New in 2024: Staffing up a shrinking Air Force

by Tommy Grant

The Air Force in 2024 plans to shrink its uniformed force, but not by much.

In the year ahead, the service hopes to number 502,700 enlisted airmen and officers across the active duty Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve — about 1,000 fewer uniformed jobs than in 2023. Congressionally proposed cuts may drive the total slightly lower.

The decline is linked to plans to retire multiple aircraft fleets, but also points to the Air Force’s challenges in filling those roles. Staffing those billets requires the third-largest branch of the U.S. armed forces to hit its recruiting goals, retain airmen who are already in uniform and pull various policy levers to ensure staff are used wisely.

Officials aim to reverse the service’s recent recruiting woes and bring in 25,900 new active duty enlisted troops by the end of September 2024. The Air Force hopes adding more recruiters, changing policies around fitness and appearance, and chipping away at its own red tape will help prevent last year’s shortfall from becoming a longer trend.

It seems to be working: As of Dec. 8, the service had reached its active duty enlistment goal of 6,342 people while falling about 70 people short in the Reserve and about 390 short in the Guard.

“We are trending well ahead of where we were this time last year,” Air Force Recruiting Service spokesperson Leslie Brown said.

Once a recruit comes in, the Air Force wants to keep them. The service expected to retain about 93% of its officers and 90% of its enlisted airmen in fiscal 2023, spokesperson Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman said in August. It’s trying to sweeten the deal with monetary bonuses, greater job flexibility and other policies designed to improve quality of life, particularly in its most crucially understaffed fields.

It’s also keeping troops in the service’s lowest ranks longer to ensure that lagging recruitment doesn’t lead to too few entry-level airmen, and increasing the number of years airmen can stay in uniform before they’re kicked out, among other changes to the shape of the force.

Meanwhile, the Space Force has already met its officer and enlisted recruiting goals for the year as it continues to expand. The nation’s newest and smallest military service is projected to grow to 9,400 billets in 2024 and total 14,300 jobs overall.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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