The Air Force is adding 40 maintainers per month to its ranks, an incremental boost at a time when the service finds itself short of roughly 4,000 airmen in the career field, an official said Thursday.
Air Force leadership last year recognized it needed to redistribute manpower to critical needs such as maintenance, said Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection.
"We were able to shave that down to about 3,400 maintainers short, and we're planning on getting that number down to zero by the 2020-2021 [timeframe]," Cooper told an audience at an Air Force Association breakfast outside Washington, D.C.
The ongoing problem is bringing in young, unseasoned airmen and training them quickly to work on the fighter and bomber fleets, he said.
On a recent visit to the 82nd Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas -- the group that provides aircraft maintenance and munitions training -- Cooper said the hope is to train 4,800 maintainers this year, up from 2,400 in 2016.
"So we're committed," he said. "But we're going to have to work on the quality problem and experience."
Adding new aircraft to the fleet, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the upcoming KC-46 refueling tanker, has increased the need for maintainers. The F-35 requires at least 12 maintainers on the flightline, plus another eight in support roles, totaling 20 maintainers per aircraft, according to Air Force Times.
Other fighters such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon use roughly the same number of maintainers, but some -- such as the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle -- require 23 to 24 combat-coded maintainers to service the aircraft, according to Air Combat Command spokeswoman 1st Lt. Carrie Volpe.
"The number of maintainers per jet will vary based on how the weapon system is coded (training vs. combat, etc.)," Volpe said in an email statement.
"When compared to other fighters in the fleet, the F-35 requires the smallest number of maintainers per jet," she said. "Regardless of the aircraft, whenever you add a new plane to the fleet, naturally there is going to be a requirement for more maintainers."
To adequately redistribute maintainers to the newer aircraft while still covering older aircraft, "We will be manning five of our field training units with contract maintenance," Cooper said. The Air Force announced last year it would temporarily use contractors in the summers of 2017 and 2018 to offset the transitional moves, according to a release. The Air Force plans to phase out the contract support by 2020, the release said.
The Air Force still hopes to use fewer contractors than airmen in the maintenance field overall to avoid deploying them overseas, Cooper said.
For example, when the F-35 deploys overseas, the goal will be to have active-duty maintainers on the aircraft because they will already "know the airframe," he said.
The Air Force also intends to increase the number of fighter squadrons from 55 to 60 in the next few years, Air Force spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder said Tuesday.
Ryder could not provide a timeline for how soon the growth would occur nor what types of aircraft would be involved, but reiterated that increased operations tempo has required more from airmen on every spectrum, from equipment buildup to readiness.
Cooper pointed out areas that could be cut to allow for the additional airmen the service needs. "We don't need all the bases that we have," he said. "We have more infrastructure, more capacity than we need, so we can come down there some, and we're willing to do that."