Critical “Patch,” Smaller Window

Oct. 30, 2014

In the spring of 2013, faced with the double whammy of budget cuts and sequestration, the Air Force announced it would, reluctantly, cancel one of its USAF Weapons School classes at Nellis AFB, Nev. Service leaders said the move would have long-term ramifications, eliminating an entire cohort from its future operational-level-of-war expertise.

Nellis has since changed the way it does business. The school has launched an ambitious overhaul of its curriculum. The course is now two weeks shorter, the integration portion has been revamped, and content has been refocused.

With a shorter, more intense curriculum, the Weapons School aims to build graduates who can adeptly integrate aerospace power effects in a joint environment and also mentor their peers.

In an April 2013 speech in Washington, D.C., the chief of Air Combat Command, Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, announced that Weapons School Class 13 Alpha would be cut short, and the group would graduate without conducting the capstone large-force exercise. A second class would be canceled outright. The closure of the school would “affect the Air Force for years,” Hostage said.

Weapons School graduates—known as “patch wearers” because of the flight suit patches they are awarded on graduation—would be in short supply until their year group aged out of the service.

The Weapons School is critical to refreshing the tactical and operational expertise of the Air Force, service leaders said, and has served as the nerve center of the service dating back to its days as the Aircraft Gunnery School, established in 1949.

Of all the eligible instructors in USAF, only about five percent are admitted to each Weapons School course after a daunting application process requiring recommendations, endorsements, and sterling service records.

Candidates must also already be certified instructors. Every six months, the school graduates some 120 weapons officers and specialists from the 24 courses conducted at its 18 weapons squadrons.

Attendees are already of superior quality, and graduates are fast-tracked into key leadership and positions in their career. These graduates return to their units to serve as weapons and tactics officers, and then continue on to a tour at a group or wing position. They will return to the school as an instructor before moving on to a “tier three” billet at an air and space operations center or a major command staff job. There they will advise senior leaders on operational matters. Last year’s class cancellation, senior Nellis officials said, arrested this progression across all USAF career fields.

“The real impact of something like this is in the medium and the long term,” said Maj. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, commander of the US Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis, the parent organization of the Weapons School. The center supervises the development of advanced training, tactics, and capabilities Air Force-wide.

“That’s 120 graduates we did not graduate last year,” Silveria said. “They have specific and crucial roles … across the combat air forces—mobility, strike—[and] everyone who uses graduates will now have less of them.”

The timing compounds the problem. The Air Force is retooling and adjusting priorities after a decade of supporting irregular warfare and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Warfare Center and the Weapons School have switched gears and are again focused on improving training for high-end combat. Having Weapons School graduates newly updated in these skills is vital to the effort.

The school is also working to integrate and nurture emerging and high-demand courses for systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper; offensive and defensive cyber warfare capabilities; and the integration of fourth and fifth generation aircraft. The health of the Weapons School and the quality of its graduates is closely linked with USAF’s ability to be ready to fight against a modernized, well-trained adversary.

After the 2013 cancellation, the Weapons School set out to develop a long-term plan that would maintain the high standards and integrity of the school, keep production levels of top-shelf patch wearers consistent, and do so at less cost. School officials took a “deep dive” into every one of the school’s classes and the goals set out for each, said Weapons School Commandant Col. Adrian Spain.

This allowed them to “look at the valuable things, and keep them, and where we could, merge some aspects with others and add value to other skill sets,” he said.

“When the Weapons School redid the various syllabi, [tactical expertise] is still emphasized, but I think the perspective is that it will be in the context of other systems and capabilities,” Silveria said. “Just knowing your own capability is not enough; you have to know it in context.” This meant reassessing the knowledge and training students, known as weapons undergraduates (or “WUGs”), are expected to have when arriving at Nellis.

Silveria said Weapons School instructors went out across the force to speak with operations and group commanders in the months after the 2013 cancellation, to discuss what they needed, discover what skills are taught at the unit level, and learn what the operational force needed from Weapons School graduates.

When Gaps Emerge

In June, the revamped curriculum made its debut at Nellis. Now a 150-day course instead of 165, significant changes are evident in the Core I and Core II blocks of academics, in each weapons instructor course (WIC), and in a new, three-tier integration phase that now bookends the class.

The Core I portion for each student provides system-specific training to build expert practitioners in a given aircraft or capability and emphasizes fundamentals, such as briefing and debriefing, communication skills, and academics on systems such as radars, command and control tools, data links, and stealth. A WIC will also begin small-scale integration activities to prep students for the more complex portion of the course to come.

