Air Force maintainer problem getting better, but new issues arise

The Air Force is making headway on its maintainer shortage, but as it fills vacant positions a new problem is arising.

The Air Force knocked its 4,000 maintainer deficit to 3,400 and plans to be fully staffed by 2020 or 2021, said Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection, during a Feb. 2 Air Force Association speech in Arlington, Virginia.

The Air Force uses maintainers to repair and preserve aircraft, but for the past four years the service has been hurting for people to fill the positions and overworking the maintainers it employs.

Cooper said the Air Force’s deficit was getting larger until recently.

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“That hole was growing by 40 maintainers every month because as we were bringing in F-35s, an F-35 requires 20 maintainers each to maintain. We were bringing two per month in, so the hole was getting bigger. Our Air Force is committed to fix that, we recognized the problem,” Cooper said.

The service shaved down its need for maintainers by 600 in 2016 without adding any extra funds to the budget by reallocating money from other critical manpower programs.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in January his first manpower priority is to shore up the maintainer gap.

“We have a prioritized list on exactly where those [extra] airmen would go,” Goldfein said. “Because this is a focus on rebuilding readiness and because people are our number one limitation into rebuilding readiness I’m going to put them first and foremost where I need them on the flight line in maintenance so I can generate the sorties I need.”

Cooper agreed the maintainer shortage is tied to the Air Force’s shortfall of about 600 pilots.

“We are short pilots. We need to get the pilots the sorties they need, particularly in the fighter business so they can be the world’s best. I don’t think we’re giving them enough sorties,” Cooper said.

Congress gave the Air Force permission to grow from 317,000 to 321,000 active duty in the 2017 defense authorization bill.

But even with extra airmen the Air Force’s maintainer problem isn’t solved.

The positions filled by young, inexperienced workers, who need training before they can handle the responsibility of caring for complex weapons systems.

That training takes years.

“It’s almost like squeezing the balloon and what happens on the other end; we are going to have a lot of inexperienced workforce, we’re going to have many recently graduated high school students working on our fighter planes and we take that very seriously to make sure we get them trained correctly so they become experts eventually,” Cooper said.

Right now the Air Force is using contractors to fill in for vacant positions and inexperienced maintainers. Cooper said using the contractors is a short term plan.

Cooper said the cost is about equal for a contractor compared to an Air Force maintainer.

But, despite the cost similarities the Air Force still wants its own maintainers.

“We don’t like to send contractors into harm’s way. There’s some weapons systems where we are kind of forced to … we have just contract support for some weapons, small weapons systems, something like the F-16 our staple fighting fleet. We feel combatants should go in harm’s way,” Cooper said.