After decades of readiness decline, the Air Force is working to accelerate its recovery, ensuring the service is prepared to combat rapidly evolving threats.
Today, more than 75% of the Air Force's core fighting units are combat ready. The service's goal is for 80% of those units to have the right number of properly trained and equipped airmen by the end of 2020 – six years faster than projected before the Air Force developed a recovery plan.
"Restoring the readiness of the force is our top priority," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. "And the budget Congress recently passed will have a significant impact for airmen across our active, guard and reserve components."
To do this, the Air Force is focusing on three key areas: people, training, and cost-effective maintenance and logistics.
Cost-effective maintenance and logistics
The third element of restoring the readiness of the force is weapons system sustainment — the parts, supply and equipment — to make sure our aircraft are ready to go when needed.
"There are a thousand fingerprints on every aircraft that takes off. From air traffic control to crew chiefs to weapons loaders to avionics technicians — it is a total team effort," Goldfein said. "When the plane is twice the age of the team, it makes it harder. So we are looking at new methods across the board for how we are maintaining an older fleet with a younger workforce."
Focused efforts in Conditions-Based Maintenance Plus, additive manufacturing and retention, are helping to create solutions to achieve a more combat ready force.
CBM+ represents a conscious effort to shift equipment maintenance from an unscheduled, reactive approach at the time of failure, to a more routine and predictive approach. The Condition-Based Maintenance Plus approach to maintenance is based on evidence of need before failure occurs. Evidence of a need forecasted by analyzing data collected automatically by sensors.
"We're trying to take some of those lessons learned in technologies and capabilities that (commercial airlines) are using and apply it into our inventory, and we're starting to see some benefits," said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander.
Airmen at Travis Air Force Base, California, are implementing innovative strategies to reduce man-hours and increase mission effectiveness with the procurement of a 3D hand scanner, capable of producing three-dimensional representations of aircraft parts. The device has also been used to inspect aircraft damage.
The scanner was first used in November 2018 to inspect the landing gear of a C-17 Globemaster III after a bird strike. Since then it has greatly reduced the time required to complete damage inspections.
"One of our C-5 aircraft went through a hail storm in 2013 and we found many dents on all the panels," said Master Sgt. Christopher Smithling, 60th Maintenance Squadron assistant section chief for aircraft structural maintenance. "We've performed an inspection of this aircraft every 180 days and we've had to measure every dent that's still on the wing's surface. The first few times we did that, it took us 48 hours. We had that C-5 in our hangar last week and we were able to inspect the four primary structural panels in 30 minutes."
The 60th MXS is also in the process of procuring two 3D printers, one polymer printer and one metal printer, so they can reproduce aircraft parts.
"With the two additive manufacturing units, we will be able to grab any aircraft part, scan it and within four to eight hours we will have a true 3D drawing of it that we can send to the additive manufacturing unit to print it," Smithling said.
That capability, Smithling said, will decrease the time Travis aircraft are out of service.
Solutions to maintenance readiness are also being sought with advances in Additive Manufacturing or 3D printing. Traditional manufacturing is a subtractive process, beginning with cutting a lump of material to create a needed part. Three dimensional printing, one type of a larger set of techniques labeled additive manufacturing, extrudes or prints a base material in layers to create 3D solids.
For the Air Force, readiness is first and foremost about people. In fiscal year 2018, Congress provided funding to allow the Air Force to address a serious shortage of maintainers by adding 4,000 active duty maintainers.
Airmen at aircraft maintenance squadrons around the service began innovating with new scheduling, accelerated hands-on training courses and virtual reality simulators to get new maintainers proficient quickly; keeping more aircraft ready to fly and improving operational readiness.
Col. William Maxwell, chief of aircraft maintenance division at the Pentagon, has been charged in his new role with assessing the maintenance enterprise for the director of logistics in order to develop the strength of the maintenance career field and to share the best practices and solutions developed by the airmen on the flight line.
Maxwell said there are a lot of changes ahead for the aircraft maintenance community in order to develop and retain their airmen to sustain an aging fleet.
"The (aircraft maintenance community) is a passionate group of people and it's fun to be a part of that," Maxwell said, "because I love that passion I see in the airmen taking care of these weapon systems out there."
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.