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The Air Force anticipates having the plan in place soon to ensure it has enough maintainers on hand for the F-35A strike fighter to meet the stealth jet’s projected in-service date around August 2016, said service Secretary Deborah Lee James. “We are getting close,” she told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 13. “This has been a very tough nut to crack because what we need is a certain number of experienced maintainers and we simply don’t have that experience level sitting on the bench at the moment unoccupied,” she added. Congress nixed the Air Force’s original plan to retire the A-10 fleet in this fiscal year and gradually shift A-10 maintainers over to the F-35A mission. Because of that, the Air Force is now looking at measures such as bringing on contractor maintenance personnel or relying more heavily on Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command maintainers to support the F-35A’s initial operations, said James. Beyond that, the Air Force must mature the F-35A maintenance force to the point that the aircraft can assume full operations at a later point, said Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at the same meeting with reporters. “The whole point here is that there has to be a long-term solution," he said. “FOC is what's important to us, full operational capability of this airplane,” he explained. By then, the Air Force has to have “a robust, fully capable, deployable maintenance capability” for the F-35A, said Welsh. (For more coverage of this issue from the symposium, read F-35A Will Make IOC.)