This story was updated Feb. 21 to reflect that, if offered, eight-year active duty enlistment contracts would not be mandatory for new enlistees.

The Space Force is considering giving prospective guardians the option to enlist for an initial term of eight years on active duty — twice as long as first-term troops usually sign up for — in a bid to build a more stable workforce to span the coming decades.

It’s one change to personnel policies now under consideration as the Space Force looks to break typical military molds and craft a workforce that meets its unique needs as the Pentagon’s newest and smallest branch.

“I know eight years is a big commitment to make if you’re 20 years old, 21 years old,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force John Bentivegna told Air Force Times Jan. 11. “But let me explain to you … the training you’ll get, the opportunities you’re going to get, the experience you’ll have — it takes time.”

All enlisted troops across the armed forces are already required to agree to at least eight years in uniform. But most serve out a four- or six-year term on active duty before spending the remaining time in the individual ready reserve — a pool of former active duty, National Guard and Reserve troops who can still be called up in an emergency.

Instead, the Space Force could ask guardians to spend their entire enlistment on active duty. Once those eight years are up, they would be off the hook — with no commitment to the individual ready reserve.

In a statement emailed after publication, Bentivegna clarified that the idea would not be mandatory for new enlistees.

“If offered, in addition to 4- and 6-year enlistments, 8-year enlistment options would be voluntary and tied to a potential incentive bonus,” he said. “The Space Force is carefully considering the impact of voluntary extended enlistment contracts; we have proposed a third-party study on the impact of this concept.”

Bentivegna hopes that a new set of policies, which will allow guardians to toggle between full-time and part-time service while remaining on active duty, can offer the enlisted force more flexibility while keeping them in uniform longer.

The idea is on the table because the Space Force, established in 2019, has discovered that its enlisted recruits skew older — averaging 22 years old — and are more educated than those of the other services. Rather than joining the military straight out of high school, 40% of those recruits enlist after earning an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree, the service said last month.

The Space Force also handles a niche set of highly technical missions, like cyber operations, electronic warfare and space-based intelligence, using an enlisted workforce of more than 4,000 people. All enlisted guardians must pass the background checks and polygraphs needed to receive a top secret/secure compartmented information clearance as well.

Because its recruits come in with more skill, and because the force is so small, the service doesn’t want to lose that expertise — or the money and time it takes to train guardians in those fields — after just four years.

The service will also explore how to structure re-enlistment bonuses and other incentives to avoid losing them to lucrative jobs in the space and cyber industries once the eight years are up.

“A guardian’s journey doesn’t end at the traditional four- or six-year mark, which enables the service to build the technical depth and expertise we need for great power competition,” Bentivegna said in a follow-up email from a spokesperson Jan. 30. “We are working to enrich their experience through technical training schools, fully qualified promotion policies, bonuses and [reimagining] our professional military education.”

Speaking at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air Warfare Symposium on Wednesday, Bentivegna noted that the U.S. also needs to reform military pay and benefits to make service more enticing and sustainable for those who do opt into years in uniform.

“That model that we’re looking at may be just a little outdated. What is the value proposition of service? It’s changed,” he said. “I think that’s the goodness of the dialogue we’ve had.”

It’s unclear whether asking prospects to join the Space Force for nearly a decade would make a dent in the service’s recruitment efforts.

More than 4,000 people sought to enlist in the Space Force in 2023, the service told Congress in January. But just a fraction make it into the limited number of available billets. The service plans to recruit nearly 700 new enlisted guardians in fiscal year 2024.

That’s a sliver of what the other armed forces aim to bring in throughout the year. For instance, the Air Force hopes to sign up 25,900 new active duty enlisted airmen by the end of September.

Todd Harrison, a military space expert at the American Enterprise Institute, warned the Space Force to do its homework before settling on major changes to career models.

He worries an eight-year commitment could make it harder for the Space Force to compete for talent with private industry and the other armed forces, if recruits see the contract as a long time to be locked into military service.

Harrison also questioned whether high performers, who may have other options to consider, would be attracted to an eight-year commitment. He suggested the Space Force track the correlation between how people feel about longer enlistments and how well they score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, an entrance exam that determines which jobs a recruit is qualified to hold.

“Look before you leap,” he said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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