How Dover Air Force Base is Accelerating Change

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del.—When new Air Force and Air Mobility Command leaders called on Airmen to “accelerate change” and expand their capabilities beyond their sole duty, Airmen here were already working on two major efforts to broaden their skill sets.

The 436th Airlift Wing opened two facilities and training programs within six months of each other in 2020—the Tactical and Leadership Nexus (TALN) training facility and the Bedrock innovation hub, aimed at pushing Airmen to improve their combat skills and to innovate in new, high-tech ways.

“I think that the culture has been shifting, and the empowerment is there,” Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jaqueline D. Van Ovost said during a recent visit here. “And they’re excited when they’re empowered.”

Van Ovost, in outlining her priorities for the command in October, said AMC needs “multi-capable Airmen” who can accomplish tasks outside their core Air Force Specialty Code, such as providing security for aircraft at austere bases. The goal is to develop “digitally adept Airmen” who can fuse data, analytics, and emerging technology to help the command move faster and smarter.

“In general, our Airmen get it,” she told Air Force Magazine in an interview. “They get that things have shifted.”

In July, Dover cut the ribbon on the TALN training facility—a makeshift collection of small buildings serving as classrooms and a “town” of shipping containers serving as a makeshift village for combat training. Airmen from various AFSCs across the base are tapped for a one-day, 10-hour training course that is designed to give them a quick run through of how to act when things go bad at an austere base.

An Airman trains in an opposing force combat scenario as part of the Tactical and Leadership Nexus training program on Dec. 9, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The new program is focused on training Airmen in combat skills outside of their regular duties. Staff photo by Brian Everstine.

The day starts with four hours of instruction on self-aid and buddy care; chemical biological, radiological, and nuclear training; weapons; and the ability to think quickly and critically under fire.

“The biggest part of the TALN day is the leadership and critical thinking,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Veneman, TALN flight chief, in a release issued when the facility opened. “They get you thinking outside the box and to think about what your next option is.”

After the classroom instruction ends, the more intense training begins. This includes quickly donning a Mission Oriented Protective Posture suit and mask. They are then exposed to tear gas in a confined space to ensure the suit is fitted correctly, and if it’s not, they will learn what CS gas feels like in the real world. Airmen then move through a “leadership reaction course,” a series of obstacles and puzzles where Airmen must lead each other through.

The final, and biggest, event of the day is when the group is broken up into two opposing sides to “fight” each other as opposing forces in a combat scenario. One team is the attacking force, attempting to move through the simulated village, while providing combat aid to dummies representing casualties. The other team must defend their side. Both are armed with M4s or M16s and sim rounds firing paint.

In this scenario, ranks don’t matter. Leaders emerge when pressure starts, and Airmen have to work together to fight through the scenario.

The goal of TALN, which stems back to a 2019 Jersey Devil exercise in which Dover Airmen’s combat skills were shown to be lacking, is for Airmen to have a basic understanding of combat skills that could be needed if deployed to an Agile Combat Employment-type location and are pressed to fight. For many Airmen, it is the first time they’ve held a weapon or been exposed to other combat skills since basic training. 

The class started for the wing’s Active Duty Airmen, and could expand to Guard, Reserve, and other services. The initial plan is for Airmen to go through TALN once every three years. The instructors are volunteers from various career fields who received additional combat and weapons training before running the classes. The program cost about $500,000 in all, with members and volunteers working more than 6,000 hours to complete it before classes began in August, according to a release.

While the 436th Airlift Wing is a busy flying wing, with C-17s and C-5s operating at a high operations tempo, Wing Commander Col. Matthew E. Jones said in an interview there has not been a shortage of Airmen signing up and eager to participate.

“We’re learning through this is [that] if they perceive that what they’re doing is value added, it doesn’t feel like something extra,” Jones said, adding that the signup process has shown interest in not only going through the class early but also trying to become future instructors.

On the other side of Dover, away from the ramshackle village and muddy obstacle course, is a brand-new office space designed to look more like a Silicon Valley startup than the drab USAF base office building it once was. 

The space, called Bedrock, is the home of Dover’s innovation hub. Dover chartered its lab in January 2019, following similar efforts at other bases in the Air Force such as the Phoenix Spark Hub at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The base cut the ribbon on the facility in September, opening it for Airmen from all jobs, along with Key Spouses and other groups, to work together.

The Bedrock facility has a 3D printing hub, a podcast recording studio, several coworking spaces, and a pile of massive beanbags in the middle for Airmen to sit. There’s a small stage reminiscent of TED Talks, and a virtual reality center with devices that allow Airmen to virtually train on C-5s.

The hub has sparked Airmen-developed efforts, such as 3D printing cases for tablets that aircrew use for a fraction of what it would cost to buy specially made commercial versions. Airmen are working on “wicked hard problems that you have out on the flightline, and [they can] bring it here, and keep track, and focus, and make it better,” Van Ovost said. Such facilities have been “popping up around the Air Force … [as] a safe space for them to come and innovate,” she added.