Education and training in the Air Force is “just big business,” said Gen. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton, the commander of Air Education and Training Command, Randolph AFB, Texas. “It’s big, in that there are just so many people going through it at any one time.”
Each year about 44 percent of the active-duty force receives some form of formal training provided by AETC at its various schoolhouses. For Fiscal 1997 the number equaled some 168,000 personnel, and that figure does not include training provided by AETC at operational units.
Almost that same number—more than 160,000 in Fiscal 1997—participated in some form of professional or continuing education through Air University programs.
In 1993, the Air Force created the mega-command, merging the old Air Training Command with Air University’s education function and adding a large chunk of the service’s graduate flying training and follow-on enlisted technical training into the mix. The major objective: to provide complete centralized training to produce a fully trained, near mission-ready person for the operational commands.
The idea was to create a continuum of training—”a crawl, walk, run kind of regimen,” said Col. Robert J. Martinelli, AETC’s deputy director of operations. The system would relieve the operational commands of the need to train.
What seemed practical and feasible in 1993 is proving to be unrealistic in today’s tight fiscal environment. AETC is facing increasing challenges with this basic tenet of its business.
Fiscal realities, according to Martinelli, are forcing the command to default on some of the advanced training and send it back to operational units. The problem applies both to aircrew and technical training, now known as operational training.
For instance, he said, the service in 1993 moved seven-level enlisted upgrade operational training from the operational units to AETC schoolhouses. At that time, AETC could afford to do the job. In Fiscal 1995, AETC provided seven-level training for only 2,481 enlisted members, compared to 13,565 in Fiscal 1997. Today command officials state they may not have the funding needed to continue this schoolhouse training. They may turn, instead, to some sort of “distance learning” program for some courses.
The same type of situation exists with combat aircrew training. AETC is coming up against a funding wall that may force some advanced flying training back to the operational units.
Compounding the dollar problem for aircrew training is a new and possibly more vexing matter—overload in the system.
The Capacity Issue
In the early 1990s, the Air Force substantially reduced its undergraduate pilot training program to cut back the pilot inventory as part of the overall drawdown. Now the service must build back to a sustaining level—that is, produce about 1,100 UPT students per year to sustain a pilot force numbering about 14,000 to 15,000.
Right now, the Air Force has a shortage of fighter pilots. By 1998 it will be short in all systems. When faced with this kind of shortage, the service traditionally has been able simply to add training dollars and increase its training load.
It won’t work this time. “One, there’s no money to throw at [the problem],” said Martinelli. “Two, we have downsized now to the point where that option is no longer available.”
In the early 1980s, the command had five pilot training bases that could easily train about 2,400 new pilots each year—or about 80 percent of the training capacity. Today, as AETC ramps up toward the 1,100 mark, said Martinelli, “We are getting to a percent of that capacity that we have never lived with before.”
The full effects of sustaining a higher capacity are not known, but a major concern is the potential for safety problems.
In 1997, even before the full ramp up to 1,100 students per year, pilot training bases averaged at least 300 sorties per day. At Laughlin AFB, Texas, the number was 330. That’s a high level of operations, by Air Force standards. By comparison, Air Force units carrying out Southern Watch operations in Southwest Asia have flown an average of about 80 sorties per day.
Actually, the situation is worse than indicated by sortie volume alone. The sorties generated at pilot training bases are flown by unqualified students, often at intervals of three minutes or less. The risk factor is so great that Newton told his wing commanders they are free to call “knock it off” whenever it’s necessary to get an unsafe situation under control.
The Air Force sets an upper level of 85 percent—the Navy uses 80 percent—as the desired target capacity. However, during Base Realignment and Closure rounds, an assumption was made that 90 to 95 percent capacity would work. “In retrospect those were not good assumptions, but that’s hindsight,” said Martinelli.
In the out-years, the Air Force will be pushing the optimum capacity in all its training aircraft. Today, the T-38 is actually programmatically above 100 percent, he noted. “Obviously you can’t do that.”
One solution being pursued by AETC is to lay off some training in overcapacity aircraft programs to lower-capacity aircraft programs.
For example, the T-1 aircraft used in the airlift/tanker/maritime advanced pilot training track is currently operating at only 57 percent capacity and rises to 79 percent in 1999, then down to 76 percent by 2002. The idea then would be to move some of the bomber pilot training conducted in the overtaxed T-38 fighter/bomber track into the T-1.
