Leadership: The USAF Demilitarizes

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March 3, 2015: The U.S. Air Force is again revising its basic training. Rather than go back to the pre-2001 6.5 weeks, basic remains 8.5 weeks but over a week of combat related training has been replaced by more training on ethics, sensitivity, sexual harassment, time and money management and the potential difficulties in adjusting to air force life.

This return to a less combat oriented basic actually began in 2008 when the air force started winding down its infantry training program. It cancelled the construction of its CBAT (Common Battlefield Airmen Training) center in Louisiana and cut back on other programs for training airmen headed for Iraq and Afghanistan (for ground support jobs to help the army and marines). CBAT was designed to eventually train 14,000 airmen a year to be more skilled in ground combat.

All this interest in combat training for air force recruits began in 2004 when, for the first time in over thirty years, U.S. Air Force enlisted personnel found themselves regularly engaged in ground combat. This was because everyone running convoys in Iraq had 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. At the time air force basic training only involved a week of field training, including learning the basics of firing a rifle. Airmen fired those rifles once every two years. So the air force created a special four week combat course for airmen headed to Iraq. The course was taught by many airmen who already have combat experience in Iraq.

As more airmen were exposed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became obvious that it was essential for a lot more air force people to learn how to fight on the ground. To deal with that, the air force established an 18 day long Ground Combat Skills course (GCS). The air force set up several locations to give the course, and most airmen headed for Iraq, Afghanistan or South Korea are given infantry training there. In 2008 it was decided that these courses would continue as long as needed but the air force did not believe it needed a separate facility (CBAT) for this.

The GCS training includes handling weapons, as well as a large variety of ground vehicles (including forklifts), in a combat situation. The last two days of the course are spent in the field, running through realistic situations, often using live ammunition. The most intense combat exercises use simunitions. These are low velocity, non-metal bullets fired by (modified) standard weapons. The simunitions will sting (and leave a paint spot on your uniform) if they hit, and this adds another layer of realism to the exercise. Nearly all the instructors have already served in a combat zone, and the training is constantly updated with new information from the combat zone. The last 48 hours involves sleep deprivation, night operations, convoys and the kind of stress to be found in ground combat.

The air force does have ground combat troops. They have over 20,000 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.

The army also has security forces similar to those of the air force. There are 30,000 army military police (MPs). Because of this similarity, the air force has sent hundreds of their security personnel to Iraq to help out army MPs. This work involves guarding prisons, as well as convoy protection. While the air force security troops doing convoy protection get more publicity, there were actually more air force security personnel involved in guarding prisons and air bases in Iraq. Nevertheless, for the first time since the Vietnam War, the air force people regularly assigned to ground combat duties.

Starting in 2008 in addition to more training with assault rifles and pistols, all airmen going off to work with the army 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.

Since 2002, for the first time since the Vietnam War, air force personnel were regularly assigned to ground combat duties. This has changed 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.

 

 


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