BMT Gets Real

Feb. 1, 2011

Ten years ago, the curriculum at basic military training was designed to prepare Air Force trainees for future conflicts, although no one knew exactly where those may be or what capabilities might be required. Military training instructors were an elite cadre of teachers who worked long, grueling hours to develop the next generation of airmen, but few had actual combat experience. Trainees spent six-and-a-half weeks at Lackland AFB, Tex., learning how to pay attention to detail through drill and dorm life. Little emphasis, though, was placed on field training, and the warrior ethos had not yet infiltrated Air Force culture.

The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and nearly a decade of fighting two wars changed that. Basic military training has evolved significantly, mimicking changes to the operational Air Force and incorporating lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Today’s MTIs typically have multiple deployments under their belts and some have received Bronze Star Medals or Purple Hearts for their actions in theater. In today’s conflicts, a personnel technician could find himself driving convoys from Kuwait City to Baghdad or working alongside soldiers or marines outside the wire. These new, often joint, roles make it necessary for all airmen, regardless of their specialty, to adopt the warrior mindset.

Trainees high crawl up the final stretch of the tactical course, which is part of Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training. (USAF photo)

“Our roles, traditionally, are a lot different now than they were then. It doesn’t matter what your job is, every single airman is vital to the war,” said SSgt. Chi Yi, an MTI with the 331st Training Squadron at Lackland. “That’s what drives a lot of young people to come here. They want to go fight, and that’s exciting to me to hear that they are ready to go. It sends a message that BMT is doing something right when these young kids are more excited to deploy than to go back home and see their friends.”

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Air Force overhauled its chemical warfare training, building two gas chambers in a remote area of the base known as the Torch site. Although chemical attacks have not been a factor in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was once believed that Saddam Hussein had an abundant stockpile of chemical agents, mostly because of the poison gas attacks that killed thousands of Kurds in the closing days of the Iraq-Iran War in the late 1980s.

BMT officials say that providing that foundational training for future airmen remains critical because other countries possess chemical, biological, radiological, or explosive weapons capabilities and the Air Force needs to be prepared for the future fight.

The Hard Part

The gas chambers, each of which holds about 20 people, challenge those inside to trust their equipment and face their fears. Trainees, dressed in full chem gear, line up on orange footprints along the perimeter of the chamber. As the tear gas spews from the center, they are instructed to sound off and do 10 jumping jacks to make sure the seal on their masks is tight.

That’s when the hard part begins. Trainees are then instructed to remove their hoods. Immediately their necks and the back of their heads begin to burn as the gas irritates their skin. Two at time, they step to the front of the chamber and remove their masks. Each trainee is told to inhale deeply, open his eyes and attempt to give a reporting statement, although the coughing fits, runny noses, and watery eyes make that almost impossible.

In September 2004, the 20th Basic Military Training Review Committee met and recommended perhaps the most significant overhaul in the focus, curriculum, and schedule since basic training moved to Lackland in 1946. The committee, chaired by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the director of force development, and the vice commander of Air Education and Training Command, received input from all active major commands, the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command. It recommended first that BMT mirror the Air Force expeditionary cycle. Today, just as in the operational Air Force, trainees go through a predeployment period (zero week up through the fifth week), an actual deployment (sixth week), and a reconstitution period which takes them through graduation.

A trainee receives some personalized feedback from his instructor. (USAF photo by Melinda Mueller)

During the predeployment phase, trainees learn initial skills, such as how to salute and how to maintain a clothing drawer. Self-aid and buddy care has been expanded dramatically, from a single one-hour class 10 years ago to multiple three-to-four-hour blocks of instruction and practical application that cover everything from how to treat a gaping head wound to CPR. During the fifth week, trainees go through combat arms training to include one-minute bouts with pugil sticks.

Full “Battle Rattle”

The committee also recommended extending M-16A2 training. Every trainee at BMT receives on Day 1 an M-16 rifle, which they carry through the sixth week of BMT. The rifle is identical to those issued in the operational force, except for its inability to fire live ammunition.

Unlike before, today’s trainees become intimately familiar with their weapon, learning how to tear it down, reassemble it, and clean it. “This training immediately connects the trainees with a warrior role, ingrains weapon safety and security, and allows the trainee to become comfortable with the weapon prior to the field deployment exercises,” according to a BMT factsheet.

After the 2004 panel review, most of the basic skills classes at BMT were moved to the first few weeks of training. Classes such as Air Force doctrine, which had previously been taught in the first two weeks, were moved closer to graduation. BMT officials say it’s important to make sure trainees can become expeditionary warriors, before going into the finer details of what it means to be an airman.

