Agile Combat Employment demands Airmen develop a broader set of skills so smaller teams can accomplish the mission from remote, austere, and temporary operating bases. Airman 1st Class Jessi Monte
Photo Caption & Credits

Swiss Air Force Knives

Feb. 19, 2021

Multi-capable Airmen are the key to Agile Combat Employment. Here’s how the Air Force is trying to make the force less specialized.

Agile Combat Employment (ACE)—the idea that small numbers of aircraft and personnel can quickly move forward and fight from remote and austere locations, with a minimal footprint—is catching on. Born in the Pacific Air Forces when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. was in command and also tested in Europe, the concept depends on the idea that Airmen can be trained to do multiple jobs so that fewer Airmen overall need to be deployed for any given operation. 

Now the Air Force is developing a program and syllabus for Airmen to be designated “multi-capable,” so that they’re prepared to do things like protect a base, load weapons, marshal and turn aircraft, and other tasks in addition to those jobs defined by their specific Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). 

“The old concept of [mobilizing for combat] is: We roll in a really big package, and we’d have kind of a permanent footprint,” said Maj. Gen. Mark. D. Camerer, the commander of the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center (EC). “And we would expect that we were always assured we can defend the base, and we didn’t have to worry about attack from above or from elsewhere; we can stay there a long time, we can bring 200, 300, 400 people to execute that.

The concept is for Airmen “to train as a cross-functional team.”Maj. Jeffrey VanGuilder, chief of operations at USAF’s Expeditionary Center

“Now: How do we skinny that down so that it’s a small team of mobile Airmen that can move? Just the capability you need on a moment’s notice … and … one step always ahead?”

How the Plan Began

The push for making multi-capable Airmen (MCA) began in the summer of 2019, as deputy commanders from across the Air Force met for the “USAF Agility Conference.” Agile Combat Employment was taking hold across the service, and a growing realization was setting in that Airmen needed more skills to make it a reality. At the end of the five-day conference, the deputy commanders tasked the Air Force Expeditionary Center to generate expeditionary combat support training for deploying Airmen for contingency response.

“Since the requirement is really driven between PACAF and USAFE—those operational theaters of war where our near-peer adversaries reside—they’re the ones who are setting out the concept of operation for us,” Camerer said. “And then we helped them write an overall guide to Agile Combat Employment that we gave out to the major commands, who can take their specific requirements and push that down to their wings, and kind of begin training and developing [at] a very tactical level how they would employ it.”

The Air Force Expeditionary Center’s Expeditionary Operations School teaches combat skills to deploying Airmen—skills they will only need if trouble arises at their operating bases.

Airmen in the school spend two weeks learning weapons and medical skills, culminating with land navigation and exercises in which they encounter active shooters, interact with “locals” to develop intelligence, and other scenarios more familiar to Soldiers than Airmen. The baseline training aims to keep the Airmen calm under pressure by providing the basic knowledge they need if things get hairy. 

The school already cycles about 10,000 Airmen through per year go, and the Air Force wants to build on that baseline in its quest to train multi-capable Airmen.

The concept is for Airmen “to train as a cross-functional team, enabled by cross-utilization training, and [learn] to operate independently to accomplish those mission objectives within acceptable levels of risk,” said Maj. Jeffrey VanGuilder, the chief of operations in the EC’s operations, logistics, and plans directorate, who is overseeing the creation of the MCA syllabus.

Developing the Syllabus

After the initial conference in August, the EC team focused on identifying the skills needed to build a team that could operateexpeditionally, the number of Airmen needed for that team, and the training they would need to receive. 

The first iteration included 38 Airmen; the latest has 33. The center continues to strive for even smaller teams, perhaps as few as a dozen. 

Airmen must be well versed in small arms and perimeter defense for Agile Combat Employment to work on a wide scale. Tech. Sgt. Luther Mitchell Jr.

“We need to be as small as possible to keep that light, lean, and agile mentality in place,” VanGuilder said. 

Every few months, the Expeditionary Center updates Majcoms and seeks input on the current plan. A beta syllabus was presented in February 2020 and another is expected in early 2021.

Building on the deployment training, the multi-capable Airmen training would add new cross-training objectives into existing events, so that the overall length of the course does not need to change, while the focus and outcomes can, VanGuilder said.

“We owe it to the Airmen to develop a model for the training that is sustainable, so as the PCS they don’t have to re-accomplish task lists every time they move,” he said. “That’s a waste of our time, that’s a waste of their time, and it’s a waste of the installation’s time.”

