February 27, 2009: The U.S. military is sharply cutting back on its enlistment, and re-enlistment bonus programs, mainly because the economic recession reduces the competition recruiters get from civilian employers. The U.S. Navy mainly uses bonuses to retain people with rare skills, but even these are being cut. The 33,000 sailors who receive such bonuses will lose, on average, nearly $1,400 each in the coming year. While many sailors will lose all their bonus money, 69 job categories will see increases. These includes people in special operations (SEALs, and some specialists that support them), nuclear power (those who run the nuclear power plants in ships) and many electronics specialties (particularly those connected with the AEGIS anti-missile systems on many ships.)
In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Defense has paid over $100 million in retention bonuses to nearly 2,000 experienced Special Operations operators. Most of those getting the bonuses were Special Forces and SEAL personnel who were eligible for retirement, and being offered high paying civilian security jobs, or simply the prospect of relaxing. Appeals to patriotism, and bonuses of up to $150,000, persuaded most of those operators to stay in uniform. This was a bargain for the government, as well as for troops in question.
It would cost millions of dollars, and nearly a decade of effort, to replace each of those twenty year vets. Bonuses of under $100,000 worked for troops not yet eligible for the half-pay pension. Most of the billions in bonus money goes to a small number of specialists, like Special Forces, SEALs, explosives disposal (they deal with roadside bombs), intelligence and electronics specialists.
The bonus program has been around for decades, but as been used more aggressively in the last decade, as the civilian economy boomed, and increasingly saw highly skilled military personnel as potential hires. Recruiters, while not admitting it, look forward to an occasional recession, to take the heat off.