“When you deploy you go through a lot of stress, no matter what career field you are in. Some people are going to have post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some people are just going to be a little different because they’ve been to the war zone. So the Air Force is really working on what it calls airman resiliency,” said Col. William H. Mott V, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland. BMT officials report to the 37th TW, which is aligned under 2nd Air Force at Keesler AFB, Miss.

“You … build up to deploy, go over there, survive whatever goes on in combat, and then come back and get on with it,” was how Mott summarized an airman’s deployment routine. “That’s exactly how BMT is set up.”

In February 2006, Air Force leaders decided to extend BMT to eight-and-a-half weeks. When the extension was implemented two years later, officials were able to incorporate Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training with the additional time. BEAST—a $31 million program—replicates the scenarios airmen might experience while deployed.

The BEAST grounds include 110 acres of rugged terrain, which is broken into four zones where trainees live in tents, eat MREs, and are tasked with protecting their comrades and warding off attackers while dressed in full “battle rattle.” The most grueling part is the tactical course, where trainees low crawl to wooden barriers, charge the enemy with their rifles, and make spur-of-the-moment ethical decisions such as deciding whether a woman and her child pose a threat. Finally, they make the exhausting high crawl up a steep, sandy hill as they dodge “sniper fire.” The five-day field training makes the old Warrior Week look like Candy Land.

No longer are instructors leading the events. Trainees now run everything from the command centers to tactical patrols down the 1.25-mile Alison Alley—an improvised explosive device-laden dirt path that winds around the outskirts of the BEAST grounds. Alison Alley is named after retired Maj. Gen. John R. Alison, a founding father of Air Force special operations and a former AFA Chairman of the Board.

Instructors intentionally keep “junk” along the path to make it difficult for trainees to spot the IEDs. In one area, a maroon sedan with blackened windows sits on a small hill. If you look closely, you can see a tiny green wire hanging out of the trunk, which is much lower than the front of the car, signifying a large amount of explosives buried inside. Around the corner, trainees may get distracted by a flip-flop hanging on a high chain-link fence, but the inevitable boom demonstrates it’s already too late.

Trainees take on the gas chamber during chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives training at Lackland AFB, Tex. (USAF photo)

The flip-flop represents a daisy chain bomb. Instructors, acting as insurgents lurking in the woods, wait until someone walks past the sandal before detonating a high-powered explosive farther up the trail.

“It took me 20-plus years to get that kind of training; now they get it in the first eight weeks,” said SMSgt. Mark Heath, the first sergeant for the 319th Training Squadron.

You will be hard pressed to find anyone at Lackland or in the Air Force senior leadership who won’t tell you that BEAST was the best thing to happen to BMT in decades. The MTIs love it because it significantly expands training for the next generation of airmen, giving them the skills they need to operate effectively starting Day 1 in their new units. Despite the sometimes daunting challenges, the trainees also love BEAST because it gives them the opportunity to truly earn the title of “airman” and the confidence to begin their military careers.

“I like physically challenging things; BEAST was awesome,” said seventh-week trainee Cory Mayo, 20, from Lebanon, Maine, in early December. At the time, Mayo, who plans to be an environmental electrician on KC-135s at Pease ANGB, N.H., had just completed the field training exercises. “The most difficult part of basic is working with individuals, working with your flight to get tasks done on time and correctly. We all have different ways to do things, but it’s just a matter of getting everyone to work together.”

Mayo, who admits to “being a little bit lazy” before he joined the Air Force, now says he wishes it were a little more challenging to tackle the BEAST. Oddly enough, he is not alone and BMT officials are answering the call.

Trainees find an improvised explosive device as they make their way down Alison Alley, a mock IED trail that winds around the outskirts of the BEAST grounds. (USAF photo)

Precious Cargo

Officials are souping up the tactical course with realistic-sounding sniper fire and pop-up targets designed to force trainees to communicate and think on their feet. Instead of 50 trainees running the course in what typically turned out to be organized chaos, instructors will break the flights down into teams of 11 to 15. Each team will have one person who is responsible for carrying a “precious cargo” through the course.

“They need to realize that if the person carrying the precious cargo goes down, the entire mission is a failure. They are going to have to communicate more and pay attention to the entire team,” said Lt. Col. Shane Haughian, who as the commander of the 319th Training Squadron is responsible for operational and field training at BMT.

Officials also are reworking Alison Alley. Instead of being tasked with finding one IED hidden somewhere along the trail, the same small tactical teams will be tasked with finding four to five IEDs. Since 2008, trainees have walked down the path in groups of approximately 50. That meant those in the middle or in the rear often would hear the loud boom of an explosive detonating long before they had an opportunity to spot the warning signs. Only the trainees leading the pack really received the full benefits of the exercise. That won’t be the case anymore. Trainees will rotate running point, so each person will have an opportunity to spot the IED, call it in, and cordon it off, said Haughian.