“The customer [Air Combat Command] won’t get the student they are looking for,” stated Martinelli. “They prefer to have them trained in the T-38.” He said AETC was still working the particulars, but they will probably train them in the T-1, then top off the program in the T-38.
Additionally, the command must factor in the upcoming upgrades to its T-38 fleet. The addition of new avionics/glass cockpits are necessary upgrades to extend the jet’s service life, according to Martinelli, but the loss of 40 to 50 aircraft per year during the modifications will complicate the capacity problem even further.
The same problem will exist in the T-37 primary pilot training program, beginning next year when the aircraft reaches 86 percent and then 98 percent in the out-years.
Martinelli emphasized that the T-37 program “can’t operate in that regime [nearly 100 percent of capacity],” and so AETC is “looking for some safety valves or release valves.”
One of those release valves might entail simply moving some aircraft from one heavily taxed base to one currently operating at a lower level. Another even more promising solution would be to accelerate the buy of the new Joint Primary Aircraft Training System aircraft, now called the T-6A.
AETC wants to move ahead of the projected procurement time line—a move command officials said would greatly simplify the overcapacity problem. Right now the Air Force plans to purchase 372 of the new trainers through 2009. Under an accelerated program, each undergraduate pilot training base would receive more of the aircraft sooner—the last coming on line in 2005.
The Attrition Factor
These high capacity levels will do more than jam the pilot pipeline and stretch safety margins. It will also bring higher costs. As the capacity rate goes up, experience has shown, the service winds up with a higher attrition rate as well.
Why? Those higher capacity levels in the training load lead to an overburdened training force and reduced efficiency.
AETC programs an annual attrition rate. When the attrition rate climbs higher, the command must bring in more students, buy more flying hours, put more airplanes on the line, and pay other associated costs. This year, the command programmed a lower, 10 percent rate, said Martinelli. AETC plans a 15 percent attrition rate from 1998 through 2002.
However, even that number may be overly optimistic. The last time the Air Force had such high pilot training capacity levels was in the mid–1980s, and the programmed attrition rate was about 18 percent. The actual rate was nearly 30 percent.
“That’s very inefficient; it costs you a lot of money to do that,” stated Martinelli. “We want less attrition, more efficiency.”
Martinelli added, “We think we’re in pretty good shape here at 15 percent; however, given that we’re pushing that capacity level way high, we could have this kind of phenomenon occur again.”
The object, of course, is to weed out those students who simply do not have the capabilities to become military pilots and do it very early in the program, before USAF has invested much money in their training.
However, you can, in Martinelli’s words, “shoot yourself in the foot,” if, by having too many students to run an effective program, you end up washing out many more than you would under normal circumstances.
The Air Force has already experienced a production problem with its navigator force, prompting it to recall older navigators to cockpits to cover unexpected shortages. The shortages came from a decision to make undergraduate navigator training a Joint program with the Navy. In 1994, AETC shut down navigator training at Mather AFB, Calif., and moved it to Randolph, with a subsequent move to NAS Pensacola, Fla. In that year, the service only graduated 22 navigators from UNT.
“We knew we’d go a year without any production because we were moving a one-of-a-kind schoolhouse,” stated Martinelli. “We in the Air Force sucked it up and said we’d live with that—a known risk.”
Today and through 2002, AETC plans to produce 300 navigators per year. Martinelli emphasized that the Air Force, if it wants to get to a true sustaining level, will need to move the figure up to about 360 per year.
He added that, because of the low production years during the early 1990s, the Air Force has some very serious year group problems. “We’re having a hard time manning the crew force with the young officer you’d like to man it with, [so] we’re putting lieutenant colonels back in the cockpit.”
AETC expects the training capacity level for UNT at Randolph in the airlift/tanker/maritime track to remain around the optimum 80 percent level. At the same time, the command is currently exploring the possibility of using Randolph T-43s to provide some additional electronic warfare officer training. Use of the T-43s, which can handle up to 12 students, might be one way to satisfy new customer requirements as the demand rises for more electronic warfare training.
New Pressure on Training Continuum
The increased flow of students through undergraduate training will inevitably produce a greater flow through graduate flying programs, as well. This presents a new problem for AETC.
“While we have good definition and understanding of the pressure in the undergraduate world,” said Martinelli, “we’re still coming to grips with it on the graduate side of the house.”
