Up to Basics

Jan. 1, 2006

In the months after they are commissioned, new Air Force lieutenants begin to find out what it really means to be an officer, an airman, and a warrior. The service now provides formal training to help them develop the proper foundation.

Until a few years ago, a second lieutenant’s professional development was left to a combination of on-the-job experience and pure chance. With luck, the new lieutenant was assigned to an astute commander, developed close ties with his peers, and came under the tutelage of experienced and helpful noncommissioned officers. Many, however, were not lucky.

Today, USAF makes a conscious and concerted effort to broaden the horizon of new officers by sending them to Maxwell AFB, Ala., for the Air and Space Basic Course. This six-week program gives new officers the big picture of Air Force life before they focus in on their individual specialties.

For many lieutenants, the course provides their first meaningful contact with other young officers and knowledgeable noncommissioned officers. In the past, many did not receive their first taste of formal professional military training until they reached Squadron Officer School—as late as their seventh year of service.

Precommissioning training provided some insight into service life, but the level of training received by these officer candidates varied greatly. Preparation ranged from four years of intensive curriculum at the Air Force Academy, to part-time study in college ROTC, to 12 weeks of Officer Training School.

ASBC is overseen by Air University at Maxwell. There, new classes enter the course about every two months. Graduation comes after 30 training days.

The commandant of the course, Col. Mark E. Ware, welcomes students with the admonition that they should leave the course as airpower advocates and warriors.

Officers “must fully understand how the Air Force supports our national security strategy,” said Ware. “Without that understanding, you cannot fully serve this nation as an Air Force officer. … Take the lessons learned here, go back into the field, and practice what you have learned.”

The addition of this new course has not lessened the need for traditional professional military education (PME) of the type found in Squadron Officer School, said Lt. Col. Scott Cilley, commander of a student ASBC squadron. “We have tried to eliminate any redundancy between the two courses,” he said. “The focus of ASBC is on the profession of arms and the study of doctrine.”

Since 2003, the basic course has brought the officer students of ASBC together with noncommissioned officers attending Air University’s Senior NCO Academy for a week of intensive joint training.

At that time, the first 623 officers and 342 senior NCOs were placed in the same flights to discuss their respective roles and work together on team exercises. It was a resounding success. The goal of the initiative now is to increase appreciation of the unique talents officers and enlisted airmen bring to the fight.

Rapid Buildup

The idea of a formal training course for incoming officers began to take shape in 1996, after a Corona meeting of Air Force leadership. Senior Air Force leaders felt newly commissioned airmen lacked the spirit evident in the young officers of the other services.

This has been a concern for years. During his time in uniform, ending in 1990, retired Gen. Michael J. Dugan, former Air Force Chief of Staff, found that many Air Force leaders “thought of themselves, in many cases, as heavy equipment operators.”

In 1999, Dugan said, “Their linkages to the larger whole, to the longer term, however, were frequently invisible, and sometimes they were invisible to the heavy equipment operators.” It was a theme that was later taken up by Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2005.

“The idea was that a lot of our Air Force officers had lost the idea of what it meant to be an Air Force officer,” said Cilley. They tended to put their specialties ahead of being officers. “By contrast, a marine knows he’s a marine and an Army troop knows that he is a soldier.”

A study evaluating ASBC put the issue more bluntly. “Part of the problem was that USAF officers had strayed away from the fundamental principles of the value of airpower,” it concluded. Airmen were “increasingly favoring their own careers and interests over that of the Air Force mission or institution. … Officers thought of themselves first in terms of their specific specialties,” rather than thinking of themselves as airmen.

In 1998, Air University made a trial run of the concept with 13 new second lieutenants as students. The curriculum included instruction on and practice of Air Force core values, core competencies, the importance of teamwork, and studies in air and space power history.

After this test run, USAF leaders approved what has become the Air Force’s largest in-residence officer PME course. The first class was conducted at Maxwell in 1999. (See “To Be an Airman,” October 1999, p. 50.) In 2001, the Chief of Staff called for 100 percent line officer attendance, beginning the next year.

Originally called the Aerospace Basic Course, the training was renamed in 2001 to become the Air and Space Basic Course.

The curriculum includes seminars, presentations by distinguished speakers, participation in computer-based wargames, team-building exercises, and physical fitness.

The training also exploits the latest technology, including simulation software. This multiplayer application helps students understand the complex spatial relationships that underlie air and space power. An interactive application, it has given curriculum developers the ability to construct and run scenarios of historical, present-day, or hypothetical air conflicts.

A high point of the course is Operation Blue Thunder, a three-day simulation where officers plan and then fight an imaginary war. The exercise has students simulate the five divisions of an air operations center, set up a master air plan, and develop the tasking orders needed to carry it out.

In a combination of computer simulation and lifelike field conditions, the exercise helps students grasp what air and space power bring to the fight. When Blue Thunder is over, the opponents are debriefed, explain their strategies, and are critiqued by staff members from ASBC, the Squadron Officer College, and Air University.

Officials say ASBC and Blue Thunder are offered so soon after commissioning because there is no time to waste. It takes many years of education, training, and experience to cultivate a general or great military leader.

