July 22, 2009:
The U.S. Air Force has a unity problem, and it's become more obvious to airmen as more of them serve as "augmentees", serving with the army to help provide support services for the soldiers that are doing most of the fighting. So far, about ten percent of airmen have been assigned to work with the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. There, they are exposed to the different "culture" of the army (and, to some extent, the navy, which also sends many augmentees). One big difference many airmen have noticed is that the army and the navy both have a unifying job that the air force lacks. In the army and marines, everyone is considered potential infantry. They are armed and trained for that, no matter what their regular job is. In the navy, everyone is trained to act as a fire fighter (damage control). In every ship, the entire crew is trained to turn out to fight fires and "save the ship" from combat, or natural disaster, damage.
While many soldiers and sailors like to complain about this extra duty, and the training that goes along with it, they all take a unifying pride in a shared responsibility. The current war has given all soldiers and marines (and many augmentees) an opportunity to experience this shared responsibility first hand. Over there, nearly everyone performs some security duties, and is armed and trained to do so. Anyone who operates outside the wire (camp) is heavily armed and often riding in an armored vehicle. And many of those road warriors have experienced roadside bombs or enemy fire. Thus an army truck driver or supply clerk has a shared experience with the infantry who, like fighter pilots in the air force, are the principal fighters, and the people everyone supports.
The air force is different. While someone in the army or navy will identify themselves as a soldier or sailor, airmen will more often identify more with their occupational specialty (AFSC). Augmentees notice this, and are wondering if the air force would benefit from a unifying theme. At present, the different communities (maintainers, medical, air crew, security, intelligence, ammo specialists, administration, etc.) all see themselves as a community unto themselves, and the other air force job communities as alien as soldiers, sailors and marines.
Many of these augmentees believe that the air force should establish this theme of base security and defense as a unifying theme. This is actually, well sort of, happening as a result of the augmentee program. For this is the first time in over thirty years that U.S. Air Force enlisted personnel are regularly engaged in ground combat. This is because everyone running convoys in Afghanistan or Iraq has to help out with security.
At first, this was a problem for the air force. Their regular security forces were busy providing increased base security, and their special operations people were working hard with SOCOM. Finding a lot of air force people who were handy with small arms proved a challenge. Air force basic training only involves a week of field training, including learning the basics of firing a rifle. Airmen fire those rifles once every two years. So the air force created a special four week combat course for airmen headed to Iraq. The course is taught by many airmen who already have combat experience in Iraq.
The air force does have ground combat troops. They have 23,000 men and women assigned to this security force duty. The security forces are trained and equipped as light infantry, although their primary job is base protection and police work. These security troops regularly train with infantry weapons (mainly assault rifle, pistol and light machine-gun.) Each major air base also has an Emergency Services Team (EST), which is basically a SWAT team formed from security forces volunteers. The EST personnel get more intensive training in weapons and tactics.
Starting last year, in addition to more training with assault rifles and pistols, all airmen began taking a course in hand-to-hand combat. The Air Force Combatives program is a 20 hour version of the 40 hour U.S. Army Combatives Program. It basically teaches you the best moves to make if you are ever in a hand-to-hand combat situation. Airmen are encouraged to take additional training, after they have completed the mandatory 20 hours of instruction. Those who have served in Iraq, and especially those who came back with a combat badge, don't need much encouragement.
For the first time since the Vietnam war, air force personnel are regularly assigned to ground combat duties. This is changing the air force culture, and those airmen who have seen the unifying theme of a shared secondary job skill in the army, marines and navy, would like to see something similar for their own service. Out of unity comes strength.