“We are the only people in DOD [with] IED training in basic training, and we are trying to make it better,” said Haughian with obvious enthusiasm. “These guys aren’t going to be EOD guys after this,” but they will be able to tell what a victim-activated device is and “they’ll be able to recognize an IED.”

A trainee carries an M-16A2 after completing the tactical course. Trainees are assigned the rifle on the first day of BMT and carry it every day for six weeks. (USAF photo )

In mid-December officials said they planned to launch a leadership course known tentatively as the Expeditionary Team Challenge. The course, designed by MTIs and emergency management instructors, strives to make the BEAST experience even better for trainees. It will include about 10 checkpoints, or challenges, each to be named after a core value or a line from the Airman’s Creed. For example, at one point trainees will be tasked with carrying their “precious cargo” across raging waters—a roughly 20-foot-wide dirt path marked off by green sandbags. Tree stumps are strategically placed throughout the “river,” and trainees will have to take various-size planks meant to simulate a raft or boat to carry themselves across. The obstacle course will require teamwork and creative thinking.

The biggest change, though, will be the incorporation of “Baghland Village,” a mock village made of shipping crates. MTIs will act as civilians milling about, as a local mosque plays Arabic music. Trainees will have to battle a sniper hiding high up in the mosque’s minaret, while they carry a casualty past a mock land mine alley to a designated landing zone about a football field away. As they treat the victim, helicopter sounds will echo from a loudspeaker, making the scenario even more realistic. The training is similar to the predeployment training ground forces receive.

These changes have been in the works for about nine months and recently received AETC’s final approval, Haughian said. Instructors started running beta classes through Baghland Village, and cutting new trails for the leadership course in the fall.

The 22nd BMT panel review, held last May at Lackland, decided to add hand-to-hand combatives into the curriculum, although the details are still being developed. Airmen coming out of Officer Training School, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and the Air Force Academy receive a 10-hour block of instruction in hand-to-hand combat techniques. But, because combatives is a “perishable skill” and pugil sticks are already built into the curriculum, the panel voted down a similar plan for BMT, said Col. Shane P. Courville, the BMT commander.

More Challenges

“When we are looking at the eight-and-a-half-week program, we are just now approaching its two years of existence, so a lot of the changes that have occurred have not fully taken effect,” he said. “We are not to the point where we should be making any drastic changes—at least I don’t think so.”

That doesn’t mean combatives can’t be implemented into already existing training now, and then have the next triennial review vote on a more formalized program in 2013, he said.

Mott, the 37th Training Wing commander, has been working with the Army to see what the Air Force can borrow from its modern combatives program. He also has visited Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago, and was planning a visit to the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Exhausted basic trainees take a break inside a hard shelter after inspecting each others’ body armor during the BEAST five-day deployment exercise. (USAF photo by SSgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

“When I thought of combatives, I thought of Chuck Norris and [two guys] on a blue mat trying to do take downs. No. Combatives is building upon all the skills we already have, and then it goes to that extra level that gives [trainees] that warrior mentality,” Mott said.

Despite the close relationship between Air Force and Army leaders, everyone agrees that for the program to be successful the Air Force needs to make it its own distinct program. Army combatives is meant to train infantrymen how to fight in close quarters with all their gear. The Air Force doesn’t have that mission, but more and more airmen are going outside the wire so it’s important to teach them how to protect themselves and use their weapon if the enemy does attack.

“I’m going to pick and choose from [the Army program] and tailor it for what I want,” Mott said. “I want it … for everyone to get that warrior ethos and be comfortable with their mission, so when we deploy with the Army, we are ready. But I don’t need the full program.”

Training is not the only change in the works at BMT. The Air Force intends to replace its existing 1,000-person recruit housing and training dormitories, which were built in the 1960s, with more modern dormitories, classrooms, and chow halls. The new, larger facilities will be known as airman training complexes. The 1,200-person ATCs were designed with input from MTIs and will have a single open bay, instead of the double bays now, giving MTIs a chance to scan the entire dorm.

Classrooms and dining facilities also will be in a separate building and each ATC will have its own running track and drill pad, limiting the need to deconflict schedules. The 40-year-old dormitories accrue hefty maintenance bills and limit the training officials can incorporate into BMT, Courville said.

To house and feed nearly 10,000 trainees, the total price tag for eight ATCs and four classroom-chow halls comes in just under $1 billion. The first two have already been funded and the first new generation facility is slated to open in January 2012, with the entire campus scheduled for completion in Fiscal 2016.

“Once this comes online you are going to see an entire redesign from the tactical level to the size of the flights in the classroom, to the types of instructional material that is used,” said Lt. Col. Michael Paquette, the commander of the 331st Training Squadron. “It will be a whole new world in how we use the classroom space.”