With more emphasis on integration, single-system activities were whittled down at the beginning of the course to make room at the back end.

Lt. Col. Richard Bourquin commands the 328th Weapons Squadron (WPS), which oversees the school’s space and cyber superiority courses. As the new curriculum now focuses on improving combined effects and cross-mission synthesis, some of the early academics in the old course format have fallen “off the table” and are addressed by three-week “spin-up courses” for WUGs before they arrive at Nellis, he said. For space instructors, this occurs at Peterson AFB, Colo., while cyber airmen spin up at the intermediate training hub: the 39th Information Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Now, Nellis WIC instructors “have to assume the student comes with as much knowledge as possible,” Bourquin said, and when gaps emerge in the course they are addressed on a “case by case basis.”

The second block, Core II, stresses the academics of integration and mission planning drills for students, to prepare them for the exercise and live-fly portion of the course. These skills involve the missions and tactical challenges graduates will face in combat, such as defensive and offensive counterair, electronic attack, suppression of enemy air defenses, and nuclear scenarios. Mission planning exercises that will inform advanced integration activities now follow the academic blocks.

Each of the school’s WICs has dealt with the changes in different ways. “You can’t get integration in your own piece of the world,” said Lt. Col. William Bladen, commander of the 433rd WPS, the unit that trains air dominance instructors in both the F-15 and F-22. To make ends meet, the 433rd didn’t cut anything out of its Raptor course, but made some early activities optional.

“We did that strategically,” Bladen said, so that maybe they could revisit them later on. From a flying perspective, for example, the F-22 course had three live-fly events, all involving students shooting live ordnance: one, a gun run at an aerial target; another, an instrumented missile; and the last, a bomb.

“While those things are important and they give a lot of confidence in the airplane to do what it is you are asking it to do, we felt like the act of actually doing that didn’t warrant an entire week and all the money with it,” he said.

Simulation, as a result, is now much more pronounced in the Weapons School curriculum. For the F-22 course, the number of events in the simulator—located in Marietta, Ga.—is up from 10 to 14, Bladen said. This saves valuable flight hours and lessens airspace competition at Nellis’ ranges.

When asked about the differences between flying and simulation, Bladen explained that with the simulator, “the computer generates a solution, … you hit the pickle button, and based on that, we judge it a hit or a miss.” Over the Nellis ranges, more often than not, it’s “electrons across the sky, so not actual iron.” Students can make mistakes in the simulator and improve the learning curve for less cost in sorties that don’t require actual flight. “What we’ve seen is, a certain type of [live flight] would be ‘fails’ three times,” he said. “Now, [a student] only fails zero or once.”

The school is trying to build expertise in emergent systems—cyber, for example—at the same time it builds knowledge about how those capabilities fit into the overall effort.

Maj. Douglas Medley, 328th WPS director of operations for cyber instruction, arrived at Nellis in 2010 as one of the initial cadre of cyber operators, to build USAF’s brand-new cyber course. The first cyber WIC class graduated in 2012, and today there are 26 cyber patch wearers in the service.

“There were concerns we would be the kid in the corner,” he said. “But it was the opposite. Cyber became a hot button in 2012, and now … everyone wants to know what we can do.” The Air Force has seven cyber weapon systems, and students arrive at Nellis with real experience in only one, Medley said.

“We give them exposure to six that they don’t have exposure to,” he said.

In the shorter program, the WIC will break out a few missions for building collaboration early on, such as pairing cyber airmen with the 8th WPS to fly a few missions earlier in the course. There, cyber effects join with EC-130 Compass Call, E-8 JSTARS, and other crews, Medley said, but skills are built up in a more “stepping stone” manner.

The biggest change to the course is how the Weapons School brings its various squadrons and capabilities together in a three-week integration phase, leading up to graduation. Many of the cuts made early on in the course were specifically designed to allow for space in this portion of the curriculum, Spain said. It comes after students have learned the academics of airpower integration in the Core II section.

The integration phase takes the place of a 40-day period formerly known as mission employment (ME), building up to a large-force engagement. Integration now lasts three weeks, emphasizing specific objectives in specific scenarios. Previously, students would have performed a stand-alone mission, such as with other F-15s or F-16s, Spain said. Now they will operate with other programs earlier on, much like Medley’s cyber warriors working with electronic attack aircraft.


The first phase focuses on simple mission integration, combined with advanced tactics and intelligence preparation. This gets students ready for missions such as offensive counterair, air interdiction, and bomber and nuclear scenarios.

