Weapons School Rising

Sept. 1, 2008

In January, the Air Force will open a new F-22 weapons instructor course at the USAF Weapons School, Nellis AFB, Nev. At about the same time, it will probably launch a similar course for two unmanned aerial vehicles—the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Some of the service’s top young operators should begin cycling through the courses now in the final stages of development.

Establishment of these new disciplines is a big deal, but the change doesn’t stop there. The Weapons School is undergoing a large-scale rejuvenation. This is expected to be a critical factor in preserving the Air Force’s qualitative combat edge.

New aircraft with advanced capabilities—the F-22, for example—often are entering the operational force inventory in numbers far smaller than planned. Many systems, such as the B-52, are older than the typical pilots. Other aircraft, such as the Predator and Reaper, essentially went straight from development to combat, with USAF scrambling to maximize their power.

A Weapons School F-22 takes off from Nellis AFB, Nev. The Raptor course will begin turning out new F-22 weapons officers next year. The graduate patch (inset) is awarded to about one out of every 20 qualified officers. (USAF photo by CMSgt. Gary F. Emery)

All of these factors conspire to make the quality of its operators a key Air Force advantage. The Air Force is determined to exploit that advantage, which is where the Weapons School comes in.

The Weapons School once focused on creating experts in “their” system. Today, platform-specific expertise is still developed, but is followed during the 5.5-month class by course work and training flights that emphasize integrated effects.

Part of the USAF Warfare Center, the Weapons School dates to 1949, when it was the Aircraft Gunnery School. It rose to its greatest prominence in the 1970s. Future generals John P. Jumper, Ronald E. Keys, and other students and instructors worked to improve F-4 Phantom tactics in response to the frustrating results in Vietnam, and to develop the tactics needed to make the most of the then-new F-15’s capabilities.

Throughout the 1980s, the school steadily added new courses and today has 17 squadrons executing weapons instructor courses (WICs) for everything from the F-16 to intelligence. The demands of the Global War on Terror have accelerated the changes.

In-House Experts

The goal remains the same, however: Train a cadre of officers who return to their squadrons and become the in-house tactical experts, the masters of integration.

Plans for the Predator and Reaper WIC have been turbulent. It was just February when Gen. T. Michael Moseley, then Chief of Staff, announced the plan for a Weapons School UAV squadron. Since then, the nascent squadron has been scrambling to assemble a cadre of instructors, build a syllabus, and secure access to the necessary equipment. The goal was to run a validation course in the second half of 2008 (08B), with 09A being the first full-up course.

In June, however, this plan was deferred by a minimum of six months—a casualty of the surge of Predators and Reapers into the US Central Command war zone. The students and equipment needed to run a UAV weapons course are instead being diverted to the operational units at Nellis and nearby Creech Air Force Base. “All my instructors were ‘deployed’ back to the ops units to assist with the surge,” said Lt. Col. Daniel J. Turner, commander of the provisional UAV squadron.

The F-22 course also has a problem of too few airplanes. Raptors are spreading out to operational units around the United States, and the 433rd Weapons Squadron received its first F-22 earlier this year. The squadron, which also runs the F-15C WIC, has to share Raptors with Nellis’ operational test community, however, because of the Air Force-wide shortage of F-22s.

Nine to 13 Raptors with WA and OT tail codes will be shared at Nellis. Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog, commander, USAF Warfare Center, said the aircraft will all be identically prepared so that they can perform both test and WIC sorties, perhaps on the same day. The number of Raptors at the Warfare Center will fluctuate as aircraft become available and depart again for other assignments.

The F-22 curriculum has been several years in the making, and will run a “validation course” the first half of 2009, said Maj. Micah Fesler, chief F-22 instructor with the squadron. The first full-up course will be 09B.

The ultimate goal is to train about four Raptor weapons undergraduates (WUGs) per session, in addition to six F-15C WUGs. The F-22 and Eagle share the air dominance mission, which is why they are grouped together.

“The biggest thing is force enabling,” said Fesler. “I can go into an anti-access environment” and hit somebody really hard, really fast, and “they don’t see it coming.” Most legacy platforms can’t go into the most dangerous zones on Day 1 of a war, meaning the F-22 and B-2 bomber remain the “centerpiece” for anti-access operations, he said. The Raptor course will fly integrated missions with the stealth bombers.

The course will teach skill sets, not responses to specific threats. Air superiority and suppression of enemy air defenses/destruction of enemy air defenses “go hand in hand,” Fesler said, “Air dominance is both of those things.”

An HH-60G Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopter approaches Ft. Bliss, Tex. The crew was taking part in a Weapons School live-fire training exercise. (USAF photo by TSgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

Building a proper F-22 course is difficult because the fighter is so much more capable than the other fighters in the Air Force’s inventory. Traditional tests don’t necessarily challenge Raptor pilots.