AMC Commander Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost said not everyone will go through these courses. “Right now, we’re saying a small percent, maybe 10 percent or so. … But we’ll have to see how that’s done, how quickly we can do that. When you look at the basics of what we have to do, … we have to have the mindset that we’ve got to be ready for anything.” 

With ACE, the number of Airmen deploying to a given location will be fewer than in the past, Van Ovost said, “because you can’t bring a large footprint in.” 

For some, the training will be very basic; for others, it will be more challenging. Many Airmen have not touched a rifle since basic training or worked in any sort of austere environment. New skills “can be as simple as how to eat an MRE,” VanGuilder said. 

Following “tier one” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Airmen would return to their wings to train for specific missions and operating areas. Wings will have to assess the skills they need to accomplish their specific missions, Camerer said. 

“If we’re going to turn F-22s, with a certain ground time, that’s different than if it’s a B-1, a C-130, or a C-17 that’s coming through the same airfield,” Camerer explained. “If we’re going to reload weapons, if we’re going to prosecute operations that are air-to-air vs. air-to-ground vs. ISR, depending upon the mission that’s going to come through there, you might need a different set of capabilities on the ground,” Camerer said. “So defining how we’re going to execute this is key and where we’re at now. And after that, you can get into a specific kind of training” to address Air Force-wide gaps. 

Base security and survival skills training are part of the effort to grow more multi-capable Airmen. Airman Marcus Sanchez sweeps a leg from under his partner, Airman Austin Seiffert, during the Phoenix Raven Qualification Course for expeditionary Airmen. Maj. George Tobias

Building Tiers in PACAF

In the Pacific, PACAF has tapped the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to take the lead on theater-specific training. The wing’s 36th Contingency Response Group  (CRG) is building on the Expeditionary Center’s initial syllabus and creating two more tiers of follow-on training to develop the skills needed to rapidly turn aircraft in austere or threatened locations, said wing commander Brig. Gen. Jeremy T. Sloane.

“The Expeditionary Center has long had the lead on what this means,” Sloane said. “But their ability to incorporate it into the syllabi [to meet] … the needs for the theater weren’t met until, I think, we started developing these things out here, specific to the theater, through the CRG.” 

True multi-capable Airmen must be more than defenders, Sloane said. In “tier two” courses,  five-level Airmen will learn rapid damage repair, and everyone will need field craft courses and evasion and escape training, Sloane said. Eventually, a third-tier course for seven-level Airmen and higher will teach how to independently create forward air refueling points and mission generation in a semi-permissive or hostile environment and to keep that operating for 12 to 72 hours without resupply or backfill, Sloane said.

“We’re excited because we’re not just developing the syllabi, but we’ve got cross-functional teams of Airmen looking at the optimal AFSCs to combine into [small] packages and the optimal skills required for those multi-capable Airmen and teams to be successful in the theater and across our Air Force,” Sloane said.

Air Combat Command’s 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., has conducted multiple courses to help commands develop multi-capable Airmen, including flying in Airmen and aircraft to do hot-pit refueling, setting up tents, and doing runway repair.

“Everywhere you go, you’re going to see differences, you’re going to see change, you’re going to see people work differently,” said Master Sgt. Christopher West, 23rd Wing MCA program manager, in a release. “Having that opportunity to work with their peers in the same career field, but on a different aircraft, gives them that ability to … do the job necessary to get our aircraft back in the fight a lot faster.”

Bases in Europe are designing their own training events. At Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, for example, the 39th Air Base Wing (ABW) sent Airmen to a three-day course where they learned how to protect, refuel, marshal, and get parts for Army UH-60 Black Hawks that were deployed to the base. Then they went out to the flight line to practice what they’d learned.

“We’re trying to make it to where our Airmen own the training, they just go out and have classes on other jobs,” said 39th ABW Commander Col. John B. Creel in an interview. “So, if you’re a logistical Airman, maybe you go learn how to guard an aircraft. Maybe you’re an airfield manager, you learn how to not only refuel the aircraft, but you also know where to go to get parts for the aircraft.” 

Such events will guide development of requirements and curricula. 

Headquarters Air Force is expected to weigh in soon. Their work would make it official policy by modifying or releasing new Air Force Instructions. Funding would follow in or around 2023.

“The cultural shift has to extend across all different stovepipes,” VanGuilder said. “We need to break down those barriers. I’m not saying that everyone has to be an expert in everything, but we just need to know how to leverage the skill sets in other career fields a bit better.”