Air Force Offers Stop Loss Clarification, But Confusion Lingers


Pentagon

Note: this story has been updated to incorporate an additional Air Force response provided after press time.

As first reported here, the Air Force recently tightened its rules for approving retirement requests, striking from the books a standing rule that had traditionally allowed eligible airmen to retire in lieu of deployment.

That prerogative was liquidated, giving the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) the latitude to force an additional deployment out of airmen before retirement so long as the deployment notification preceded approval to retire. The rule change relied upon, inter alia, federal law giving service secretaries broad discretion to hold members in uniform involuntarily to fulfill exigent manpower requirements — a practice known as Stop Loss.

In response to that original reporting, the service belatedly issued a series of public statements attempting to explain the policy change and distance itself, perceptually if not substantively, from the inflammatory perception it was using Stop Loss authority.

In an email, spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns offered the following:

The policies governing an Airman’s ability to separate or retire when tasked for deployment have not changed nor have the rules or applications associated with Stop Loss. As found in AFI 36-3203 (Table 2.1):

1. Airmen whose enlistment contract expires and/or whose Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC) expires prior to the end of a deployment tasking can still apply for separation/retirement in lieu of deploying.

2. Airmen whose enlistment contract goes beyond and/or whose ADSC does not expire prior to the end of a deployment tasking can request relief to retire or separate only if they can demonstrate extreme personal hardship.

3. Airmen whose enlistment contract goes beyond and/or whose ADSC does not expire prior to the end of a deployment tasking and cannot demonstrate extreme personal hardship will be required to deploy.

The Air Force is not implementing Stop Loss for all or even some deployments. Stop Loss is a force retention tool implemented judiciously, in total across the force and not in individual circumstances, and is only used in a time of war or national emergency as prescribed in law.

His response essentially mirrors a statement given by spokeswoman Rose Richeson in an Air Force Times follow-up. However, it is somewhat inconsistent with Karns’ own previous statement, in which he didn’t deny Stop Loss authority was being put into place and instead implied giving commanders broad latitude to suspend retirements as required was necessitated by a dynamic global security situation:

“We operate in a volatile, uncertain and complex global environment and the Air Force is more in demand than ever. The terminology ‘may suspend’ retirement does not constitute a certainty. The [Air Force Instruction] looks to responsibly address a range of possibility against the backdrop of an uncertain global dynamic and budget environment.”

Still, at first blush, the more recent statement is helpful for airmen and commanders in the field struggling to make sense of the change. It appears to provide clear guidance on the intent behind the policy, even if it lacks the imprimatur of having been delivered by a general officer or senior executive. In theory, this gives airmen something upon which to hang their hats. No Stop Loss, says Karns, and no change to longstanding retirement policies.

★          ★           ★          ★          ★

But, as is often the case, interpretations governing what happens in the field differ considerably from the seemingly clear policy statements provided by public relations professionals at headquarters. Messages circulating among commanders and their staffs directly contradict Karns’ most recent statement, demonstrating there is still confusion among personnel and deployment officials about the meaning of the recent policy change.

Here’s an excerpt of an email obtained by JQP, sanitized of identifying information (emphasis mine):

ALCON – New policy for AFPC and important for our folks to understand, esp as we enter the next AEF band taskings.  Members who are tasked to deploy and then decide to drop retirement papers will not be [exempted] from the deployment tasking.  Members can apply for retirement date after their projected return from deployment date, but they will be required to accept the deployment.

—–Original Message—–

Subject: FW: Deployment and Retirement

BLUF:  In most cases, retirement in lieu of deployment, once officially tasked, is no longer authorized.

BACKGROUND:  AFI 36-3203, dated 18 Sep 2015, removes most justification for retirement in lieu of deployment once officially tasked.  See Table 2.1, Rules 3 and 4 for rotational and 365-day deployment issues, as well as paragraph 3.1.1.1.4 for details and other references. AFPC … will review all shortfalls citing retirement in lieu of deployment and [return] them to units without action. [Members in upcoming] vulnerability periods should carefully consider this new policy and solidify their retirement plans prior to being tasked for a deployment.

ACTION REQUIRED:  Please pass this information to your unit members.

This message was sent to every member on one of the service’s largest headquarters staffs (including senior-most officials) — an action reportedly mimicked at other major commands. It should be taken to represent how AFPC understands the new policy, how it is advising leaders in the field as a result of that understanding, and how, in turn, leaders in the field are advising their airmen.

The email differs from the Air Force’s most recent official statement in a number of key ways.

First, it makes no distinction between members based on their remaining service commitments or retainability. The dispositive fact is whether a member has an approved retirement in the system.

