ORLANDO, Fla. — As the overstretched and undermanned Air Force struggles to overcome its shortage of experienced aircraft maintainers, Air Mobility Command thinks it may have found a way to make do.

During a media roundtable at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium, AMC commander Gen. Carlton Everhart said AMC is rethinking who it sends out to bases in the Middle East. AMC is now required to send experienced maintainers — such as crew chiefs with 5- and 7-level skill ratings — overseas to bases overseen by U.S. Central Command.

But Everhart said that soon could change. AMC is considering deploying more 3-level maintainers and pairing them up with more experienced maintainers there.

"We're taking a look at, who do we deploy out in the desert," Everhart said. "There's always a requirement in deployment to have very highly skilled folks out there. What if I happen to have a highly skilled person with someone who needs training and pair them out in the desert?"

And if AMC's plan works, that would essentially kill two birds with one stone. Not only would AMC fill a maintainer slot overseas that it might otherwise have struggled to fill, but that green maintainer also would quickly get experience that might otherwise take him years to develop.

"Would the mission get done?" Everhart said. "Sure it will. Will the mission get done as good? I think it would. So maybe we need to change the requirements of who we deploy, when. And that way when they come back, now I've got that 3 level who's really to do his test and probably test out as a 5 level because he's been turning wrenches with a 7 level."

The Air Force in recent years has become concerned about its shortages of 5-level journeymen and 7-level craftsmen maintainers, particularly in the crew chief and flight line avionics field. To fix this problem, the Air Force is increasing bonuses in an attempt to hold on to experienced maintainers already in its ranks, as well as trying to recruit and develop more younger maintainers.

But it will take years until those new maintainers are experienced enough to fill the Air Force's gaps. And in the meantime, Air Force leaders have had to get creative to keep planes in the air — leading some to rethink how they do business, as Everhart is.

Most Air Force officials have said that the maintainer shortage is most acutely felt in the combat forces, where it is lacking maintainers to fix fighter jets and bombers. But Everhart said AMC is also feeling the strain.

"It's across our entire Air Force," Everhart said. "As we bring on new weapons systems, obviously you've got to have the maintainers to be able to do so. As I bring on the KC-46 [Pegasus tanker], I'm already starting right now to do training with that airplane. The next part is going to say, 'Who is going to be maintaining that aircraft?' "

Everhart said AMC has proposed such a change to the CENTCOM requirements, but has not yet gotten permission from the Air Force to do so. Other areas are more flexible, and already allow 3-level maintainers, he said.

"There's certain requirements that you got to have when you go out to the area of responsibilities, the CENTCOM AOR," Everhart said. "We're proposing it into the system. I think that will help."

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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