our retention rates remain very high. We’re at near record levels above 90% on both enlisted and officer.”

In an effort to improve quality of life, the Air Force is also proposing a 4.5% pay raise, a 4.2% housing allowance raise and a 3.4% basic meal allowance raise.

Other major improvements the Air Force is proposing in its budget request includes $4.1 billion for construction projects at various bases to include $185 million for new dorms at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia as well as Joint Base San Antonio. Additionally, it funds a new child development center at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.

Related: Air Force Recruiting Is on the Upswing. Service Says It’s ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ About Hitting Goals for 2024.

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