Because of a shortfall of active duty maintainers, the Air Force will rely on contractor-provided maintenance support for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training units, its chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a Senate panel Wednesday.

“We have basically thrashed a little bit over the last couple of years to figure out how to find the maintenance manpower that we had planned to take from other systems—we don’t have 1,500 maintainers sitting around waiting for work—to transition to the F-35,” he said during a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing. “When we couldn’t divest other systems to now take that maintenance manpower, we had to figure out where to find active duty maintenance to go to operational units. So in training units, we’re using contractors for temporary periods.”

523a2574ad7b3-f35refuel22Although he didn’t call out the A-10 Warthog by name, the service originally had planned to shift A-10 maintainers to the F-35 after divesting the Warthog. In 2014, F-35 Joint Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said 800 of the 1,100 F-35 maintainers needed by 2016 were to come over from the A-10 program (Defense Daily, Oct. 30, 2014). However, the service’s decision in the fiscal 2017 budget to retain the Warthog until at least 2022 forced it to look at other options.

The service will use contractor-provided maintenance for the next four to five years, Welsh said. The hope is to “use contractors at training units for not just the F-35 but other types of aircraft—everything from RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) to other fighter units—to take active-duty manpower out of those units to create enough [manpower] to develop F-35 operational units.”

Contractor provided support will bridge the shortfall as the F-35 hits initial operational capability (IOC) this year, but eventually the service will need to have more blue suit maintainers available for full operational capability, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

That will require retiring some legacy aircraft fleets, Welsh said. “We can’t delay divesting other systems forever.”

“Specifically the A-10s? How much of an impact does that have?” asked Sen. Lisa  Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“It’s an impact,” Welsh said, adding that he understood why the Air Force had made the decision to retain it. “We have adjusted to those impacts, but the adjustments that we’re making, we cannot continue to make. There aren’t a lot of other roads we can run down to find more manpower” unless the topline budget increases and the service can grow its numbers, “which I’m not anticipating in the next couple of years.”

In the fiscal 2017 budget, the Air Force requested money for 43 JSFs—five fewer F-35As than it had planned. It also decreased the number it planned to buy over the next five years by 45 planes.

However, James said that the unit cost of the plane would not substantially increase because growing Navy, Marine Corps and international F-35 purchases would help insulate the buy.

The Air Force is set to declare IOC on time despite continued challenges developing the fighter’s software and the Autonomic Logistics Information System that is used for maintenance, she added.

The F-35 is manufactured by Lockheed Martin [LMT].