HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A scarcity of jet mechanics hasn’t kept Hill Air Force Base pilots out of the sky.
But officials on base say if that sky were to fall, the shortage could affect their ability to respond.
The 421st and 466th Aircraft Maintenance Units from Hill’s 338th Fighter Wing are each down approximately 50 maintainers, according to Col. Lance Landrum, commander of the wing.
“Across the entire 388th Maintenance Group, we’re really feeling an impact in what we call ‘direct touch’ maintenance,” Landrum said, “those who are most directly involved with sortie generation.”
Landrum said pilots at Hill, and other military installations, for that matter, are required to fly a certain number of hours to maintain general proficiency and flying certifications and that those requirements “consistently outstrip our maintenance capacity.”
As a result, Landrum said, the manning shortage would affect the wing’s ability to respond quickly to a crisis or major conflict.
“Generally speaking, there’s a diminished short-notice response capability for high-end conflict and full-spectrum warfare,” he said.
Landrum said that while the maintainer shortage certainly isn’t ideal, it’s not a complete disaster, either.
Since 1990, the U.S. Air Force has been actively engaged in either direct combat or no-fly-zone enforcement. Landrum said his wing continues to be ready for the same kind of work that has been required over the past 25 years.
“It’s not all doom and gloom — the sky isn’t falling yet,” the commander said. “Right now, we’re still able to execute everything we have to. We’re just doing it with less people.”
Landrum said specialized deployment rhythms have allowed wings to more effectively position their forces to meet global mission requirements as well as continue home station training,
The 388th’s reserve counterpart, the 419th Fighter Wing, is also assisting during the shortage.
419th spokeswoman Kari Tilton said about 100 reserve personnel have been placed on temporary, full-time active-duty orders. About half of those are voluntarily deployed to Afghanistan for six months and the other half are augmenting the full time maintenance force to help carry out routine flying operations at Hill.
“Given the flexibility of bringing reservists on duty only as needed, we’re able to help augment daily operations and lessen the impact of active duty manpower shortfalls, Tilton said in an email. ”During these fiscally constrained times when every penny counts, the use of part-time reservists is an affordable option for supporting the Air Force mission.“
Landrum said the shortage is an Air Force-wide issue; therefore, he could not comment with any specific authority about why the maintainer shortage exists, instead referring those queries to the Secretary of the Air Force.
An official from the Secretary of the Air Force’s press desk, who did not want to be quoted because responses had not been approved by the proper directorate, said that across the Air Force, maintenance manning is down by an average of 10 percent.
The official said the reduction can be attributed to several items, among them lower recruitment numbers, stagnant pay scales and operational tempos that keep airmen overseas for longer periods of time. But the driving factor, the official said, is that new weapons systems are coming online faster than old systems can be retired.
Although new systems like the F-35 Lightning II require a relatively large chunk of the maintenance pie, older systems like the A-10 Warthog are still taking their share of maintainers.
The Air Force’s fiscal year 2016 budget includes a request to retire the A-10. A similar request was made in the previous year’s budget, but was ultimately blocked by Congress.
To remedy the shortage, the Air Force will focus on new ways to recruit and retain maintainers. It is also considering handing out re-enlistment bonuses to ex-active-duty maintainers as a way to bring already trained and experienced personnel aboard.
The official also said the Air Force would consider putting certain planes, like the A-10, into backup inventory, which would allow maintainers working on older systems to supplement the newer ones.