Imagine an Air Force in which high-fidelity, interactive video and audio devices link students to their instructors in a network of global classrooms; virtual-reality systems are used to train mechanics on nonexistent engines; and pilots get a first, highly realistic taste of combat without leaving the ground.
It will be a decade or more before such a twenty-first-century Air Force arrives, but many of the technologies that will make remote learning and advanced simulation commonplace already are being exploited in limited ways by today’s training establishment.
Some dramatic changes have occurred since 1992, when the Air Force launched its Year of Training study.
Most of the initiatives have been organizational, aimed at reshaping the training establishment to provide formal schooling for service members previously trained on the job and to relieve operational units of some basic chores. At the same time, USAF has explored advanced technologies that could make traditional teaching as obsolete as one-room schools.
In fact, some Year of Training concepts that seemed extremely radical at the time now appear almost pedestrian when compared to long-range proposals generated by the Air Force’s latest assessment of future prospects. That study, Air Force 2025, was ordered in 1996 by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman. It took a look at all elements of the future force, but one major section dealt with exotic training tools.
Titled “Brilliant Warrior: Information Technology Integration in Education and Training,” the section examines what it calls the “adaptive learning environment,” which experts expect to become a reality in a few decades.
“By 2025,” the study group predicted, “we will have an inexpensive, global, high-capacity information infrastructure. Personal information devices will give us integrated voice, video, and data capability in a package smaller than today’s notebook computers. It will have computing power and speed virtually equivalent to the human brain and access to massive knowledge bases around the world. This will affect not only how we organize to present training, but how we develop learning material and track who has received what.”
Officials at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala., added this description of a future training delivery system: “It [Air Force training] will be provided via a national knowledge superhighway, academic centers of excellence for curriculum development, and expert tutors.”
AU officials maintain that such a system will require use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, advanced simulation, and improvements in computing and communications technologies. In addition, they went on, “Advances in hyperlearning will create air- and spacepower experts in a shorter time and at lower costs than is currently possible. Enhanced selection and screening tools will further reduce costs by educating and training the right people for the right job.”
AU officials reported, “Technologies, such as those identified by project 2025, . . . will help us leverage our ability to educate in terms of who, what, when, where, and how we will be able to teach. Attendant improvements in our educational programs and systems will lead to further changes in what our educational customers will come to expect regarding improved quality and convenience of the educational experience.”
Shortly before he retired as commander of USAF’s Air Education and Training Command, Gen. Billy Boles made some similar predictions.
Writing in Military Training Technology, he said, “We’re going to have to find a lot of alternative delivery approaches that will be less manpower-intensive and less expensive. We’re already using computer-based instruction in the classrooms. We found it saves manpower and students retain what they learn longer.”
The General also forecast major advances in simulation. Said Boles, “Mission rehearsal systems will get to the point that a pilot should never perform an event for the first time in an airplane. Aircrews will perfect their techniques without burning up fuel and using flying time to learn.”
Thus, if predictions of the Air Force 2025 study prove true, the next generation of airmen will learn lessons in the classroom that, in the past, have only been possible to experience on the flight line or in combat.
Finding future students able to absorb the more technical, high-paced training is something of a concern. Air Force 2025 concluded that they will need skills for both independent and collaborative learning, including the ability to manipulate networks, deal with mountains of data, understand cyber systems, and synthesize information.
All’s Well So Far
Skeptics question whether students who have such skills will be available in sufficient numbers. Studies show that many leave public schools poorly prepared either for further education or employment. They conclude that future employers will have to upgrade new employees’ basic skills before training them for the job.
AETC officials say that, so far at least, the Air Force has not experienced that problem. “Today,” they said, “99 percent of our new recruits are high school graduates and are required to meet entry testing criteria prior to entering the Air Force. AETC does not have to provide remedial training either in basic or ops training.”
“We believe today’s recruits are as ready to learn as their predecessors,” the officials said, “and that our current Air Force training provides them with the necessary structure and discipline to successfully complete this training.”
The concerns are anticipatory because it will be a while before Air Force training makes the leap into the technologies described by Air Force 2025. In the meantime, it has begun making major changes in the way it schools its troops.
Since March 1994, for example, the Air Force has been sending new members in all career fields to formal initial skills courses before moving them into operational duties. In the past, formal schooling was reserved for those in the more technical specialties. Other enlisted troops were expected to pick up their skill training on the job.
More recently, the Air Force has begun requiring airmen to return to school after 18 months on the job. From now on, they will be required to take formal “craftsman courses” before receiving their seven-level Air Force Specialty Codes. All of these courses will be available online by September, officials said. Some aircrew members and individuals in medical AFSCs will be allowed variances because of unique training requirements.
While craftsman courses may contain study material to be completed at the airmen’s home bases, each requires some time in residence, usually about 10 training days.
The Year of Training study also recommended giving flight students more combat-related training before they graduate. AETC officials said they already have gone far in that direction.
They said that the “key” factor has been AETC’s shift from undergraduate pilot training to Specialized UPT. The command’s last traditional UPT class graduated from Columbus AFB, Miss., in March. Now, all students fly a common track for their primary flight training, then go into specialized advanced tracks based on the major weapon systems they are going to fly.
Air Force schools use the T-38 for fighter and bomber training, the T-1A for airlifters and tankers, the UH-1 for helicopters, and Navy T-44s for C-130s.
AETC officials said navigator training has progressed from basic undergraduate navigator training to Specialized UNT to Joint UNT. All navigator training now takes place in a Joint environment with the Navy. Specialized tracks carry out training in strike, strike-fighter, electronic warfare officer, and airlift-tanker-maritime fields.