The physical structure of the course is designed to match that of an Air Force unit. Trainees are assigned to six student squadrons, each with its own insignia and lineage. For example, the 38th Student Squadron, “Mustangs,” commanded by Cilley, traces its origin to a unit deactivated in 1975.

Combined Operations Training

The student body of ASBC is drawn from all commissioning sources. About half are ROTC, with the remainder evenly split between academy and OTS graduates. A sprinkling are direct commissions in the medical and legal fields. A small number of reservists and DOD civilians also attend.

Thousands of airmen attend ASBC annually, officials say. Many are new officers, and the senior NCOs participating in the combined training segment average 18 years in the Air Force.

Combined Operations Week brings new officers in contact with the veteran enlisted members in ways that many would not otherwise experience until well into their careers. For the final week of training, ASBC classes are combined with those of the Senior NCO Academy.

The lieutenants and NCOs work together for classroom and field exercises.

This element of the training is the vision of Jumper, the previous Chief of Staff. His idea was to develop a relationship between the young officers and the senior noncoms who have extensive experience working on teams, supervising troops, and taking part in deployments.

The curriculum for the combined training draws on lessons taught in both schools. In the classroom, officer-NCO teams participate in guided discussions, warfighting scenarios, and lectures. In the field, they cooperate in exercises centered on team building.

While linking young officers with noncoms almost a generation older may seem an odd arrangement, officials say it institutionalizes what has always been military tradition. Historically, senior NCOs have served as mentors to junior officers.

For junior officers, a major benefit of the combined training comes, oddly enough, from improved writing skills, said Capt. Todd Wheeler.

Wheeler, a combined course flight commander, said lieutenants in ASBC write quarterly award packages for NCOs, and the sergeants then critique the writing in an open setting. “That part of the education, which makes students better writers, is the type of training that gets people promoted,” he said.

Many general officers still give enormous credit to the noncommissioned officers who helped steer them when the generals were newly minted.

“The NCOs have witnessed a variety of effective and ineffective commanders,” said Cilley, “so they can provide a unique perspective to our new officers on how to lead, mentor, motivate, and even discipline our enlisted corps.”

This “introduces mentoring between young company grade officers and seasoned NCOs,” said Lt. Col. Larry Ellis, ASBC vice commander. The combined training “better equips lieutenants to understand and advocate the enlisted corps.”

Many young officers have never worked with enlisted members at all, yet within their first year on active duty, many are in leadership positions, Cilley observed. Both officers and NCOs are enthusiastic about the combined training, officials say. Typical lessons in the combined operations curriculum are aimed at getting officers and the NCOs to:

  • Explore the complexity of developing base operations in an expeditionary environment.
  • Learn the basic concepts of force protection, bare base set up, sortie generation, and medical readiness.
  • Familiarize themselves with the supply, maintenance, and operational support issues vital to combat aircraft sortie generation.
  • Master the principles of team building by watching staged group behaviors and seeing how they can help or hinder the group’s ability to function.
  • Study team leadership so officers will understand their roles as leaders of the enlisted corps and the senior noncoms will appreciate their roles as mentors.

Officials say the teamwork benefits both the officers and NCOs.

Former ASBC student 2nd Lt. Katherine Portillo said many NCOs hold the stereotype that second lieutenants are naïve. Being prior-enlisted, Portillo admitted that she held that stereotype herself, but the course’s interaction allows the senior enlisted members to see the lieutenant’s perspective and observe what the company grade officers have learned in their other training.

Mental and Physical

Air and Space Basic Course also includes a heavy dose of physical conditioning. On the third training day, officers must run a mile-and-a-half course in 15 minutes, as a safety screening test for later activities. Students who fail the test twice can be removed from ASBC.

“This requirement is based on the fact that we are an expeditionary Air Force,” said Cilley. “These lieutenants are going to be deployed. Physical fitness has become extremely important, especially when we are going to be operating from remote locations and [in] austere conditions.”

The rest of the physical training is even more demanding. Despite the stiff physical requirements of the training, however, officials say that few students are eliminated for failing the fitness standards.

The same is true of academic failures. The standards are difficult, but the numbers of airmen who are boarded out is very small. The students are brought in to learn, and the joint training shows the young officers how NCOs can help them right off the bat.

Wheeler observed that to solve problems the young officers typically analyze the situation, while NCOs use personal experience—and normally act more quickly.

The interplay of differing academic and experiential approaches create “incredible ideas and solutions,” said Wheeler.

The course also stresses the “warrior ethos,” even to officers whose specialties would seem to make it unlikely they would see combat.

Cilley says young officers must understand that the Air Force is engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, and operating tempo is high. “If we can establish this airman-warrior ethos in them, we are showing them that this is the reality, and they have to be prepared because they are going to deploy,” he said.

“One of the things we do during our graduation ceremony is to show the names and pictures of our people who have been killed or paid the ultimate sacrifice during the six weeks that the students have been at ASBC,” said Cilley. “This is a pretty poignant reminder to them of the seriousness of what we are involved with.”

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Force Development Hits Its Stride,” appeared in the October 2005 issue.