The Air Force has announced that any Airman or Guardian who has not received the COVID-19 vaccine will not be allowed to permanent change of station (PCS). This newest move runs parallel to similar stances in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
While the Navy and Marine Corps have already said vaccine refusers will get the boot, it is still not clear what the Air Force intends to do with those who refuse.
A Shot Across the Bow
A memo that began circulating on Facebook and Reddit November 23 shows that beginning November 29, any Air Force members who have not been fully vaccinated, begun the vaccination process, or don’t have an approved waiver, will not be allowed to PCS, unless they are already in the process of moving. This PCS freeze affects those overseas as well, with date eligible to return from overseas (DEROS) being pushed back in 120-day increments. Those DEROS dates are set early in the overseas PCS process. Force projections are often based on those dates.
What is this going to mean for the Air Force? A lot of headache and heartache, that’s what. When a servicemember PCS’s overseas, the report no later than date (RNLTD) and DEROS are already set. Force projections have already been determined, and there are a finite number of stations a returning member can move to. Determining numbers at individual bases is a balancing act: how many will be lost to attrition? How many will “rank up” and be moved to other sections or units? Solid dates for incoming Airmen and Guardians give planners the best guess for how to allocate people.
Will the Air Force Vaccine Policy Affect Manning?
Determining a requirement, giving it a drop-dead date, then throwing a wrench into the plan is the antithesis of efficiency. The coronavirus introduced complications no one could have foreseen, but the response has been haphazard at best. With this newest policy, planning for manpower is reaching a critical point.
Put it this way: Airman Snuffy is scheduled to PCS to RAF Mildenhall in the U.K., with an RNLTD of January 15, 2022. He hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet, so his RNLTD has been pushed back 120 days to 15 May. Airman Dufflebag has a DEROS of January 30, 2022, and he is slated to go to Cannon AFB, NM. Snuffy would PCS in, high-five Duffelbag on the way out, and a one-for-one swap would occur. Duffelbag has already been in touch with his sponsor at Cannon, and knows he is taking Airman Snoopy’s place because Snoopy has decided the grass really is greener in civilian clothes.
Now, Snuffy can’t move to England in January. That means Duffelbag can’t leave in January because who is going to take his place? But Duffelbag has all his shots! Why can’t he leave on his DEROS? Snoopy doesn’t care because he already has an approved separation date, and he is out the door in March, right on time. But wait, who will take Snoopy’s place now that Duffelbag is stuck in England? Maybe some poor Airman fresh out of tech school, with absolutely no experience, will get last-minute orders that throw his life into a tail-spin. Thought you were heading to California? Nope, now you’re going to Clovis! Too bad his wife already had a job lined up in Cali; maybe the same opportunity is available in New Mexico.
Probably, nobody will fill Snoopy’s place at Cannon. All of Snoopy’s experience is now gone, and there is a hole in the manning document where Deuffelbag’s name should have been. That is a hole that will have to be filled from the existing pool of Airmen at Cannon. Maybe someone else out there will get short-notice, surprise orders to Cannon. Maybe Snuffy will get his shots, PCS to England, and Duffelbag can take his rightful place at Cannon, albeit four months late. More likely, someone else has already been slotted into Snoopy’s manpower position, and Duffelbag will receive new orders to fill a slot vacated by someone else who is not vaccinated. Now he and his family have to readjust because they have been planning a move to New Mexico. Now they’re headed to California to fill a slot originally meant for a new trainee. Who now is filling a role meant for a seasoned maintainer. Oh, where does the experience go?
Clear as Mud
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall made it perfectly clear during a virtual town hall what the penalty for refusing the vaccine would be: “The bottom line is that willfully disobeying a lawful order is incompatible with military service. And to get a vaccination is a lawful order,” said Kendall.
“The Secretary of Defense put that order out. We’re implementing it in the Air Force. There isn’t any question about it being a lawful order. We have to do a lot of things to take care of the health of the force, and people have been required to get vaccinations for a number of things,” he added.
Kendall made it perfectly clear that disobeying an order is incompatible with service. He also made it perfectly clear the vaccine mandate was an order. He did not, however, make it clear what the penalty for disobeying that order would be. The Navy says get the shot, get an exemption, or get out. The Marine Corps says get the shot, get an exemption, or get out. The Marines even left the door open for “scorched-earth” separations by stating general court-martial convening authorities will “retain authority to take any additional adverse administrative or disciplinary action” deemed appropriate.
The Army and Air Force both have paved the way for administrative actions to be taken. The Army says those who refuse the vaccine will not be allowed to re-enlist, be promoted, or have any other favorable personnel actions.
With the Air Force halting PCS moves until members are compliant, the two services show they remember their shared roots. When it comes to the vaccine, will the Army and Air Force fall in step with their water-based brothers? Will they figure out a work-around to retain members until some solid guidance comes down? Will Airman Duffelbag ever get out of England?