The intermediate phase ratchets up and includes more complex scenarios: combat search and rescue, collaboration with special operations forces, and night strike operations.

By week three of integration, students are ready for large-scale collaboration and integration, in events like joint forcible entry sorties, with mobility and strike forces, and distributed and dynamic targeting. These activities were associated with the skills and mission profiles once taught under the ME phase.

By the time advanced integration comes along, students have moved beyond just exercising maneuvers, said Lt. Col. Shawn Serfass, commander of the 57th WPS. The unit oversees the C-17 WIC from JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

In advanced integration, students must employ tactics against difficult missions: a contested noncombatant evacuation, for example, or an on-call airdrop. “Not only do you need to be an expert, but you need to link up with [contingency response groups], a variety of Army personnel, and other Air Force platforms,” Serfass said.

Students get that last week of growth by dealing with “massive movements of iron.”

Despite the shortened curriculum, instructors at Nellis said the compressed time frame has had the desired effect. “The irony is, out of necessity comes great ideas,” Bladen said. “My [F-22] students now know more about cyber in air superiority than I ever did.”

Instructors can’t make integration experts out of students in five months, he said, but the new integration phase reinforces basic concepts. “This is about … building the process in their minds, so when they don’t understand something, they know how to ask for it.”

A Weapons School grad, already a sought-after and limited commodity, has become even more valuable. Serfass said the C-17 field has manned about 85 to 90 percent of its Weapons School instructor billets in the past. After force shaping cuts, last year’s cancellation, and the need to move instructors on to other assignments, line units now expect manning to dip to 65 percent for several years. Serfass doesn’t expect to get manning back up to proper levels across the force until 2017—at the earliest.

For Lt. Col. Bryan Callahan, commander of the 26th WPS, the squeeze comes on both ends for his MQ-9 Reaper students.

The remotely piloted aircraft WIC at Nellis, only running since 2009, has experienced constant pressures—both from the demand of combatant commands drawing on pilots and crew and from the lack of career development in a field on a constant war footing. After retooling the course, planners cut back on some earlier WIC RPA sorties—such as extra training in combat search and rescue packages and strike coordination and reconnaissance training—to preserve integration sorties later on.

The Reaper field is now also transitioning from fighter aircraft pilots to younger crews coming through the new RPA undergraduate pilot training program, Callahan added. The new pilots don’t necessarily have basic skills like debriefing or as much tactical background as someone who grew up in fighters, said Callahan, and thus need extra help on the front end of the course. Students arrive “fresh out of combat” where they flew ISR orbits and some close air support.

Callahan said while USAF is drawing back from its Afghanistan mission, the demand for RPA crews, and patch wearers, is only going up—as the MQ-9 becomes the go-to platform to support special operations around the world.

“My weapon system will never be at peace—ever,” he said bluntly. Teaching students how to flow assets behind RPAs, or to work in two-ships of MQ-9s, for example, is critical to improving operations across USAF mission areas—and something absolutely vital for all Weapons School graduates to understand, as they will need to share that knowledge with their peers.

Callahan wants students to understand “this is not a tactics course; it’s a leadership course. … My community is so desperate for leadership, … everyone … is counting on [weapons officers] to lead them through the next tactical problem,” to recognize when effects are needed.

Lt. Col. Michael Walters, commander of the 325th WPS at Whiteman AFB, Mo., echoed Callahan’s comment on leadership. Walters supervises the training of the B-2 WIC. “The leadership portion of this is huge,” he said. “I can get a guy who’s wicked smart, can drop bombs, but if he’s not humble, not approachable, then I only have one-third of the pie.”

Weapons School graduates, Walters said, not only elevate their peers but must be able to explain tactics and think dynamically at the highest levels of the US military later in their careers. B-2 patch wearers, for instance, must know how to explain contested and degraded environments or acceptable and preferred courses of action when dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy air defense system.

This aspect of the Weapons School can never be undervalued, Walters said, as it dictates how decision-makers perceive and understand airpower. He said that if he gives a critical problem to a B-2 patch, “I expect him to take the marker, and take the white board, and tear it apart.”

With the new curriculum—and some creative personnel management—both the 325th WPS and other squadrons will be able to recover their manning levels in a few years, Walters said. He has tapped some Weapons School instructors who are attached to Whiteman’s Air National Guard squadron, the 110th Bomb Squadron, to fill some staffing gaps where they can.

“I think [the cancellation] is something that slowed us down, but what you [see] is that we are still producing great [graduates] and how that critical thinking was put to work,” he said. “I think it was pretty impressive, and nobody is panicking.”