Such specialization has allowed AETC to give its students some of the combat-type training that they traditionally did not receive until they reached field units.
Helicopter pilots, for example, get night vision goggle training in their undergraduate advanced track. The tanker and airlift track includes low-altitude airdrop and air refueling profiles, low-level navigation systems, and global positioning systems. The fighter and bomber track now places more emphasis on tactical formation and fluid maneuvering in preparation for follow-on basic fighter maneuvers.
AETC has combined many of its own training programs and moved to share more training with other services. During the last three years, AETC reviewed 49 occupational areas covering 1,517 courses. It then consolidated 130 courses in fields such as civil engineering, fire protection, food service, helicopter maintenance, vehicle operations, and water survival. The command says that this streamlining has produced millions of dollars in annual savings.
Now, it is looking for consolidation candidates in areas, such as the medical field, where large blocks of training have similar resource requirements.
Professional military training also faces fundamental changes. In February, Air University received approval to develop a new program for newly commissioned Air Force officers, selected enlisted members, and civilian interns.
This Air and Space Basic Course—a six-to-eight-week-long, in-residence session—aims to produce graduates with a broad knowledge of USAF doctrine, history, and operations. Students will be taught to think of themselves as “airmen” first and to share a common view of how air- and spacepower contribute to national defense.
AU will test the course next summer. If it is approved as a permanent addition to the professional military education system, future officer graduates will move on to operational assignments and be enrolled in another recently developed base-level program called the Company Grade Officer’s Course.
It is probable that both courses will become institutionalized PME programs. “We expect they will change the face of professional military education dramatically,” AU reported in a statement. “Schools, such as the Squadron Officer School, eventually will be able to expect students to arrive possessing some of the knowledge and skills currently taught at the school. SOS then can concentrate on elevating students’ skills and knowledge to even higher levels. These effects will ripple through much of Air Force professional education.”
Just as flight training changes have been aimed at adding combat skills previously left to operational units, enlisted training has focused on producing “mission-ready technicians,” who will be able to start work the first day on the job.
AETC cites its Mission-Ready Technician program as one of its biggest successes in that area.
“In this program,” AETC reports, “new airmen are no longer given just general skills training in their specialty area. Instead, they are trained on typical three-level tasks, on the actual equipment they will be using on their first assignments. This produces an airman ready to work on his or her first day on the job and significantly reduces the training burden on the operational unit.”
AETC proposed the creation of an Air Force Training Battle Lab, similar to the service’s other planning facilities but focused on exploiting new technology to deliver learning tools to the classroom and the flight line. The plan, which is still under Air Staff review, calls for assembling a small staff of training experts who will work with the Air Force’s other battle labs to assess future training requirements and offer education and training solutions to operational problems.
“Our training programs are as healthy as at any time in Air Force history,” AETC asserted in a statement. “Through the Year of Training and other initiatives, they have been refocused so that we are providing the best training, through the best methods, at the right time in a person’s career.”
|More Than Technology
While the Air Force is eager to draw on new technology and adopt new training methods, it must do so with one eye on the bottom line. Recent budget cuts have shrunk AETC’s infrastructure, and Defense officials are talking about still more strength reductions and base closures.
In four previous rounds of closures, AETC shut three flight training centers (Williams AFB, Ariz.; Reese AFB, Tex.; and Mather AFB, Calif.) and two operations training sites (Chanute AFB, Ill., and Lowry AFB, Colo.), passing their missions to other bases. It also combined many courses and reworked others to make them more efficient.
At the same time, it has drawn more members into the formal training environment, many of them from operational units.
For the most part, AETC officials said, the using units have supported the changes, even when it has meant releasing their members for additional training at a time when the drawdown has put a premium on manpower. AETC has courted this cooperation from the field by assuring operational units that their troops will not only be trained more thoroughly but will be able to go to work with less additional training on the job.
Providing improved training will not be easy for a training establishment already taxed by years of belt tightening. One solution to which the services have turned in such circumstances has been to farm out some training load to civilian contractors.
In flight training, AETC already outsources its enhanced flight screening (EFS) program (light-aircraft training) at Hondo, Tex. Contractors also have a hand in primary and advanced programs in areas such as courseware development, academics, and simulator instruction. One study is looking at electronics principles and selected telephone maintenance courses to see if they could be taught by contractor personnel.
There is a big “if” in the equation, however. “Our main concerns center around what we call ‘blueing,’ ” said one AETC official. “That means how well can we instill military ethics and values in new recruits. . . . The ability of a contractor to provide adequate ‘blueing’ will be carefully evaluated.”
AETC in Brief
|Operating budget||$4.3 billion|
|Training Category||FY 1995||FY 1996||FY 1997|
|Flight Screening Training||845||910||983|
|Undergraduate Pilot Training||532||523||591|
|Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training||201||196||213|
|Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals||332||376||431|
|Air Weapons Controller Training||420||355||462|
|Total Students Trained||12,634||13,183||14,047|
|Figures for Fiscal 1995 and 1996 are actual. Figures for Fiscal 1997 are programmed.|
Basic, Technical, and Other Training
|Training Category||FY 1995||FY 1996||FY 1997|
|Basic Military Training||27,771||30,917||32,813|
|Medical and Health Training||813||875||860|
|English Language Training||2,284||1,800||2,100|
|Air University Courses||145,258||167,809||166,264|
|Total Students Trained||303,613||347,842||376,628|
Figures for Fiscal 1995 and 1996 are actual. Figures for Fiscal 1997 are programmed.
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “Turnaround at Veterans Affairs,” appeared in the March 1997 issue.