WASHINGTON -- The Air Force will have to lay off as many as 3,300 junior officers this year and next as it struggles to pare its ranks and reduce its budget, according to the service's top general.
The firings would be the first by any of the armed services during the current drawdown and would mark the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that the Air Force has cut its budget by issuing pink slips to career military officers.
Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force chief of staff, told the Los Angeles Times that the service has drawn up the extraordinary plans because young officers have shunned a special buyout offer in far greater numbers than expected.
"Everybody else in the Air Force will be watching this process," General McPeak said. "We have to come out of this with a little bit of tarnish."
The Air Force cuts indicate the service is bracing for even greater pain than the Army, which hopes to lure 28,400 out of the ranks next year with buyout incentives. Those incentives would give a service member either a lump sum or an annual payment spread over several years, based on the member's rank and length of service.
By early April, more than 21,000 soldiers had applied for the buyout, and the Army has extended the deadline for applications to May 1 in hopes of attracting greater numbers. But Army spokeswoman Maj. Barb Goodno said the service does not believe it will have to issue a large number of pink slips to reach the manpower limits Congress has imposed for 1992.
At this point, the only Army personnel who would be affected by the reductions-in-force are a select group of majors, Major Goodno said. Fewer than 250 such majors -- men and women about 35 years old -- could be cut from the force early.
"The intent is and has been to provide individuals an option to transition voluntarily to the civilian sector," Major Goodno said.
While General McPeak says he believes the Air Force layoffs are now unavoidable, Air Force officials readied plans to lessen the blow by making another appeal for young officers to leave voluntarily.
For the first time, officials said, the Air Force today would extend the buyouts not just to reserve captains and majors, but also to those in the "regular" forces -- the men and women with the best prospects for promotion.
Air Force officials said that unless new volunteers were attracted by the offer, between 2,600 and 3,300 captains and majors would be given their walking papers by the end of 1993.
"We're just about on the maximum glide-slope that we can navigate," said General McPeak, a pilot. If it gets much worse, he said, "we're going to lose control."