When the fiscal year 2023 defense policy bill became law in December 2022, Congress authorized the military to boost its pilot retention bonuses in response to a long-running pilot shortage exacerbated by a private sector hiring spree.

The law increased the maximum annual amount of the aviation incentive from $35,000 for each additional year of service to $50,000 per year.

But nearly a year later, the Army and Navy still cannot use the larger bonuses because the Office of the Secretary of Defense is yet to update a policy document that controls pilot incentives, according to military spokespeople and documents obtained by Military Times.

Both services still await answers about exceptions to policy requests that would permit them to start paying the higher amount. (The Marine Corps acknowledged emailed questions from Military Times but did not respond before this story’s publication deadline.)

“The Department appreciates Congress’s actions to increase the maximum bonus amount allowed by law for aviation officer career specialties,” said Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, in an emailed statement. She noted that all branches independently determine how to pay bonuses (within DoD policy) as one of many tools used to meet their individual retention needs.

Schwegman, who did not provide an estimated timeline for the Pentagon to complete the bonus policy revision, added that branches “may request an exception to current policy to pay higher bonuses.”

The Air Force received such an exception and started doling out bigger bonuses in June, according to Air Force spokesperson Laurel Falls. The temporary authority lasts through September 2025, should the DoD policy update drag out.

The Army, meanwhile, wants to use the bigger bonuses but can’t, according to a bonus planning document obtained by Military Times. The branch wants to offer warrant officer pilots $250,000 in return for five years of service, and it has requested an exception to policy, according to the document.

Army Lt. Col. Andy Thaggard, spokesperson for the service’s aviation proponent, confirmed that the Army is “working with sister services to request a permanent increase within the [DoD policy document].”

Along with the Army, the Navy’s personnel command “has submitted an exception to policy request to raise the aviation bonus cap,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brophy, a spokesperson for the Navy. He added that an “exception to policy request was submitted to OSD this month and is currently pending approval.”

It’s not clear why the Army and Navy’s respective exceptions to policy requests are languishing. Bureaucratic delays can have significant consequences. According to the document, the Army’s fiscal 2023 aviation bonuses went partially unused, which planners blamed on “late release” of the personnel message authorizing it.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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