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Air Force to rely on Reserve to help stand up F-35

The Air Force plans to turn to the Air Force Reserve for manpower to bring the F-35 online after Congress blocked the service's attempt to free up maintainers through retirement of the A-10, the head of Air Force Reserve Command said Tuesday.

"The active duty has a pretty significant shortage in maintainers, and keeping the A-10 means that those maintainers will have to stay with those [units] and not be able to retrain," Lt. Gen. James Jackson said at an Air Force Association speech in Arlington, Virginia.

The proposal is included in the Air Force's fiscal 2017 program objective memorandum, which outlines how the service plans to spend its resources over the next five years, Jackson said.

Reservists will be turning the wrenches on the new stealth fighter at the first operational F-35 unit at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, at training units at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and at test units at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

The main Reserve F-35 unit at Hill, the 419th Fighter Wing, will help stand up the F-35 "with a larger portion of maintenance than we've had in the past," Jackson said.

The numbers will first come from the fiscal 2016 plan, in which the Air Force approved 2,100 more reserve positions. Many of those spots are going to F-35 personnel, along with more positions in cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The service has said it needs 1,100 trained maintainers to have the F-35 meet its initial operating capability deadline in summer 2016. As of June 10, the F-35 maintainer schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, had trained 691 maintenance personnel. The service has also been able to move 18 A-10s to backup status, freeing up another 150 personnel. The remainder will have to come from other areas, such as the Air Force Reserve.

Jackson said the initial cadre of maintainers will likely be more experienced, 5- to 7-level airmen, mostly trained on other fighter aircraft. The largest demand is in the avionics career field, and training time is shorter for avionics airmen coming from aircraft such as the A-10 and F-16 than from mobility aircraft like a C-130 or C-17.

The reserve has been recruiting airmen from the active duty, with 58 percent of airmen in its ranks coming from active-duty service, Jackson said.

The number of reserve maintainers heading to the F-35 have not been released, because the fiscal 2017 POM has not been released. However, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have said the service has gotten too small, and they would like to see increases in the number of airmen on active duty and in the reserve.

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