The command can measure the UPT production increase very easily. However, AETC schoolhouses don’t just train undergraduates. They also conduct other forms of training such as aircraft commander upgrades, requalification training for those returning to flying from a staff job, other aircrew positions, instructor upgrades, and so forth.
Traditionally, the Air Force has not projected those types of training requirements far enough into the future to be able to program them well. “When you’re driving your training plan up into that 90 percent kind of regime, you have to start doing this better and do it far enough out to where you can programmatically get the resources you need, whether it’s airplanes, instructors, flying hours—the money associated with that,” stated Martinelli.
The concern, he maintained, is that a strained system will have to default on graduate training and return it to operational units. The question then becomes, What is the full impact
“It’s a very complicated kind of equation,” he said. “It’s a very costly one both in terms of resources and also in terms of readiness if we screw it up. We’re working with the Air Staff to quantify the entire training continuum, then consciously decide how many to try to squeeze through in a week.”
When we increase the undergraduate part of the continuum, if we don’t make corresponding changes in the other parts of the continuum, then we haven’t done our work properly, explained Martinelli. “So we have to evaluate the entire continuum, keeping an eye on readiness because this is your combat capability—we don’t want to adversely affect that.”
Other AETC Concerns
Joint Training. According to Newton, the path to Joint training is not an easy one. As for pilot training, he stated that both the Air Force and the Navy are getting “closer to the products we need.” The general adamantly opposed the notion that all training should be Joint. In fact, command officials noted that they have shared about as much training as possible; today it stands at about 34 percent.
More or Less Technology Newton is convinced that infusing technology into the training process will enable AETC to produce a better product in the 21st century. A better product, he said, could be defined as producing a training graduate faster, at less cost, or both.
If the command could produce a graduate faster, it would shorten the pipeline and provide more flexibility. When the Air Force needed more or fewer pilots, the command could expand or shrink the output each year.
However, his concern is to inject technology at the right point and in the right amount in each training process. To do that, he said, the command has to do a “bit of reengineering.”
“You have to look at all the processes of all the training programs out there and evaluate them from beginning to end and say, ‘What do we need to do to make this happen?’ ” stated Newton.
“Modernization in the training business means a lot more than just going out and buying aircraft. It means modernizing classrooms—the modernization of how I train you—if you don’t do this right, you’ll struggle on the other end.”
One problem AETC officials find is that new technology may not save “gobs and gobs of money and train lots of people” painlessly and with little cost. They maintain that there’s a lot of up-front money needed to buy any new technology. They want to approach the technology gambit smartly without making big dents in a limited budget, then only to find the technology doesn’t really pay off.
Outsourcing and Privatization. AETC has been in the O&P business for decades—Vance AFB, Okla., began contracted base operating support in 1960. The command has contracted some flying training and is looking at technical training. Officials note that everything is on the table, except BMT. They emphasize, though, that training courses for new airmen must maintain a blue-suit presence to ensure adequate indoctrination into the Air Force. The command is concentrating now on taking a systematic big picture approach—the larger contracts, they found, produce as much as 10 times the savings of multiple smaller contracts.
The National Pilot. Newton and other Air Force leaders are pursuing the notion of the “national pilot.” He said that with military pilot retention such a high priority, “We’re beginning to focus on maybe a different way to think about our pilot force.” The goal is to come up with some way to view pilots as a national resource and to partner with the nation’s entire aviation community, rather than taking the traditional parochial approach where the airlines and the Air Force and the other services concentrate solely on their own immediate needs. Newton said that this is certainly not a new idea and that, he thinks, the airlines will be very receptive.
He noted, though, that the retention problem is just one in a continuous cycle, raising the question: Why can’t the Air Force get this right? His answer is that the process is much more dynamic and complicated than it appears. He said: “For instance, those folks that came in the Air Force eight years ago and did their commitment, if they say they want to go do something else, we have no way, nor should we have a way, to say, ‘No I’m not going to let you do that.’ I think that would be wrong.”
Everyone’s a Recruiter. Apart from training new and current Air Force members, AETC also oversees the Air Force Recruiting Service. “We’ve got a whole host of top-notch recruiters working the nation very, very hard. We’re getting the quality and making the numbers that we want,” stated Newton. However, the job is tough and he wants everyone in the Air Force to recruit one person each year. He said that whenever an Air Force member goes home to visit, he or she should talk with at least one young person to tell him or her what the service is about.