The US Air Force increases the annual retention bonus for pilots to $50,000.

US Air Force pilots can now earn up to $50,000 a year in bonuses under a pair of programs designed to keep airmen in their uniforms.

The perennial shortage of pilots in the military is driving the Air Force’s monetary bonuses to new heights as it tries to bolster its air force in anticipation of a possible war with China.

Under the new version of the bonus program, airmen who sign a new contract this year will receive between $15,000 and $50,000 a year for three to 12 years, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Rachel Salpietra said. In total, the Airmen could receive between $45,000 and $600,000 in bonuses over the course of their new commitment. Some can get one-time payments of $100,000 or $200,000 upfront, depending on their job and how long they stay in the service.

The agreement applies to manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, air battle chiefs and combat systems officers whose initial 10-year service commitments expire in fiscal year 2023, which ends on September 30. The service will accept applications starting Tuesday and running through September 15.

Next year, the maximum annual sum of $50,000 will only be available to active duty manned aircraft pilots who re-sign with the Air Force during the eighth or ninth year of their initial 10-year contract. In this way, pilots will be able to extend their service for four more years, that is, a total of 14 years, with a premium of $200,000.

Congress created this initiative, known as the Classified Officer Retention Demonstration Program, late last year to provide more predictability to the Air Force’s aviation workforce. When people renew their commitments earlier, it reduces the number of those who might decide to leave at the last minute, leaving the Air Force scrambling to fill those positions. The program expires at the end of December 2028.

Those who do not participate in the congressionally imposed program and wait to renew until the year their contract expires will receive a smaller amount in premiums each year. That amount has been capped at $35,000 a year in recent years.

It’s unclear how many airmen chose to take the money and extend their Air Force careers in fiscal year 2022. The service is asking Congress for $250 million to fund aviation-related bonuses in fiscal year 2024.

The Air Force has been brushing the edges of a 2,000-pilot shortage for years. Each year, it expects to employ about 13,000 active duty pilots, plus another 8,000 or so in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

Various factors include commercial airline contracting, military flight instructor shortages, slowing aircraft maintenance, changes in America’s warfare position abroad, and the reduction of the Force’s fleet. Airlines have created a long-running shortfall that makes the service more vulnerable in a potential crisis.

Military simulations conducted by the United States have predicted heavy losses in an air war with China, which the Pentagon calls its “pacing challenge,” or the top military competitor threatening to outpace the United States in technological advances and tactical.

The extra pay is one of the levers the military has tried to avoid the harshest consequences, as well as an initiative to steer pilots away from office jobs and other quality-of-life improvements.

“Our seasoned Airmen are uniquely qualified to succeed in a combat environment,” Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, the Air Force’s director of training and readiness, said in Monday’s statement. “These incentives are necessary to keep that talent and competitive with our pace challenge.”

Rachel S Cohen