Air Force Quietly Implements “Stop Loss” Provision to Fill Deployments

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An email circulating among Air Force personnel channels is quietly putting human resource offices on notice of a new service policy that requires airmen to deploy beyond the duration of their service commitments. The new guidance instructs personnelists to deny retirement requests filed by airmen who have been selected to deploy, which basically enacts a back-door conscription policy just one year after the Air Force voluntarily slashed 19,000 airmen from its workforce.

The recent message attempts to explain changes to Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-3203, which the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) relies upon to guide disposition of requests for retirement. The essence of the message is that airmen who are eligible to retire will not be permitted to do so in lieu of an extended deployment unless they gain approval before AFPC selects them to fill a deployed billet.

This is a dramatic change that has not been well-communicated to the field. I spoke with several commanders today at multiple levels, and none had heard about the shift, which they say could create the unintended consequence of encouraging airmen to retire as soon as they are eligible. This would, in turn, exacerbate manning issues that are already crippling many career fields.

An excerpt from the email:

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 for details and other references. AFPC/DPW schedulers
will review all shortfalls citing retirement in lieu of deployment and
returning 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.

Table 2.1, to which the message refers, cites a rule stating the Secretary of the Air Force is authorized to suspend retirement approvals based on various authorities, including Title 10 USC Sec. 12305, (“Authority of President to suspend certain laws relating to promotion, retirement, and separation”), which is the federal law giving the services authority to retain servicemembers beyond their commitments as required by national security. This is the provision known to servicemembers as “Stop Loss.”

This type of measure is ordinarily reserved for national emergencies that unforeseeably outstrip resources and create manning shortages that can only be remedied through extreme measures. The current Air Force manning shortage was not only foreseeable, but self-inflicted, which makes resort to Stop Loss under the circumstances look less like force management than force malpractice.

The imposition of this type of hardship outside of such a context is both a dangerous precedent that could seriously injure retention and yet another alarming signal that the Air Force considers itself on perpetual war footing, unwilling to rest or reset its workforce and self-condemned to an unsustainable tempo.

By invoking Stop Loss in this way, AFPC has dramatically changed the calculus governing retirement decisions and approvals. Given that airmen must request retirement and have it approved by local commanders (as well as AFPC), this change gives the chain of command negative control over the timing of a servicemember’s retirement, and creates an open door to abuse by commanders wracked with deployment bills they can’t pay without compromising unit missions. This new provision will tempt commanders to deny retirements pre-emptively in anticipation of upcoming deployments, locking servicemembers into involuntary service in an “all volunteer” military despite the absence of a service commitment. Anxiety over this type of abuse is precisely why Stop Loss authority is so sparingly used.

It was just this past June that a memo leaked from the Air Staff removed commander discretion to shield key operational personnel from deployments regardless of rationale. This latest move strips away yet another degree of latitude. The trajectory is clear: the Air Force is not going to correct its manning shortage, and is opting instead to brute force its way through its currently unsustainable situation through personnel abuse. Officials have yet to exhaustively scrub deployment rosters, which are bloated with unnecessary billets adding to the strain.

But perhaps most concerning is the sense of surprise among field commanders, indicating that this huge policy shift wasn’t coordinated with those responsible for implementing it and in the best position to gauge how it could potentially impact not only retention decisions, but morale in general.

Personnel policies hatched without accounting for the morale of airmen are a serial Air Force habit, and one that many believe continues to drive it further from its own ethos and value system, not to mention its ability to effectively execute its mission.

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