Preparing for a New Way of War

July 1, 2006

The Air Force may have paid a price for its highly efficient wars of the late 1990s. A series of campaigns in the Balkans and the constant patrols of the no-fly zones over Iraq were missions performed with skill, precision, and—for many observers and even participants—a sense of detachment. Air operations conducted from long range with guided weapons looked to some like video games.

Even the massive air campaign during Operation Allied Force ended with two fighters shot down but no airmen as combat fatalities. However, “Kosovo is not Afghanistan or Iraq,” noted CMSgt. Rodney E. Ellison, command chief for Air Education and Training Command at Randolph AFB, Tex.

The Air Force is now preparing its airmen for the new way of war, with updated training regimes spreading throughout the service.

The new way of war requires airmen on the ground, a focus on expeditionary forces, and the need to confront constantly evolving threats that often put airmen in danger even while they are working in the relative sanctuary of a nominally secure air base. Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan place heavy demand on ground-based combat support forces, not the pilots and “iron” that were heavily tasked in the 1990s.

The Cold War’s garrison force is no more. Ever-larger numbers of airmen deploy to austere settings, operate “outside the wire” in combat zones, and face an adaptive enemy that is constantly searching for vulnerabilities.

“There is no rear area” in the war on terror, Ellison said in an interview. Consequently, the Air Force is working to ensure that all airmen are prepared for what they might face while deployed. Nobody is immune from the effects of this war.

Gen. William R. Looney III, AETC commander, noted that Air Force medical personnel deploying from Stateside hospitals to Balad AB, Iraq, are likely to be subjected to mortar attacks while dealing with 120 days of nearly constant combat casualties.

The Air Force also has picked up a number of new missions, such as combat convoy support and prison guard duty, so that the Army can have its troops concentrate on soldiering.

Consequently, USAF in the last year had more than 9,000 airmen go through some sort of training at Army forts and camps. Nearly five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, USAF does have the benefit of more combat veterans than at any time since the Vietnam War, and these “hardened” airmen make excellent instructors.

In Vietnam, there was a philosophy that every airman should be a ground-level defender, Ellison said. The Air Force has gotten back to that philosophy.

A large portion of the airmen receiving basic or technical training in Texas “will be in theater within a year,” observed Looney.

In the unlikely event that recruits aren’t aware of what it means to join the military, even basic military training (BMT) has been changed to emphasize war skills from the outset.

AETC’s perspective is that the United States will be fighting the war on terror for years. Even if the ongoing Iraqi insurgency comes to an end, Iraq is a battle in a larger war, Looney said. Airmen will need expeditionary combat skills indefinitely.

Back to Basics

In 2004, a triennial basic military training review asked if BMT was meeting the theater commanders’ needs. “Quite frankly, it was not,” said Brig. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland AFB, Tex.

That determination set changes in motion. “Airmen were lacking in combat skills and just the [combat] culture,” she said. Some airmen were still coming into the Air Force with a notion that combat was not their responsibility.

Unfortunately, terrorists without uniforms, snipers, mortars, and improvised explosive devices put all airmen in danger. Iraq and Afghanistan have taught that “the war’s coming to you,” Hertog said.

“You can get mortared back in your tent, sleeping, … just like you can hit an IED on a convoy. You are at risk, and you’d better know how to protect yourself,” she said.

For recruits, the change begins with weapons familiarization. Instead of being issued an M-16 in the fifth week of BMT, recruits now are issued on the second day an M-16 that does everything but shoot.

“We’re trying to infuse a culture of warfighter,” Hertog said. The BMT review and conversations with the combatant commanders revealed that the Air Force had people who were “very uncomfortable carrying weapons,” unless they were part of a career field “where you carry it every day.” For most airmen, carrying a weapon felt foreign.

Airmen must “be as familiar and comfortable with a weapon as [they] are with a computer—that’s the bottom line,” said Hertog.

Not only do basic trainees carry the M-16s around, they quickly learn to tear the carbine down, clean it, and reassemble it. When young airmen are deployed and chopped to Army units, these skills are “the expectation,” Hertog said.

In November 2005, BMT was modified and resequenced. Basic training now mimics the Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) cycle, in that airmen prepare, “deploy,” and reconstitute over their course, all to familiarize them with the Air Force’s expeditionary nature. Beginning in the fall of 2007, BMT will make its expeditionary point in an “even more clear and concise manner,” said Looney. Airmen soon will get a lifelike introduction to combat operations by living in tents for days on end, being attacked, and fending off “aggressors.”

This will become possible when basic training expands from 6.5 weeks to 8.5 weeks at the beginning of Fiscal 2008, bringing BMT more in line with the basic training programs of the other services.

Officials had proposed expanding BMT to 8.5 weeks more than 30 years ago, but the proposal was rejected because of funding concerns. Today, the expansion is funded and must wait simply for new infrastructure to be built.

The core of the expanded BMT program will be the Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training exercise, or BEAST. It will be an intense, four-day field training exercise held in the sixth week of basic training. Combat skills training will take place before and lead up to BEAST.

