The US Air Force continues to struggle to keep and replace sufficient numbers of experienced and highly skilled aircraft maintainers.

That’s according to a Government Accountability Office report which said the USAF reduced the overall gap between actual maintainer staff levels and authorised levels from 4,016 maintainers in fiscal year 2015, to 745 in fiscal year 2017. But, in seven of the last eight fiscal years the USAF had staffing gaps of more-experienced maintainers, who are also needed to train new maintainers.

The GAO's 5 February report adds that the USAF does not have goals and a strategy to help retain experienced maintainers. For example, while the USAF has increased its use of retention bonuses since fiscal year 2015, the spending does not fit within a strategy.

The criticism comes after USAF secretary Heather Wilson said in October 2018 that the service was tasked by the Department of Defense with increasing its aircraft readiness to more than 80% for its 204 operational squadrons “that are most-relevant to a high-end fight.”

The USAF classifies maintainers into three categories. They start as “3-levels” after completing the service’s technical school, explains the GAO. Following years of on-the-job training, maintainers are promoted to the 5- and 7-levels.

In fiscal year 2017, the service had gaps of more than 2,000 5-level and 400 7-level maintainers, and a surplus of over 1,700 3-levels. USAF officials anticipate that staffing gaps will continue periodically through fiscal year 2023, says the GAO.

The GAO says overall maintainer loss rates have remained generally stable, but loss rates of 5-levels increased from 9% in fiscal year 2010 to 12% in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Moreover, USAF officials project 7-level loss rates will increase in future years.

To make up for losses the USAF has hired more novice maintainers, helping address overall staffing gaps but not experience issues, says the GAO. In fiscal year 2017, about 9,600 active component maintainers completed technical school, an increase from about 5,700 in fiscal year 2015.

There are more than 100,000 active and reserve USAF maintainers, according the GAO. The position is the service’s largest enlisted career field and accounts for about 25% of active duty enlisted personnel.