After Recruiting Shortfall, USAF Cuts End Strength Goal, Boosts Bonus Funds in ’25

The Air Force is trimming its end strength goal by 8,000 Airmen in fiscal year 2025 after the service could not meet its previous recruiting goals, while upping the Space Force by 400 Guardians, according to budget documents released March 11.

The budget proposal would cut the end strengths from last year’s request by:

  • 4,700 Airmen from the Active-Duty Air Force, to an end strength of 320,000
  • 700 Airmen from the Air National Guard for an end strength of 107,700
  • 2,600 Airmen from the Air Force Reserves for an end strength of 67,000.

Meanwhile, the Space Force would increase by 400 Guardians to an end strength of 9,800. The 400 additional Guardians are “largely driven by inter-service transfers,” according to budget documents.

According to budget documents, the shrinking end strength “is driven by a net reduction in legacy force structure requirements along with an increase in future force structure requirements.” Specifically, the Air Force seeks to retire sizable numbers of A-10 attack jets, F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters, and KC-135 refueling tankers. But an Air Force spokesperson told Air & Space Forces Magazine the drop has more to do with recent recruiting challenges.

The fiscal 2024 budget request called for 324,700 Active-Duty Airmen, 108,400 Air National Guardsmen, and 69,600 Air Force Reservists. But as the service struggled to attract new Airmen and failed to reach those numbers, Congress responded by trimming the authorized end strengths in its 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, closer to where the service actually was.

“The FY25 end strength funding request will provide funding for the number of Airmen we realistically believe we can bring into the Air Force this year,” Maj. Kaitlin Holmes said.

The Air Force’s overall military personnel (MILPERS) request for fiscal 2025 will go up roughly 2 percent, to $41.7 billion. The Space Force MILPERS request is about $1.2 billion, roughly $49 million more than last year’s request.

One notable part of that MILPERS account is the request for $1.1 billion in Air Force bonuses and retention programs for 118,000 critical positions. Both figures are major increases over last year’s request, when the service sought $648 million for 65,000 critical positions.

The $1.1 billion includes $327 million for aviation and $21 million for cyber retention programs. It also funds $91 million in initial enlistment recruitment bonuses and $10 million in enlisted college loan repayment program, which brought in more than 200 new Airmen from March to September last year.

On the Space Force side, the budget would fund $25 million in selective retention bonuses and initial enlistment bonus, plus another $5.7 million for assignment incentive pay. All of those numbers are marked increases over the 2024 request.

The MILPERS budgets also have proposed raises of 4.5 percent for pay, 4.2 percent for Basic Allowance for Housing, and 3.4 percent for Basic Allowance for Subsistence. Such increases would mark smaller jumps than the previous few years, when inflation led to historic jumps in pay, BAH, and BAS. More recently, inflation has cooled somewhat. In June, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that inflation in the personal consumption expenditures price index would fall from 3.3 percent in 2023 to 2.6 percent in 2024, and 2.2 percent in 2025. 

The MILPERS budget increases also include an additional $40 million for the Basic Needs Allowance, targeted toward junior troops struggling with food insecurity. The increase will allow officials to expand eligibility for the program, to troops with income that is 200 percent or less of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, compared to the prior cutoff of 150 percent.

Department of the Air Force documents say the budget “prioritizes $1.3 billion to support our greatest asset, our people, through increased pay and benefits,” but it could come at a cost if the government cannot pass a full budget by April 30—a failure to do so would trigger automatic cuts under the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

“We will continue to take care of our people by ensuring military manpower accounts are protected from further reductions under sequestration, but this will exert tremendous pressure on procurement and readiness accounts to absorb the indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cut required under sequestration,” the Department of Defense wrote in its overall budget summary. 

Indeed, MILPERS accounts for about 22 percent of the Air Force’s budget in FY24 and FY25, much of which is driven by pay raises mandated by Congress. Even so, the Air Force sometimes comes up short, as it did last summer when inflation, higher-than-expected PCS costs, and retention resulted in the service running out of funding for bonuses and PCS moves, leaving many Airmen and their families in limbo. 

“This is a crippling problem,” researchers with the RAND Corporation wrote in a 2023 report. “The workforce is the foundation for readiness, yet the [Department of the Air Force] … must maintain fiscal flexibility to meet other immediate and future needs.”

Better data on the impact of past bonuses and incentive pays, better integration between Air Force policy planners, and “whole of Air Force” policy games for department officials could result in more efficient policies that are less likely to result in a shortfall, RAND senior operations researcher and retired Air Force veteran Lisa Harrington told Air & Space Forces Magazine in January.

“In our reports, we call for bringing those people responsible for human capital policies together to talk about this in one big group, because there are second order effects across all of these policy changes,” she said.