Maintainers working on the F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighter jets will have their work cut out for them in the coming year. In a Sept. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered the Air Force to get those jets’ mission-capable rates up to 80 percent by the beginning of October.

Considering that F-16s had mission-capable rates of 70 percent or less in 2017, and F-22s and F-35s were at 49 percent and 55 percent, respectively, that’s going to take some doing. Experts agree the Air Force needs to do better on its fighter jet maintenance. But even retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former head of Air Combat Command, called it “a stretch goal – as an understatement.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said late last year that the Air Force is planning to add either Guardsmen or contractors to Air National Guard units, so they can add second maintenance shifts and turn around jets more quickly.

The Air Force is improving its flow of spare parts to the field, she said, because a lack of parts is a common problem keeping planes on the ground. The service will better track the life cycle of its parts, to better predict when they might break and swapg them out before that happens. It’s also making more use of 3-D printing to make replacement parts.

The Air Force is concentrating initial efforts on readiness improvements in squadrons that would need to fight if a conflict were to break out with Russia or China, she said.

But some maintainers told Air Force Times they’re growing worried that the drive to sharply improve fighter jet readiness will fall on their backs.

“You can only get so much blood from a stone,” Carlisle said.

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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