ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The date of initial operating capability for the F-35 joint strike fighter is "getting closer," the Secretary of the Air Force said, but to stay on track the program requires sufficient maintenance personnel.
At a media roundtable at the Air Force Association's annual Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition in Orlando, Fla., Sec. Deborah Lee James said she believed the Air Force would still reach the projected IOC "within a several-month time frame," but noted that the maintenance situation for the F-35 "has been a very tough nut to crack because what we need are a certain amount of experienced maintainers, and we simply don't have that experience level sitting on the bench."
The F-35, a multirole 5th-generation stealth fighter designed by Lockheed Martin, has been subject to criticism due to its cost and complexity. The fighter is projected to cost a total of over $900 billion for a 55-year period, with that figure rising to more than $1.4 trillion when adjusted for inflation.
The maintainer shortage stems from the Air Force's attempt to retire the decades-old A-10 Warthog and gradually divert maintenance crews to the F-35 -- a measure that was rejected by Congress.
Congress allowed the Air Force to put 36 A-10s into a status called Backup Aircraft Inventory -- essentially second-string replacement aircraft for planes that become unserviceable -- but James notes that "there's really probably no sensible way to take the full 36 and put them into BAI, unless you would take down an entire unit. And we know that this is not the desire of Congress."
She said it was likely a smaller number of A-10s would be put into BAI status, but that would free up fewer maintainers for transition to the F-35.
"So we'll have to take other measures, to include contract maintenance, some additional use of our National Guard and Reserve, to put additional mandates to pay for some additional people – and maybe some other things as well," James said.
At the same roundtable discussion, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that while he is confident the F-35 would make IOC, he is looking beyond that.
"I don't focus on IOC really at all, except it gives us a good milestone to focus on the acquisition and test side of the house. FOC is what's important to us -- Full Operational Capability of this airplane," Welsh said. "So between now and then we have got to build a transition plan to get from whatever we do short-term to the long-term solution. This is not a quick-fix problem, and there must be a comprehensive solution."