On the Minds of the Troops

Nov. 1, 2008

In the recent past, enlisted USAF airmen who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan often lacked required training before taking part in dangerous combat missions. That has changed, said CMSAF Rodney J. McKinley, speaking at AFA’s fifth annual Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C.

“We are very confident that we’re not going to send any airmen in harm’s way without the training required to make them successful and safe wherever they’re going,” McKinley said at a forum on enlisted issues.

The 15th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, USAF’s top enlisted man said such needs are being fulfilled with a wide range of efforts, ranging from a multiservice program at Camp Bullis in San Antonio, and training at McGuire AFB, N.J., down to programs at individual wings throughout the nation.

L-r: CMSgt. Stephen Sullens, CMSAF Rodney McKinley, CMSgt. Kenneth McQuiston, CMSgt. Richard Small, and CMSgt. Arvin Davis answer questions from airmen at AFA’s Air & Space Conference in September. Not pictured: CMSgt. Richard Smith. (Photo by Guy Aceto)

Target: Physical Training

“We are filling all our requirements now by training our airmen before they go,” he said.

Partly for that reason, the Air Force has decided not to proceed with a Common Battlefield Airman Training program. Just getting the proposed CBAT up and running would have taken $275 million and 1,000 trained personnel. It would also have duplicated new training efforts already established throughout the military, according to McKinley.

McKinley, along with some of the service’s command chief master sergeants, fielded questions from airmen on Sept. 16. With McKinley were CMSgt. Stephen C. Sullens (Air Combat Command), CMSgt. Richard A. Smith (Air National Guard), CMSgt. Kenneth L. McQuiston (US Transportation Command), CMSgt. Richard T. Small (Air Force Space Command), and CMSgt. Arvin K. Davis (Air Force Academy).

Sullens defended the decision to kill the long-planned CBAT program, asking, “Do we need to spend a quarter of a billion dollars in the immediate future to improve three percent or four percent? … I would probably have to tell you, ‘No.’ … We have other more pressing needs right now.”

McQuiston added that, of all the services TRANSCOM deals with, the Air Force has been the most responsive in preparing personnel for the battlefield. