The F-35 joint strike fighter is scheduled to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) for the Air Force in August of 2016. And for the first time, the man in charge of the F-35 program is warning that date looks unlikely.
“I am very worried now that my promise to [the Air Force] to give them all the things they need to declare IOC on August 1 of 2016 I might not be able to give them,” Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program executive, told reporters Oct. 30.
For critics of the F-35, this will be just more proof that the stealthy, fifth-generation jet is a boondoggle, a failed program, the infamous billion dollar “Jet That Ate The Pentagon.” And certainly, the F-35 has a long history of issues, with Bogdan often referring to its history of cost overruns and failed promises as “tragic.”
But this story comes with a twist: the issue worrying Bogdan isn’t one of technology. Instead, it’s a logistical one largely outside the control of the F-35 program office – and it ties into a plane that first flew in 1972.
The A-10 Warthog, it seems, may have just claimed the Air Force’s F-35 IOC date as its latest victim.
Here’s how it happened. To hit IOC in August 2016, the Air Force has a number of requirements. One of those is to have 1,100 trained maintainers available across the US.
Of that 1,100, the Air Force planned to draw 800 maintainers from the pool of A-10 crews out there. Makes sense, right? The A-10 was being retired and the F-35 spun up, so this is a way to keep experienced maintenance professionals in the service and move them onto the plane of the future.
Except, well… Congress had thoughts.
As has been well documented, the plan to retire the A-10 met sharp resistance on the Hill. And while the Air Force intends to continue trying to retire the plane, barring a shocking turnaround the A-10 is sticking around for at least one more year, and potentially beyond. Which means those 800 maintainers who were going to be moved to the F-35 are still needed in their current roles.
So ok, could the program just train new maintainers rather than take those from the A-10? It’s not that simple, according to Bogdan, because it takes a lot longer to train new maintainers than retrain experienced professionals. In his own words:
“A combination of those 1,100 people include new trainees and experienced maintainers from other platforms. Why that’s important to me is it takes a much longer time to get a new guy up to speed maintaining an F-35 than it does to get an experienced guy. We have different training syllabuses, and different training requirements, and different certification levels for a guy who comes in who is a tech sergeant or a master sergeant who used to be a level 7 maintainer on a fighter airplane as opposed to a one-striper.
So I went back and did an analysis and found that out of that 1,100, [the Air Force was] planning on giving me 800 experienced guys and now you tell me you can’t, and you can only backfill with younger guys, [and] it’s going to take me longer to train all your 1,100 maintainers.
How much longer? Bogdan said that an experienced maintainer, like the 800 he was expecting to get from the A-10 pool, can do the F-35 maintenance training 9-12 months more quickly than a new serviceman.
“Even if they can give me enough people, if they don’t give me enough experienced people it’s still going to take me longer to get them to the right number of maintainers for IOC,” he said.
Which leaves the Air Force in a precarious position, and one that everyone in the service and Bogdan’s office alike has tried very hard to avoid: being forced to acknowledge that the August 1 2016 IOC date is now at risk.
Asked what a more realistic date may be, Bogdan indicated he will work with the Air Force to find a solution, but “I don’t know yet.”
For more on the F-35, keep an eye on the DefenseNews.com landing page, which features an interactive map and a list of current stories.
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