A year ago, the Air Force began corporately acknowledging what everyone else already knew — that it was dangerously short on pilots and projecting a future situation where it would not have enough of them to complete its mission.

Knowing it was headed for the worst pilot shortage in its history, the service began rolling out sizeable retention bonuses featuring new policy innovations designed to stabilize its manning equation. One of those innovations is now shaping up to be a new a potentially explosive source of contention between the service and its most essential career field.

As part of the FY16 Aviator Retention Pay (ARP) program, the Air Force invited pilots who were not yet eligible but would be in the following fiscal year to sign up early. The idea was a symbiotic measure of predictability. Individual airmen could “lock in” participation in a bonus program offering them $25,000/year to extend their service and plan their lives, while the USAF could achieve a more accurate prediction of the size of its future shortage, thereby enhancing the shape of future retention initiatives. Underlying this scheme was the idea that those willing to lock in by showing their cards early would be among the service’s most enthusiastic and committed pilots.

But things have gotten sideways. The question now on the table is what happens to those who lock in early only to find that the bonus increases in value significantly following year. This year’s ARP package is offering pilots in some career families $35,000/year — 40% more than last year.

This possibility was contemplated in last year’s rulebook (see highlight):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guys signing up early took this as a good faith “opt-in” clause indemnifying them against the risk of lost opportunity due to early action. They thought the USAF was saying “don’t worry … if we offer more next year, we’ll let you opt in at the higher amount.”

They were, it now appears, wrong to place that much faith in the service. What those officers are being told when they try to opt in is that if they want the higher bonus payouts, they must commit to an additional year of service commitment. They’ll get five bonus payments but be expected to serve six additional years.

How is this legal, one might ask? The Air Force has an answer to that question, though it has not been explained publicly. It is better described as an idea fragment relayed to inquiring officers in reportedly snark-laden email responses from the unfortunate bean counter charged with managing this mess.

The answer is that the language of the FY16 program gives the Air Force the power to extend pilots if they opt in. This is supposedly because of the following language, which each pilot agreed was binding when they locked in as early takers:

The USAF is saying that the unpacked version of “and/or” is the right of the service to ask for an additional year in order to activate the opt-in clause in the FY16 rulebook. The officers involved thought this provision simply meant that the new contract to opt them in could be longer.

To justify its interpretation, the Air Force is falling back on an excerpt from DOD Instruction 7730.67:

The Air Force’s lawyers and personnelists are reading this to say that if they want to let officers opt in for a higher bonus amount, they have no choice but to obligate those officers to additional service.

A few observations.

First, the lawyers are wrong. This clause isn’t saying they have to get something for nothing (which by the way is never acceptable grounds for any contract), as they are attempting to do by requiring six years of commitment for a higher annual bonus over five years. This is just saying that once a bonus is signed, activating an opt-in provision requires a longer contract than the original.

But second, there’s no reason it needs to be an additional year. An additional day, week, month, or half-year would meet the legal requirement here (assuming this DODI is a valid interpretation of the legislative grant of authority from which ARP springs, which is by no means certain). By adding a year, the service begs the question why not two or five years more? It’s an arbitrary extension, and by virtue of its arbitrariness cannot be seen as a valid means of satisfying a contractual requirement.

Finally, and most interestingly, this instruction did not exist when the FY16 early takers made their decisions. It was published months later, in October. The rules governing their opt-in decisions should not spring from this DODI, but whatever rule was in effect at the time they signed. If no rule existed addressing this situation, they’re entitled to the plain language in their agreements, which would allow them to opt-in without any additional service commitment.

Basically what we have here is another example of personnel weenies and pencil sharpening so-called laywers screwing an operationally critical issue into a cocked hat. Why responsible officers continue to allow this is one of the great mysteries of the USAF’s organizational plummet these past years.

This is real simple. Act in good faith and expect your people to do the same. When they show their commitment, tuck them under your big blue wing and take care of them, resisting the temptation to look for a cloud in the silver lining.

Now, before we go too far in hanging this rotting albatross around the neck of the Air Staff, where it assuredly belongs, it’s important to cast a glance at a few other inconvenient truths.

First, the men and women caught up in this are highly educated pilots who operate high-performance aircraft in combat for a living. Many of them are career fast burners. They can’t claim a lack of bargaining power constrained them from a fair deal in FY16 ARP negotiations. Nor can they claim the USAF engaged in fraud. There is a clause containing sufficient vagary to portend the mess that has ensued, and they knew or should have known that opting in would come with additional requirements of some sort. They knew the USAF would have them on the hook at a certain price, and therefore needed to expect from a basic business perspective that it would want something in return for paying a higher price.

And this arrives us at the second point, which is that trusting the Air Force — especially its personnel bureaucracy — is a known hazard. It’s unfortunate to reach for this level of cynicism, but after the events of the past few years, no one can reasonably expect a clean, hassle-free deal from the USAF. Its senior officers commonly behave like used camel salesmen at a Persian bazaar. Anyone signing a deal proffered by one of these professional Charlatans should expect the camel might be missing a hump.

And just to be clear, this cohort has pretty much no legal leverage. There’s nothing that will invalidate their old contracts and there’s nothing making them enter new ones. They are all bound by their original agreements unless they’re willing to be coerced into new ones.

But obviously, if the USAF finds itself falling back on legal authority in this situation, it loses. This is a moral issue. Playing shell games will forfeit the goodwill Gen. Goldfein and his team have worked to rebuild over the past year. That would be truly unfortunate. This isn’t about contracts or DODIs. It’s about a group of the service’s most fired-up officers extending inadvisable trust to their chain of command, and that chain of command proving their trust inadvisable.

This crystallizes the core problem with the Air Force’s management of its pilots and its response to the shortage crisis … it is missing the forest for the pine cones. What good will it do to save a couple hundred thousand dollars if you lose the faith and confidence of people who were so eager to extend it to you that they signed up for a long-term commitment before they were required to do so? The officers ensnared in this are exactly the people the service needs to retain, and it is now flirting with the prospect of souring its relationship with them as they begin their rise to positions of unit leadership.

If this is going to be the decision, it needs to be explained transparently by someone with a C- prefix. All these pilots are getting now is seething burst-transmit emails sandwiched between pregnant spans of radio silence, ignored phone calls, and non-answers with layers of vagary that would make an insurance adjuster proud.

It would be a shame if this turned into yet another social media campaign to interest legislators in an issue that commanders and senior staff should be able to handle tomorrow morning with a 5-minute meeting and some clear direction.

I hope to see Gen. Goldfein to unscrew this mess post haste, and get this small but committed group onside and combat-focused rather than distracted by lobbying their Wg/CCs and writing their Congressmen. Yes, they could have been more wily a year ago and held off on signing early. Is that really what we want? Important answer, because it’s exactly what will happen from now on unless these guys get the same deal as colleagues who held their cards close.

With tactics like these, we’re still off-course in fixing the pilot problem.