Second, regarding Karns’ insistence that “policies governing an Airman’s ability to separate or retire when tasked for deployment have not changed,” the message directly refutes this, stating the new instruction “removes most justification for retirement in lieu of deployment once officially tasked.” Clearly, at least as airmen in the field understand it, the policy has indeed changed. Moreover, the rules referenced in the email give AFPC the latitude to do precisely what Karns says will not be done.

Finally, while Karns insists this is not Stop Loss, the authority relied upon in the AFI 36-3203 table to which the email directs recipients for guidance is indeed drawn, in part, from the Stop Loss statute of the US Code.

Neither the email circulating the field nor the new AFI make any mention of the constraining intent resident in Karns’ clear policy statement, which leaves open the possibility that AFPC will interpret its latitude more expansively than the Air Staff might have intended. In a follow-up inquiry, I asked whether the Air Force would provide AFPC and field commanders with more clear and restrictive guidance mirroring Karns’ public release. In response, Karns asserted that “[w]ork will be done to ensure information is clarified via leadership channels. Commanders can ensure information is clarified via Commander’s Calls and other forums.” This response indicates that the Air Force will not explicitly bind AFPC to the interpretation Karns provided. Moreover, it doesn’t address the existing confusion among commanders about the meaning and impact of the policy change. Since this story first broke, I’ve received multiple reports from officers stating that even their headquarters personnel offices don’t know how to interpret the new rules, meaning there’s really no chance they’ve given commanders in the field a clear grasp.

The danger here is a familiar one for anyone who had studied the operation of federal agencies. The AFI change at issue gives AFPC broad latitude, which will be exercised against the crushing pressure of constant requirements that endemically outstrip available airmen. AFPC will respond by exercising the grant it has been given to the fullest extent, calculating that to do anything less would be viewed as willful failure. In this case, even Karns’ seemingly clear interpretation doesn’t settle the issue. It provides that certain airmen may request retirement in lieu of deployment, but that doesn’t mean AFPC will necessarily approve such requests, and the new guidance grants AFPC the latitude to disapprove as it sees fit, falling back on virtually unlimited discretion intended for use in Stop Loss situations.

This risks making Stop Loss a de facto element of personnel practice — a normalized deviation from intent — even if it isn’t explicitly adopted. This is a more insidious and ultimately injurious use of authority that is intended, as Karns stipulates, for a different use. This brand of application has the same impact on airmen and families without clearly announcing itself or weathering the scrutiny that should accompany its enactment.

AFPC is already acting on the new authority, notwithstanding Karns’ contention to the contrary in his earlier email. Not only are schedulers rejecting deployment exemptions citing retirement as their rationale, but the new limitation on retirement approval has already shown up on the service’s official outlet for administrative guidance. Here’s an except from the “MyPers” website listing the basic requirements for eligibility (my emphasis):

1. Complete 20 or more years of Total Active Federal Military Service (TAFMS) AND

2. Fulfill your Active Duty Service Commitments (ADSC) AND

3. Not have an assignment/assignment selection date or be tasked for a 365-day TDY AND

4. Not have other factors that can affect your retirement eligibility and retirement date; such as, undergoing investigation (civil or military), Article 15, or court martial action AND

5. (For officers) Complete 10 or more years of Total Active Federal Commissioned Service (TAFCS).

This makes clear that at least where 365-day TDYs are concerned, what matters is having an approved retirement before being tasked, regardless of service commitment.

I asked the Air Force for guidance in resolving the differences between guidance in the field, official instructions, and previous headquarters statements. In response, the service replied simply that “[t]he current execution policy to determine eligibility for [a]irmen to separate or retire in lieu of deployment depending on retainability is located at Table 2.1 (Rules 3 and 4 ) in AFI 36-3203, Service Retirements.” This is the exact policy causing confusion, making this particular Air Force response totally useless.

Despite efforts to clarify this mess, at least three important questions await answers, though it is apparent those answers are not forthcoming:

  1. What authority does AFPC have to deny retirement to fill a deployment, and does AFPC understand its limitations the same way Karns has expressed them?
  2. What authority do commanders possess to deny a retirement request in order to fill a deployment billet or to approve a retirement request in the face of a deployment tasking?
  3. What remedies do airmen have in the event the AFI is applied in a manner inconsistent with Karns’ statement of official intent, which does not appear in any official instruction?

As these questions hover, they feed uncertainty, likely driving many airmen to request retirement for fear of a bolt out of the blue. Hopefully, the service will provide comprehensive and final clarity, which will require that it first develop a collective sense of what authority it is exercising over requests for hard-earned retirement, and on what basis. Such hope is unlikely to be vindicated, which means airmen will remain subject to a free-floating doctrine rather than a stable rule set.

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