A massive shortfall of Air Force aircraft maintainers that caused “severe turbulence” in manning has dropped from thousands to hundreds, the service branch said.
The Air Force has a shortage of about 400 maintainers on active duty, a significant drop from a gap of 3,400 a year ago and 4,000 in 2015, a spokeswoman said.
Despite the gains, getting seasoned maintainers to repair the oldest fleet in the Air Force’s history will take years to reach, according to the service branch.
“While our manning numbers have improved, it will take five to seven years to get them seasoned and experienced,” Air Force spokeswoman Laura M. McAndrews said in an email. ”We are continuously evaluating our readiness as quickly and effectively as possible.”
A shortage of maintainers isn’t the only problem the Air Force has confronted on the flight line.
Fewer aviators — particularly fighter pilots — are staying on the job in the Air Force, a problem that has grown over the past year on active duty, in the reserve and in the Air National Guard. The Air Force was about 2,000 pilots short — including 1,300 fighter pilots — as of the most recent figures.
Over the past decade, sequestration – or automatic defense spending reductions under the Budget Control Act of 2011 – budget constraints and management of the force have eroded the number of maintainers in ranks, according to McAndrews.
Filling the gap
The Air Force ramped up production by training an additional 2,000 maintainers on active duty in fiscal year 2017, and will train an additional 1,000 in fiscal year 2018. To fill jobs, the military branch offered re-enlistment bonuses, extended the time senior airmen could stay in uniform and allowed prior maintainers to rejoin, McAndrews said.
The Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has a shortage of more than 20 aircraft maintainers, said Lt. Col. Jay Smeltzer, the wing’s maintenance group deputy commander.
Full time maintainer jobs in the wing are known as air reserve technicians who have a dual role as both a civilian employee during the week and a reservist during drill weekends, training or deployments. The airlift wing flies nine C-17 Globemaster III transport jets to support operations around the world. Vacancies are in key jobs such as aircraft mechanics to electricians, he said.
“I think over the years people have sought other employment that does not have the reserve side to the job,” he said. “It’s more attractive to them to go to another industry or another government agency without worrying about the military requirements.”
Smeltzer said the wing doesn’t have the same gap among traditional reservists, and full-time job vacancies haven’t deterred flight operations.
“It hasn’t crippled us by any means, but it has created pinch points,” he said.
Overall, as the Air Force fleet of planes has shrunk, the number of active-duty aircraft maintainers has fallen 17 percent since 2004, data shows.
Nearly 66,700 maintainers are in the Air Force on active duty today.
Toll on readiness
Richard Aboulafia, a senior aerospace consultant with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said the Air Force maintainer shortfall has had an impact servicewide.
“It has really taken a toll in readiness,” he said.
For nearly three decades, the Air Force has flown continuous combat operations in the Middle East while the average aircraft age has reached 27 years old, military leaders have said.
“What’s depressing is that I just don’t think this is going to get any better any time soon because the country is prioritizing tax cuts over defense and yet isn’t changing its tempo of operations,” Aboulafia said.
The senior analyst said the Air Force faced three choices: Reduce operations, spend more on defense, or watch readiness suffer.
The country has watched readiness erode “for quite a few years now,” he said.
The Air Force has had to choose between restoring aging planes – such as major structural work on F-15 Eagle fighters — or upgrading a plane’s combat capability, he added.
“You’ve got to keep them flying before you can add new technologies and features that would make them more effective,” he said.