Up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have rejected orders to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus despite a Pentagon mandate, and officials say it is too late for them to do so by the Tuesday deadline, posing the first major test for military leaders whose August directive has been met with defiance among a segment of the force.
The vast majority of active-duty airmen, more than 96 percent, are at least partially vaccinated, according to data from the Air Force. But officials have warned that, barring an approved medical or religious exemption, those who defy lawful orders to be fully immunized are subject to punishment, including possible dismissal from the service, or they could be charged in the military justice system.
The challenge now confronting Air Force leaders — how to address potential large-scale dissent in the face of a top health priority that has been deeply politicized — is a bellwether for the dilemma in store across the military’s other services, which have staggered compliance deadlines ranging from the end of November to the middle of next summer and, in some cases, have experienced far greater resistance to President Biden’s mandate.
A wave of dismissals could jolt the Air Force personnel system and cause significant challenges within units that must be ready to respond to crises at a moment’s notice, especially if some vital jobs — like pilots or aircraft maintainers — are overrepresented among those who could face expulsion, said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security.