A straight-up battle against F-15s or F-16s isn’t a fair fight, as evidenced by the Raptor’s performance at its first-ever Red Flag exercise last year—when the pilots rang up lopsided victories against the more experienced Red Air force.

“I can’t see the [expletive] thing,” Royal Australian Air Force Squadron Leader Stephen Chappell, an exchange F-15 aggressor pilot, said at the time. Battling the F-22 “annoys the hell out of me.”

Adversaries “focus on the things they see,” said Fesler. “They look at all the F-15s and F-16s out there, and [an F-22 is] basically a ghost. … I can pick and choose who I kill.”


The Weapons School is therefore searching for the right ways to challenge the F-22 pilots. One of the basics is to overwhelm the students with numbers, said Col. Scott A. Kindsvater, USAF Weapons School commandant. It is important to put the Raptor pilots into “situations where they’re outnumbered and where they run out of missiles,” or where they have to protect large numbers of vulnerable aircraft against enemy attack.

In fact, Fesler noted, one of the early proposed F-22 scenarios was already rejected for being too hard.

Information management is another skill that must be developed, Fesler said. Raptor pilots will have to learn when to get on the radio to distribute the information their sensors have gathered, and when it is best to just shut up.

Small numbers of new aircraft don’t change the fundamental reality that the Weapons School has a much broader group of assets at its disposal than in years past. Today, only 30 percent of the students come from the traditional fighter specialties.

Simply getting the needed office space and airspace time over the Nellis Range can be a problem with 17 squadrons.

“Range wars” and shared spaces are nothing new—prioritizing access has been difficult since at least the 1970s. Crowding does have one undeniable advantage: It helps bring the Weapons School squadrons together, fostering the integration needed to get past platform-centric insularity and the notorious service stovepipes. The F-15 and A-10 courses joined the F-4 WIC in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

“After the A-10 school had knocked around the base for a few months,” it was put into the same building as the F-15 school, wrote Clarence R. Anderegg, chief USAF historian, in the book Sierra Hotel. This “forged strong associations among the pilots of the two vastly different jets with totally different missions.”

The recently expanded Weapons School building houses the majority of the squadrons (some, such as the B-52 WIC, are headquartered at other bases) and allows the various squadrons to easily get together to discuss tactics and upcoming missions.

For flying time, the Warfare Center has to keep a “priority matrix,” Hoog said, which means lots of night flying and staggered schedules.

Weapons School officials cite the need to balance immediate combat needs with efforts to build the tactics, techniques, and procedures needed for future fights. Much of this is accomplished through course work that builds skills useful in all theaters. Improved close air support skills developed for Iraq, for example, are also of use in Korea.

A C-17 prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135 over Nevada during a Weapons School mobility event. Once for fighters only, the school in the 1980s began adding courses for other aircraft. (USAF photo by MSgt. Robert W. Valenca)

Solutions and Skills

The various WIC syllabi are updated every year, and many of the changes are made to address the demands of the War on Terror. A look at some of the recent updates illustrates how the school is working to solve immediate combat needs so that graduating “patch wearers” head to the operational squadrons with solutions in mind and the skills needed to perform new missions.

F-16: The focus of the flying missions has shifted away from air-to-air toward air-to-ground strikes, with roughly three-quarters of the sorties now emphasizing A2G missions. Maj. William Betts, one of the F-16 instructors, said there is talk of reducing the air-to-air component even further, and two close air support missions were recently added to the curriculum. Three of the scenarios are “specific” to the desert, he said, but the skills carry over.

B-52: This year, a nuclear-themed sortie returned to the B-52 course after being cut in previous years. Maj. Mark Dmytryszyn, B-52 instructor, said there is interest in further increasing the nuclear profile to reflect the priorities at the operational squadrons, but there are “limits on what we have access to” at the Weapons School. There is a heavy emphasis on standoff strike and the skills needed in the Pacific Theater, including the overwater mining mission. Gone is training for low-level conventional bombing.

C-130: Missions have taken on a distinct tactical bent. Night-vision goggle landings, arrivals at unimproved assault landing zones, and delivery with the Joint Precision Air-Drop System are all keyed to CENTCOM’s needs. Access into denied or dangerous areas is a priority.

KC-135: The course is now emphasizing combat arrivals and departures and avoiding Stinger-type man-portable missiles. The tankers have no defensive systems and poor situational awareness, so from MANPADS to small-arms fire, “[anything] can threaten us,” said Maj. Matt Petro, one of the refueling instructors. Students spend two weeks on these terminal-area threats and learn how to safely move refueling locations as close to the fight as possible.

