F-35 Joint Program Office executive Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan said in October that he was worried that the Air Force might not be able to make the deadline of Aug. 1, 2016, because of the manpower issue. "The maintainer issue is not an F-35 program issue, the maintenance issue is an Air Force problem," Welsh said. "We have enough people to prioritize this to the point where will be able to get to IOC."

While the service should have enough maintainers to make the deadline, the details on how it plans to fill the maintenance ranks will not be releasable until the president signs off on the fiscal 2016 budget proposal, expected early next month. Welsh said the service has been working with Congress on how to get maintainers into the F-35 schoolhouse, along with other ways to address the shortfall. If these plans are not agreed to, however, the schedule could be at risk.

"If the proposals we come forward with are not agreed to, then OIC is at risk," Welsh said. "We are now to the second set of solutions beyond what we thought was the best military approach, because we haven't been allowed to take that. We don't have a thousand extra maintenance people looking for a job. They are doing other work, we have to get them into a new platform by taking them out of something else."

The service could also hire contractors to help address the gap, provided the funding is available.

"We think we're getting close to a solution, which is anything but a perfect solution," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said, speaking about the plans in the 2016 budget. "It presumably would leverage a little bit of flexibility we were allowed in Congress, leverage a number of different factors."

The initial operating capability date of 2016 means the F-35A will be able to deploy with a limited capability, based on an updated schedule first planned in 2001. The most important date, Welsh said, is when the F-35A will reach full operational capability, meaning the jet will be able to use all of its weapons and fly in full combat with its complete software suite. This is not expected until after its most advanced software version, block 3F, begins to come online in 2017.