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The U.S. Air Force is in need of people to help fill as many as 1,000 critical roles in the service. And it’s found a solution: retirees.

That is, retired Air Force personnel who would still be capable of active-duty service. This week the Air Force officially reopened applications for the Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty Program. It did so in order to “leverage the talents of our highly trained and experienced officer and enlisted military retirees to help minimize the service’s critical manning shortages.” This isn’t the first time the Air Force has used this program, but it is an expansion. 

The move comes only a few months after the Air Force shared that it missed its recruiting goals in 2023 by more than 2,500 enlistees. It was the first time the service had fallen short since 1999.

If selected, the retirees-turned-active-duty personnel would be back in service within four-six months. They will serve a maximum of four years once reactivated. There are limitations though. Only retired officers with the ranks of captain to lieutenant colonel can apply, while retired enlisted personnel are limited to staff sergeant up to senior master sergeant. Those selected would fill roles including pilot, air traffic control, logistics and public affairs. 

“The VRRAD program is a strategic enabler to embrace experienced talent, tapping into a valuable resource of retired members to fill critical roles to close the gap against our peer competitors,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, said in a statement.

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The VRRAD program initially launched in 2017, focused on bringing back Air Force pilots. However the Air Force ended it at the close of 2020. It received more than 300 applications from retired pilots, but only hired 120. This revival expands the opportunities and seeks to fill more roles in the Air Force. 

But as Defense One noted, slides about VRRAD posted to the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page show some less than incentivizing details. Retirees who rejoin the Air Force through the program will return to their old rank, but not be eligible for promotion. They also will not be able to get aviation bonuses. However they will still have to meet several requirements including fitness ones and could still be moved via PCS (and have their contract terminated if they decline).  

Like several other branches of the military, the Air Force is struggling to bring in recruits. And like them, the Air Force has tried several incentives, as well as raising the maximum enlistment age. It’s also been trying to retain airmen, offering large bonuses to pilots.

Applications are currently open and those who meet the requirements and are interested have until Jan. 31, 2026 to apply.

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