Six C-130s taxi at Nellis during a Weapons School-sponsored mobility exercise. The C-130 and C-17 weapons instructor courses emphasize tactical skills such as dirt-strip landings in hostile areas. (USAF photo by Amn. Stephanie Rubi)

HH-60: High-altitude missions, above 6,000 feet, have become a priority as combat search and rescue teams operate in the mountains of Afghanistan. Students work with escort aircraft, such as A-10s and F-15Es, and rescue personnel. In this high-demand field, “one of the issues is even getting enough students,” said instructor Capt. Kirk Adams. The squadron has the ability to train four WUGs per term, but has only been getting two.

Space: The Weapons School’s space squadron traditionally prepared students to move into air operations centers, the Joint Space Operations Center, or space command and control squadrons. Now space weapons officers are also being sent to individual space squadrons to serve as experts more akin to the other weapons officers. Training focuses on theater missile defense, CSAR support, and other current missions.

Though the UAV WIC is on hold, its goals are clear for when it does stand up. Maj. Joseph L. Campo, who was serving as director of operations for the provisional squadron, said UAV assignments were previously one-offs. Rated officers did a tour before returning to their primary aircraft.

This made it hard to find expertise in the systems, so one of the goals will be to develop Predator and Reaper experts who will be the “best on the base.” Nearly all WIC sorties will be “directly applicable to today’s fight,” he said.

While the Predator and Reaper are distinct and require different training, they are not as different as an F-15C and F-15E, Campo said. Therefore, all the weapons instructors will be dual-qualified.

The Weapons School plans to open courses for the MQ-9 Reaper, such as this one at Creech AFB, Nev., as well as for the MQ-1 Predator UAV. (USAF photo by Lance Cheung)

Current UAV combat missions are fully integrated with other attack and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, the combined air operations centers, and joint terminal attack controllers and other forces on the ground, so integration will be no novelty for Predator and Reaper students. For many WUGs, however, the chance to work closely with other platforms is what stands out most about the Weapons School.

The course was a rare chance to “integrate all the pieces instead of the unit specifics,” said Capt. Ryan Garlow, a graduate of the 08A course for KC-135 pilots. He is returning to a squadron that has seen half its assets deployed at all times.

There is “no other place to work like this,” added Capt. Megan Luka, a graduate of the 08A command and control course. Luka was headed to Robins AFB, Ga., to serve as an E-8 Joint STARS weapons officer.

The graduates are expected to be humble, approachable, and credible—traits that sound self-serving but are actually instrumental to the school’s success.

“You bring in the best of the best, and teach them to do things others only read about,” said Kindsvater. “Over time, if left unattended, it could develop into a roving motorcycle gang because these are all meat-eating warriors.”

Being humble, approachable, and credible makes the graduates valuable to both superiors and junior officers. Squadron and group commanders trust their input to solve complex tactical issues, and young lieutenants turn to them for advice and assistance.

By the time graduates earn their Weapons School patch, “they get it,” said Kindsvater—they think in terms of integrated effects and no longer view their system in isolation.

This expertise, dispersed throughout the Air Force, helps keep the force constantly at the cutting edge of combat capability.

Building a Weapons Officer

The Air Force expects new Weapons School graduates to be tactical experts for their commanders and top instructors at their units. Getting to that point is not easy.

The process begins with selection. Candidates must be instructors, volunteer for the course, and be selected by their wing leadership and a larger selection board. They are typically first lieutenants or captains with five to 10 years of experience. This demographic means the “9/11 generation” is now working through the school.

Only five percent of qualified candidates are selected, and roughly 80 new “patch wearers” graduate every six months from the thousands of pilots, rated aircrew, and space and intelligence officers the Air Force produces every year.

Even with the rigorous selection standards, 10 percent of the students wash out before completing the course.

There is a definite grooming process. Capt. Megan Luka, a 2008 graduate, noted that her previous wing and squadron commanders, and her director of operations, were all Weapons School grads. They helped steer her toward the course.

Maj. Kevin P. Coyle, Weapons School staff director, said at “about the first lieutenant level, you start looking for the person to replace you.”

What follows is a 5.5-month course averaging 379 hours of classroom instruction and 25 missions, culminating in a two-week long Mission Employment phase that serves as a sort of final exam. Students must manage the battle and master their combat system and how it integrates with others.

The ME phase is “as close as we can get to combat,” said Col. Scott A. Kindsvater, Weapons School commandant. Unlike Red Flag, which is geared toward young wingmen and first-time mission commanders, ME throws the book at the students.

Coyle noted that many skills are not exercised on current deployments. There is presently little need for AWACS crews to perform tactical battle management in Southwest Asia, but all relevant skills get exercised in ME. Coyle said, “No missions are harder than what you see here.”

For example, if there is a pilot down, “do you send a CSAR package into an SA-10 ring?” Kindsvater asked.

To help foster creative thinkers, “some problems presented are unsolvable,” said Kindsvater.

Most of the Air Force’s fighter wing commanders are Weapons School graduates. There is less historical connection in USAF’s other communities, but patch wearers are starting to show up as squadron commanders in the mobility, space, and other communities.