The Air Force is going through a pilot shortfall, but that’s not the only area where the service is understaffed.
The Air Force is in need of 4,000 maintainers, Gen. David Goldfein told senators during his nomination hearing to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Maintainers are airmen who care for military aircraft and their components.
Because of the dearth in staffing, Goldfein said he does not expect the current operating tempo to change over the next four years.
Goldfein said manpower and time are the two greatest limiters to Air Force readiness. Some estimates predict the Air Force will not reach adequate readiness until the mid to late 2020s.
“If you were to ask me what is the state of the readiness of the U.S. Air Force to fight violent extremist in the Middle East, I will tell you it’s extremely high,” Goldfein said during a June 16 Senate Armed Services hearing. “But if you tell me I need to be simultaneously ready for the other global challenges that Secretary [Ash] Carter has laid out, which I believe we need to be ready for … I believe we are at high risk.”
The Air Force is forced to turn to contractors to make up for the lack of maintenance manpower in non-deploying locations. The maintainer shortfall is affecting the F-35. Goldfein said the first thing the Air Force does with a new weapons system is train the maintainers. But, the Air Force doesn’t have any maintainers it can move from other weapons systems to the F-35.
“Our challenge is the more we are told to keep the old aircraft it’s going to further delay bringing on the F-35,” Goldfein said.
Maintenance positions are filled by active, reserve and guard airmen. The Air Force was authorized to increase its force for the first time in six years in the 2016 defense authorization bill. The 2016 bill authorized an active force of up to 321,000. The Air Force only requested the funds for 317,000, however because it felt it could not responsibly grow the force to 321,000 until late 2017.
“If we’re successful this year at getting to 317,000 and we see the kind of recruiting numbers we are looking for, we will likely come back to this committee and ask you to reprogram money to allow us to get to our authorization of 321,000,” Goldfein said. “The bulk of those airmen that we are going to bring on are going to be maintainers.”
Just because the force grows doesn’t mean it will solve the maintainer problem though.
Maintainers need to be trained and when maintainers first come aboard they are only cleared to do basic work. It takes up to two years to get them fully trained and up to five years before they are supervisors, Goldfein said.
Despite the wait, the Air Force is trying to boost recruitment. In April, the service created a new policy that would give $2,000 bonuses to new airmen who signed up to be maintainers.
“What we’ve got to do is manage this across the Air Force, guard and reserve based on where our experience is to ensure that we can continue the mission at the op[erational] tempo we are in today,” Goldfein said.
He added that he did not think the operational tempo – another word for how often troops are deployed – would change under his tenure.
In 2015, enlisted airmen were deployed for an average of 132 days and officers were deployed for an average of 128 days.
That grueling tempo can take a toll on the morale and family life of airmen.