The U.S. Air Force is officially moving forward in implementing a new high-year tenure policy that will extend the time some airmen may serve before they face separation.
"We're going to extend the limits from eight to 10 years for our senior airmen, and we're going to extend the limits from 15 to 20 years for our staff sergeants, and from 20 to 22 years for our technical sergeants," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services for the service at the Pentagon.
The effort is an attempt to retain more mid-career airmen who have the experience and talent the service is looking for as it increases manning in various technical jobs across the force.
The new policy officially takes effect Feb. 1, 2019, but some airmen will be able to take advantage of the change as early as October 24, Kelly said in a telephone interview with reporters Monday.
"If you have a separation or retirement date based on those high-year tenures after Feb. 1 ...through the Air Force Personnel Center, the Air Force will automatically make updates to those dates in the system and automatically extend those airmen," Kelly said.
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If airmen hit their high-year tenure limits prior to Feb. 1, they can apply for an exception to policy, said Capt. Carrie Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Right now, roughly 700 to 800 airmen face tenure limits prior to Feb. 1, Kelly said.
These airmen will have to seek out commander approval to request an extension on a case-by-case basis, and may submit the request starting Wednesday, officials said.
If an airman has already put in retirement or separation papers but now wants to stay on, and or is well into the separation process, that too will be reviewed by the airman's chain of command, Kelly said.
"As we continue to grow the force and as we restore readiness, we're doing really well with accessions -- lots of young airmen," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright said in the phone call with reporters. "[But] this will help us retain some of the experience, and particularly some of the expertise that will be around and available to train our new airmen that will be coming into the force."
Wright emphasized the policy is not to be viewed as a one-size-fits-all measure.
"I consider this more like a passport than a ticket," he said. "Commanders and supervisors will still have the responsibility to make sure that all these airmen that are extending -- especially ones that require extensions to policy -- have that balance of both competence and character. This is not automatic for everybody."
Kelly added the Air Force will consider those eligible for career extension under the new high-year tenure policy in the same way it thinks about reenlistment conversations between an airman and his chain of command.
"Is the airman who I am about to reenlist and extend in the Air Force exhibiting those traits of character that we want to be able to keep ... or is it time for that airman to separate?" the general said.
Kelly and Wright did not pinpoint a single career field that needs a specific retention boost. But the Air Force for years has put an emphasis on career fields where they'd like to fill consistent manning gaps, including maintenance, space, cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"There are still some career fields that are more shortly manned than others, but this need for experience really goes across the whole force," Kelly said.
The service has weighed the policy change for the last year-and-a-half, Wright said. The service's force drawdown in 2014 greatly affected the mid-rank non-commissioned officer cadre, and this move "gives us the opportunity to balance that force," Kelly said.
Those hitting high-year tenure limits prior to Feb. 1 can request an extension via the virtual manpower and personnel flight, the service said in a release.
"There are many [airmen] we want to retain ... for that technical expertise and experience they bring to the fight," Wright said.
He added, "I think this is going to be a good news story for our airmen and for the force."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.