On Aug. 10, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah Lee James and the new USAF chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, gave their State of the Air Force addresses. Of the many issues they discussed, one topic consumed more time than I had expected — the Aviator Retention Bonus.
This program, known as “the bonus,” has been offered throughout all U.S. military branches. Congress created it in 1974 through the Aviation Career Incentive Act to stem the exodus of experienced military aviators lured away by growing demand in the civilian market.
The bonus differs from Aviation Career Incentive Pay (ACIP), or “flight pay,” which is paid to officers and enlisted personnel with flight-related duties. That can be considered a scatter-shot payment for the increased hazards of aviation duty, whereas the bonus targets aviators in retention-sensitive periods of their careers in specific retention-critical specialties where smaller losses are more devastating to unit readiness.
More than asking for a continuation to the Aviator Retention Bonus, the pair requested something that has yet to happen in the 21st century: an increase to the bonus amounts. This immediately led to some bitter discussions, as the military tries to cut back on personnel and find clever ways of tightening its purse strings. Many also have argued that military pilots do not warrant additional benefits beyond their flight pay.
The bonus has been divisive since its inception, especially now that remotely pilot aircraft (RPA) aviators are receiving larger bonuses than those filling the seats in the skies. Most of the arguments are grounded in: “No, because I never got it;” or, “Yes, because I like money.” Neither of those birds can fly, though, because they’re based on an individual’s experiences and desires rather than what is best for the overall force.
The argument is better based on answers to: Does the bonus work? Is it good for the needs of the military and the nation? Is taxpayer money wisely spent? Does it increase military aviation career longevity? Does it lower costs of accidents and training?
Emotions must be set aside and the decision must rely on many years of extensive research, meta-analysis, logic and even some “smart-people math.” Much of the research points to one similar conclusion: by increasing retention bonuses, the targeted population’s likelihood of remaining also increases. A 1996 analysis on the topic used a lot of convincingly long words to conclude that pilots would stay if they were more satisfied with their financial status than dissatisfied by the long deployments, increased risks and other issues inherent in the military lifestyle.
Currently, annual aviator retention bonuses can reach $18,000 for Marine Corps aviators, up to $25,000 for Air Force, Navy and select Army aviators, and up to $35,000 for some RPA aviators. Civilian pilots are paid an average of just under $80,000 and top out at more than $180,000 — significantly higher than what military aviators can expect. Couple that with civilian pilot positions opening in increasing numbers and it’s easy to see why the military has issues retaining the most successful and experienced talents.
But America depends on its air superiority to maintain world peace and to successfully wage war. This hasn’t occurred by accident or because we wished it. The military has developed this dominance by continually improving itself. Trained and experienced aviators are required to perform extraordinarily difficult tasks. For every old aviator that leaves, another must be selected, trained and assigned, taking time and money.
Aviators are deployed globally supporting U.S. interests. Drone pilots suffer burnout from increasing demands. Everyone does that for less, with less. The military services must retain talented aviators. The cost of not doing this is far higher than that incurred by the bonuses. Otherwise, military aviation risks becoming merely a training ground for civilian companies.
So the answer is all in the numbers. If they show that the bonus works to retain quality aviators, it should be maintained or increased. If not, then the military must find other inventive ways of retaining fine aviators. All other arguments must be considered secondary. R&WI