Air Force Prioritizing Combat Units Amid Maintainer Shortage: General

Facing a shortage of maintainers as well as pilots, the Air Force is giving staffing priority to air combat units with high operations tempo, the service’s head of operations said Thursday.

Lt. Gen. Mark C. Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations for the service at the Pentagon, said experienced maintainers are being reshuffled throughout the force, with an emphasis on combat-coded units. The service has recently turned to contractors to fill gaps in training units and other areas.

“We’re moving maintainers where we can into combat-coded units,” he said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. “So for instance, as we stand up F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] units, our training units, we’re using contract solutions so that we can move our maintainers into the combat-coded units.”

“Then as we grow … and fill our maintenance manning, we will then come back and put blue-suit maintenance back into those organizations,” he said.

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The Air Force announced last year it would temporarily use maintenance contractors in the summers of 2017 and 2018, according to a release. The service plans to phase out the contract support by 2020, the release said.

In February, the Air Force said it had begun adding 40 maintainer airmen per month to its ranks, an incremental boost at a time when it finds itself short roughly 4,000 airmen in the career field, according to Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection.

“We were able to shave that down to about 3,400 maintainers short, and we’re planning on getting that number down to zero by the 2020-2021 [timeframe],” he said at the time.

For the last five years, the continuing problem has been to bring in young, unseasoned airmen and train them as quickly as possible to work on the fighter and bomber fleets, Cooper said.

Nowland on Thursday said that gap could potentially close faster.

“We are growing,” he said, “and we expect to close out [that number] in [fiscal 2019] to continue to fill those gaps.”

Adding new aircraft to the fleet, such as the F-35A Lightning II and the upcoming KC-46 refueling tanker, has increased the need for maintainers.

The F-35 requires at least 12 maintainers on the flightline, plus another eight in support roles, totaling 20 maintainers per aircraft, according to Air Force Times.

Other fighters such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon use roughly the same number of maintainers, but some — such as the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle — require 23 to 24 combat-coded maintainers to service the aircraft, according to Air Combat Command spokeswoman 1st Lt. Carrie Volpe.

“The number of maintainers per jet will vary based on how the weapon system is coded [training vs. combat etc.],” Volpe told earlier this year.

“When compared to other fighters in the fleet, the F-35 requires the smallest number of maintainers per jet,” she said. “Regardless of the aircraft, whenever you add a new plane to the fleet, naturally there is going to be a requirement for more maintainers.”

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