No Plan B Yet on F-35 Maintainers

The Air Force still doesn’t know where it will find some 800 maintainers it needs for the F-35 fighter, service F-35 integration chief Maj. Gen. Jeff Harrigian said Thursday. Speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event in Arlington, Va., Harrigian—recently minted as the Chief of Staff’s “single point of contact” between USAF and the F-35 Joint Program Office—said the service still “has some work to do” to identify an F-35 maintainer pool. The plan was to harvest A-10 maintainers freed up by retiring that airplane, but Congress, for the second year in a row, is making clear in budget markups that it wants to keep the A-10s. Conclusive planning is “somewhat dependent” on the final, signed defense authorization, Harrigian said, but USAF is looking at drawing from other systems. However, with no letup in demand for any USAF capabilities, that probably won’t work, as “we’re still going to have to deliver those forces while we continue to grow” the F-35 workforce, he acknowledged. Another option is to assign very junior maintenance airmen to the F-35, but that would skew the desired “balance” of maintainer experience levels, Harrigian said. The clock is ticking, though. “By this fall, we’re going to have to have a pretty solid understanding of where we need to go” on the issue, he said, noting initial operational capability, set for August 2016, won’t be affected by the issue. However, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in January IOC could indeed be “at risk” if Congress failed to approve the service’s force structure proposals allowing experienced maintainers to transfer to the F-35.