The BEAST area will cost $25 million to construct and will house 1,000 airmen at any given time.

Traditional basic training activities (folding, marching, and shining) will be de-emphasized but will not go away completely. These rituals are still useful in building discipline, teamwork, and a military mind-set, officials say.

Military training instructors are less concerned than they once were about clean rooms, however. The hours spent cleaning are better used developing more useful skills.

“We need to bring more warfighting skills to BMT and care more about that aspect of training than how an airman folds his underwear,” Looney said earlier this year. To that end, trainees have begun rolling shirts and underwear, as they would do in theater.

The curriculum in the final two weeks of the expanded BMT, after the expeditionary skills training, will focus on academic topics such as Air Force organization and history, said Col. Gina M. Grosso, commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland, which runs BMT.

With four days devoted to BEAST (as opposed to a single day of field training today), the two-week expansion will allow for some much-needed depth and reinforcement in the BMT regime, Grosso explained. Currently, many topics are touched on but not covered in depth.

“That’s what these additional two weeks are all about,” added Hertog, “bringing up that proficiency level, showing them how to do low crawls, high crawls, Russian rolls”—all the combat skills that could come in useful in a fight.

Deployment Training Gets Real

Unlike basic trainees who know of nothing else, some experienced airmen can find expeditionary training an eye-opener.

The new combat skills emphasis begins at BMT, but the change is felt throughout the Air Force. Training today is more tactical, responsive to the demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tied to the Air and Space Expeditionary Force deployment cycle. There are numerous examples. Even training for military working dogs has changed.

After 9/11, the Air Force “stopped training drug dogs altogether and just concentrated on bomb dogs, to meet the new demands,” said Hertog. The Air Force trains all DOD and Department of Homeland Security working dogs at Lackland. The priority now is on explosive-detection dogs “and always will be.”

The Chief of Staff has ordered that all airmen deploying to war zones receive a minimum of 19 hours’ worth of expeditionary combat skills training. Typical ECST skills include convoy procedures, rifle fighting, field hygiene, and IED recognition.

A new contingency skills course taught by the Air Mobility Warfare Center at Ft. Dix, N.J., includes representatives from the combat camera, finance, legal, chaplain, contracting, and public affairs career fields. Attendees learn combat first-aid, land navigation, and other practical skills.

USAF’s security forces training courses were expanded in 2002. A 51-day course for enlisted security forces was expanded to 65 days, while security forces officers now have a 78-day training course.

The Air Force recently opened a new combat dive school at a Navy facility in Panama City, Fla., to meet the increased demand for pararescue jumpers, combat controllers, and other battlefield airmen with dive skills.

Plans call for Moody AFB, Ga., to become the Air Force’s Center of Excellence for Common Battlefield Airman Training, which will “further instill the warrior mind-set” in USAF’s battlefield airmen and give them all a baseline skill set.

Basic battlefield airman training for multiple specialties is moving to Moody AFB. Ga., while enlisted aircrew training is being consolidated at Lackland.

“Whenever you have training at multiple locations,” there are a variety of costs associated with that arrangement, said Looney. The advantages to consolidating similar types of training include financial economies of scale and avoiding the cost that comes from having airmen constantly move around. Travel time and mismatched course schedules create time breaks that could be filled with more productive activity.

Ground training for seven of the eight enlisted aircrew specialties, including aerial gunners, airborne battle managers, and loadmasters, will come to Lackland from locations currently spread across the United States.

The linguist specialty, which requires 18 months of ground language training, will not move to Lackland, nor will flight training. Officials say moving the ground-based enlisted aircrew courses will help create a “common aircrew culture.”

Combat Convoys

Perhaps no mission better exemplifies the Air Force’s changed mission than combat convoys in Iraq. USAF has long had transporters—airmen who would drive buses around secure Air Force bases, or take VIPs to the airport.

But since 2004, the Air Force has been supplying drivers and force protection for convoys operating on Iraq’s deadly streets. This is an all-new mission for the service. Not even security forces did this very frequently in the past—traditional security patrols are “presence patrols,” not high-speed convoys operating under fire, noted TSgt. Doug Hatfield, a combat convoy instructor.

USAF quickly spent $11 million to create the Basic Combat Convoy Course (BC3) at Camp Bullis, Tex., to give deploying transporters the skills they need. Security forces and transporters that will deploy and operate as teams undergo 30 10-hour days of training. Half the simulated convoy missions are at night, and the course is realistic and intense.

The BC3 instructors are all veterans of the mission in Iraq. Airmen are trained to use the M-4 carbine, M-249 automatic rifle, and the .50 caliber machine gun, said SSgt. Jake Vail, a combat arms training and maintenance team leader. These are the weapons that meet “the specific needs of the students,” he said. Defenders must be able to fire from moving vehicles, which is a different skill than stationary shooting.

Medical training is also important. “Anybody can get shot,” noted TSgt. Jason D. Hohenstreiter, BC3 lead instructor, who was part of the initial USAF combat convoy detachment that operated out of Mosul, Iraq.

