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​SSgt. Aleksandr Dolgikh, 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, works with equipment designed to help dismantle F-35 components. The 61st work in conjunction with Det. 12 of the 372nd Training Squadron to train Hill Air Force Base maintainers who are sent here to learn the skills necessary to allow them to maintain F-35s upon their return. Air Force photo by A1C Ridge Shan.

​—John A. Tirpak

April 28, 2016—It’ll cost the Air Force “tens of millions” per year out of hide to hire contractors to do F-35 maintenance through at least 2020, because the service doesn’t have enough people to do the work, Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said Thursday.

While Congress “restored” some money to keep A-10s in service—after rejecting USAF’s plan to retire the jet and transition A-10 maintainers to the F-35—“that took care of the flying hours [but] … would not have included money to do contract maintenance … So we’ve had to carve that out of all the other O&M [operations and maintenance]” accounts.

The situation won’t be fixed quickly, either, because even though USAF is looking to grow by several thousand airmen, it can’t simply put new people to work on the F-35. The jet is too complex for newbies, and it takes “seven to nine years” to “grow” a maintainer to a high experience level, she said.

Using contractors will “give ourselves time to build the organic workforce” needed, she said. Blue-suiters don’t seem to be quitting to take higher-paying contractor jobs—yet—she said, but it’s a concern.

“That was part of the discussion with [Lockheed Martin]; we want to make sure we’re not … creating a bigger hole for ourselves,” she said.  The slots have largely been filled by retirees “that we might have lost anyway,” but maintainer retention is a “continual challenge for the Air Force,” because the airlines are also hiring, she noted.

F-35 program director Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told the Senate earlier this week that USAF has one whole contractor-maintained F-35 squadron at Luke AFB, Ariz., so the airmen could be freed up to prepare for F-35 initial operational capability at Hill AFB, Utah.