Back in April the US Air Force was forced to take draconian actions due to budget cuts imposed by the Congressional sequestration law. Nine fighter and four bomber squadrons stopped flying while others operated at a greatly diminished capacity. But perhaps the most damaging of all was that the service was forced to shut down its fabled Weapons School—a repository of air warfare knowledge and expertise unequalled anywhere else on Earth. Though the USAF managed to reprogram funding that enabled flight operations to resume in late July, the damage has been done. Lt Col Adrian “Elmo” Spain, an F-22 Raptor pilot who recently became the commandant of the school on 20 June, was kind enough to address the impact of the stand down on the USAF’s most elite institution.
How difficult will it be to recover the lost proficiency of the Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) instructors? How bad is the damage as it stands now?
I believe it is EXTREMELY important that when we speak to the impact of sequester on the Weapons School that we focus on the OUTPUT of the Weapons School which traditionally has been our graduates. The fact that we will not graduate 100+ Weapons Officers in December is the most damaging aspect of the situation we’re in today. However, given that reality, our instructors are embracing the concept that this period is also a real opportunity for a thorough examination of our syllabi without all the demands that come with executing a full class. It is also an opportunity for us to figure out the best ways to export the expertise that is still resident here at the Weapons School without the benefit of graduates (who have typically filled that role). So yes, there is certainly an impact to the proficiency of our instructors, and that proficiency will degrade more and more the longer we are unable to operate. But there are also varying degrees of proficiency throughout the school based on which Weapons System you’re in so some of our folks will be able to recover fairly quickly. Others, who have had longer breaks in their training will take more recovery time. However, assuming at some point we regain the ability to operate in a somewhat normal fashion, we have plans in place that will allow us to be ready to begin training new students within a few months.
When would the school be ready in time for the next class? What about the guys whose class got cancelled, are they going to get a second chance?
The next class will start BASED on when the instructors are ready to execute and not the other way around. Part of the mandate for our instructors is that they be able to safely execute and monitor all of our operations within the various syllabi. So our ability to start a new class will be based on when we regain funding to execute the necessary training events that our instructors need to get back up to that top tier level of instructional capability…I hesitate to say “getting back to normal” operations because I don’t believe we’re ever going back to “normal”…but we have to resume regular, persistent operations to regain the proficiency needed to execute these courses safely and effectively.
The vast majority of the applicants who were selected to attend class 13B have been grandfathered into the next class (14A). However, there were some, for various reasons but mostly having to do with their age that will not be grandfathered. It is important to remember that our graduates, in general, will immediately go to the field to help prepare front line units for combat operations. We ask them to do that for 2-3 years and then call them back to our test units, to Ops Group and Wing level jobs and of course to come back to the Weapons School as instructors…they’ll do those jobs for 2-3 years as well. Once an applicant reaches a certain age we are unable to utilize them in one or the other of the above areas for very long due to professional development needs/requirements that are Air Force career progression milestones. That of course puts an extreme burden on the system, so we try to minimize that situation when and where possible.
If something like this were to happen again, what might the longer-term consequences be for the proficiency of USAF pilots?
As I mentioned earlier, the most dire consequences associated with limited operations for the Weapons School is that we don’t produce graduates. The 100+ graduates that we will not produce in December will be a gap that we cannot replace, we will just have to deal with the effects for the next 7-10 years until the gap works its way through the system. The best way to mitigate that gap is to resume production of graduates that meet the same quality standard we’ve always upheld and the Air Force and Joint community demand, while also producing the numbers needed to fill our manning requirements. Granted, we may have to meet the quality threshold a little differently, but that’s the opportunity I talked about earlier and it’s one of the things our instructors are working so diligently on right now.
The implications of cutting future classes quite simply are that at some point, within a few years, we will not be producing enough graduates to fill both unit level assignments AND the follow-on Group/Wing/Test/Instructor positions. We would have to choose between front-line unit readiness and self-perpetuation of the school which is not where we want to be.
What that means for the proficiency of USAF operators is a great question (I say operators because we train more than pilots in today’s Weapons School!). But it’s the wrong question. With enough funding for training, our Airmen will regain proficiency…the real question is proficient at WHAT? This school teaches and exposes our Airmen to what the actual threat is going to look like AND what they can do to counter it in their weapons system and in an integrated joint fight on a contested, degraded and operationally limited battlespace. It’s the only place in the Department of Defense that trains to this level and it is certainly the envy of every other Air Force on the planet. Our graduates take that knowledge back with them to their units to help them prepare, as much as they can, for current and future adversaries. Without THEM, the common understanding our Airmen have of the threat, and what it really takes to counter it will atrophy over time. Not because there won’t be really smart and talented folks doing their best, but because they haven’t been exposed to higher-end, finer points of their profession…the PhD level of execution that this school provides. So our Airmen will get proficient at some things, but only at what they know and have been exposed to at their local units or from academics, which in most cases will not be sufficient to deal with the threat in today’s environment.
What makes the Weapons School so important?
In 1959, this school was founded on the concept that a small cadre of our most seasoned combat veterans could train a small pool of talented folks and teach them the most demanding lessons learned in combat, they in turn would take those lessons back to their units to pass them along in the hopes that more victories would be won and fewer lives would be lost in the process. We have evolved over time to not only produce that tactical expert for each weapons system, but also a graduate skilled in the art of battlespace dominance which requires a knowledge of how to integrate all our joint capabilities across the five domains to win in today’s threat environment. No one else gets this level of exposure or training anywhere on the planet. So our graduates inherently know what needs to be taught at the unit level to prepare and lead our forces for that fight. The education they get here also gives them the foundation for critical thought and leadership at all levels…prepares them to effectively test and advocate for capabilities in the Test and Evaluation communities, to plan for combat operations in Air Operations Centers around the world, to think critically about complex problems and integrated solutions on Combatant Command staffs. What makes the Weapons School so important is conceptually the same as what makes a booster shot so important. You are sufficiently prepared and protected only if you are current. The Weapons School provides a booster shot to our force every six months, it refreshes our knowledge of the best tactics, techniques and procedures across all our air, space and cyberspace capabilities to deal with the current threat in today’s battlespace. Without the Weapons School, (and all the institutions that support it!) over time the knowledge and skill level of our Air Force as a whole will atrophy, and the risk to our Joint force will grow as our ability to effectively provide the Air Force’s enduring contributions slowly degrades.