The selective retention bonus is the U.S. military’s take on an old Army recruiting poster. The twist is that Uncle Sam not only wants you but wants to keep you. Badly in many cases.
The SRB program, whether it’s Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force or Coast Guard, is a means, albeit an expensive one, of not only fortifying branches of the service but shaping respective workforces to meet ever-changing needs.
“Especially in a tight labor market like what we see today, it may be much better for the military to retain a trained, proven service member than to recruit, train and hope that new enlistees prove to be fit for military service,” said Brig. Gen. Mike Meese, president of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association.
“Retention bonuses are very advantageous because they can target specific specialties, ranks and other qualifications so that the military can get exactly who they need. They can also incentivize individuals to change specialties.”
Too many engineers, not enough drone pilots? Meese says a reenlistment bonus could target those service members who have demonstrated an aptitude and willingness to join a new specialty.
Across all military branches, retention bonuses are offered to service members who reenlist under certain conditions and for specific military occupational specialties (MOS).
MOS lists include a wide range of jobs, more than 10,000 different specialties, carried out by members of the U.S. armed forces.
The goal of selective retention bonuses is to keep qualified service members in uniform. They’re also used to support and staff certain career fields deemed critical at a level acceptable to the Department of Defense.
Not all reenlistees are eligible for military pay as part of the SRB program, and not all retention bonuses are calculated the same.
Eligibility is determined by the Defense Accounting and Finance Service (DFAS) based on whether service members meet certain DoD requirements:
- Be qualified in a military specialty paying retention bonuses.
- Carry a ranking of E-3 or higher.
- Typically must reenlist within three months of the date of discharge, though some exceptions exist allowing a shorter period of time.
- Service members must reenlist in Regular Component within three months of release from Active Duty as a member of Reserve Component.
- Must fall into a “zone” of conditions for reenlistment.
The DFAS uses different zones to account for years of active-duty service. They’re as simple as A, B, C, though “simple” isn’t an accurate term for a program that isn’t the easiest to navigate for service members.
- Zone A. Requires two to six years of active duty.
- Zone B. Requires six to 10 years of active service.
- Zone C. Requires 10 to 14 years of active service.
Some restrictions may apply to certain branches of the military, but in general, eligibility in Zone A requires 21 months of continuous active duty (this excludes reserve training). There’s an eligibility cap at six years of active duty.
Zone A service members are required to reenlist in the Regular Component of the Service for at least three years and can’t have previously received SRB Zone A money. One exception is the Navy 6-year program.
The service member is required to have at least six years but no more than 10 years of active service on the date of reenlistment or the beginning of the extension of enlistment.
Extension or reenlistment must stretch at least three years and at least 10 when added to years of active service. Those who received a Zone B SRB are ineligible.
Zone C eligibility requires service members to have at least 10 but no more than 14 years of active duty. The three-year minimum applies as above.
Reenlistment Bonus: Army
Zone eligibility is fairly straightforward, but Meese believes eligibility respective to certain branches of the military can get complicated.
“It is a bit complicated, and even reading the official bonus information (example) from the Army can seem complex,” Meese said. “To the extent that bonuses could be simplified, that would be helpful.”
Late in the summer of 2019, the Army announced it would increase bonuses significantly to keep experienced soldiers in uniform. It offered maximum reenlistment bonuses in such areas as cyber ops, intelligence and Special Forces.
The current max SRB in the Army is $25,000 per year of reenlistment. The Army allows two SRBs for a total of $200,000 for a four-year reenlistment.
Reenlistment Bonus: Air Force
The Air Force offers selective retention bonuses in “certain select military skills.” Those skills in many cases have retention shortfalls or high training costs.
The Air Force made 63 different career fields eligible for the SRB program in 2022.
Areas include Cryptologic Language Analysts (Chinese, Russian), Special Reconnaissance, Aircraft Maintenance, Pharmacy and dozens of MOS in between.
The Air Force lists the maximum bonus authorized at $100,000 per zone. Career cap is $360,000.
Reenlistment Bonus: Navy
The Navy made 78 additional ratings SRB-eligible in 2020 while decreasing pay for others. Some of those skill sets included aviation boatswain’s mate (launch and recovery), aviation electrician’s mates, and ships surface electrical advanced maintenance.
Bonuses were available in increments up to $30,000, $45,000, $60,000, $75,000 and $100,000 — depending on the Navy’s need.
The Navy offers a general calculation of SRB arrived at by multiplying your basic pay by the number of SRB eligible months reenlisting (divided by 12) then multiplying by the SRB award level in the respective zone.
Reenlistment Bonus: Marines
Selective reenlistment bonuses change often to fit critical needs. For instance, in 2020, the Marine Corps SRB program included kickers for early reenlistment, aviation maintenance, air traffic controller and squad leader.
Depending on the specialty, the zone and the rank, SRB bonuses in the Marine Corps can pay anywhere from $6,400 to $50,000.
Reenlistment Bonus: Coast Guard
The Coast Guard has used the retention bonus program since Congress first approved it in 1965. Since 2011, the Critical Rate Management Workgroup and its successor, the MWPT (Military Workforce Planning Team), have used SRBs to manage critical ratings.
“The Coast Guard experienced a shortage of Operations Specialists between 2014 and 2020,” said Captain Rusty Dash, of the Coast Guard Recruiting Command. “In response, the MWPT applied well-targeted interventions — including accessions bonuses and retention bonuses — to improve rating health.
“As a result of these interventions, the OS workforce has gradually improved, from critical shortages (<95% strength) to a current strength of 97%. Current critical employment shortages (<95% strength) within the Coast Guard include Aviation Survival Technicians, Boatswains Mates, Culinary Specialists, Electricians Mates, and Electronics Technicians.”
Dash said approximately 500 active-duty enlisted members received an SRB every year (2015-21 average). The majority of bonus recipients are in the E5 pay grade.
Calculating bonuses for certain specialties may not be helpful today since they could change tomorrow.
“The goal of the Coast Guard’s MWPT is to mitigate short-term issues in the Coast Guard’s workforce,” Dash said. “Therefore, the way bonuses are used changes every year to ensure the Service is targeting the appropriate ratings and specialties in a meaningful way. This could include increasing or decreasing bonus amounts or which part of the workforce is being targeted.”
For instance, the Navy trimmed retention bonuses in 2019 when many specialties approached maximum quotas, then expanded the program a year later with a revised policy that allowed sailors to reenlist up to a year ahead of their end-of-service date.
In general, Meese said he believes the programs have met their intended goal and that there is enough flexibility built in to satisfy ever-changing needs.
“The disadvantage,” Meese said, “is that (SRBs) can be expensive for the service, and for the individual as a lump sum … they may not always spend it wisely. That is why we encourage those receiving bonuses to consult with AAFMAA or others who can provide objective information about how to stretch that bonus for longer-term family needs.
“Encouraging service members to save part of their bonus, tax free as part of the Thrift Savings Plan, could be a useful improvement.”
About The Author
After a 45-year career in journalism, Robert's focus is helping consumers cope with personal finance issues. Finding solutions to paying off credit card debt, mortgage payments and that darn student loan, is far more fulfilling than explaining why the Cleveland Browns can't win (It's the quarterback!!). Robert wrote about the Browns and all Cleveland sports as a columnist at the Plain Dealer before transitioning to television sports commentary at WKYC. Now, his passion is helping people navigate their personal finances.
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