“By the time you go over the berm and into Iraq, it’s too late” to be learning on the job, said MSgt. Martin Lund, the BC3 superintendent. “When you’re in charge of that convoy, you need to know what to do if you’re hit.”

After completing BC3, the airmen go on to additional training at Ft. Sill, Okla., before deploying on a six-month assignment.

A challenge in the field is overcoming cultural differences with the Army, said Hohenstreiter. Air Force and Army language, terminology, and procedures all differ and take some acclimatization. Nonetheless, when BC3 began, the Army was the subject matter expert and continues to certify the Air Force course.

Now, Looney said, the convoy airmen are so well-prepared that Army commanders frequently say the best truck company in their unit is the Air Force truck company.

The mission and the BC3 training are constantly evolving. There are trends in “certain ways that they hit you. … Vehicle-borne IEDs were huge for a while,” Lund said, then the convoys learned to counter that threat. The enemy adapted in kind.

“They’re very smart. They watch what you do; there are videos out there,” Lund said. “They knew, when we got hit, what we were going to do next, and that’s where they were setting other IEDs,” in order to attack responding units.

The June through November 2005 iteration of the course “went through some big changes,” Lund said. At the time, vehicle-borne IEDs, suicide bombers, and IEDs in potholes were emerging as new threats that needed countermeasures.

Hatfield noted that there is an entire block of instruction on how to identify IEDs.

The instructors noted that they can update a course in as little as 24 hours, as soon as lessons or threats are identified in Iraq.

IEDs continue to pose the deadliest problem. Officials would not discuss counter-IED tactics, but Lund did say that “the best thing right now is armor.” Initially, armor consisted of “stuff slapped on the sides of 923s [five-ton trucks] and Humvees,” he said. Today, “everything has to be armored before it goes outside the wire.”

The BC3 program has been an unqualified success. More than 1,800 airmen have been through it, and while graduates have received more than 100 Purple Hearts, Lund notes that there is a fatality rate of less than one percent.

Beyond the Heavy Equipment Operators

The Air Force is attempting to use the demands of the new wars to instill a common warrior culture. Officials say the service is still battling the effects of the “heavy equipment operator” mind-set, observed by former Chiefs of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan and Gen. John P. Jumper, in which airmen relate to their personal piece of equipment instead of to a larger sense of the Air Force.

“Ask a Marine, ‘What do you do?’ and they say, ‘I’m a Marine,'” said Brig. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland AFB, Tex.

Ask an airman the same question, and the answer is likely to be, “I’m a comm troop,” a BUFF pilot, an Eagle driver, or a cop.

“We break down by tribal lines,” she said, and the Air Force has “got to change this whole culture to say, ‘I’m an airman first.’ I think that’s the goal of this growth in combat skills”—to create a common warrior mind-set that all the airmen can relate to.

Hertog said the culture is “slowly changing. … Airmen can’t go into a deployment thinking, ‘I’m just here to serve food.'”

Tough Enough

Officials say examples like the success of USAF’s combat convoys refute occasional criticisms, still heard, that airmen are “soft,” or members of the “chair force.”

“Our airmen have been at war since 1990, whether it be in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, or Afghanistan,” Looney noted. They have taken on new missions, “measured up to the task, and exceeded all expectations.”

He added that, when it comes to ground combat, “airmen need to learn some new skills,” but to equate that to a requirement to be “hardened” is ridiculous. “When it comes to toughness and the ability to get the mission done, our airmen stand just as tall as all the rest,” Looney said.

Flag training exercises now are used as final spin-ups for units about to deploy overseas. USAF Warfare Center Vice Commander Col. Terry L. New, now retired, said in November that, “even in a pretty heavily engaged combat environment,” some combat skills will go unused and “fall by the wayside.” Flag exercises ensure that airmen see a full breadth of operations and are “better able to go into combat.”

Looney said the Air Force has to strike a balancing act between today’s needs and the worst-case scenario of major theater war. Current demands call for skills needed against a persistent but low-level insurgency. USAF does not have to contend with another air force, army, or navy at this time, he said, but “there are also state actors out there.”

The challenge is to remain proficient in the full range of Air Force missions while one type of mission generates the most attention. “This is a full-spectrum Air Force” that must be ready for everything from disaster relief to major theater war, Looney said. “If you put all of your time and energy” into one area, the other skills will atrophy.

Fortunately, training for many of the skills needed in Iraq, such as close air support in an urban environment, is also beneficial in other situations.

Sometimes it is difficult to prepare, however. Gen. Ronald E. Keys, Air Combat Command chief, said in February that fighter pilots tasked with spotting IEDs in Iraq need better Stateside training. A pilot searching for IEDs with an advanced targeting pod “may not have had the opportunity to actually see any of these” until the pilot arrives in theater, Keys said. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Looney said AETC would “love to train all F-16 pilots” to use the latest Sniper pods, but there simply aren’t enough to go around. In fact, there are barely enough to meet the needs in theater, and many of the pods stay put as aircraft rotate in and out. So for the time being, pilots at home station will continue to hone their skills using more readily available Litening pods.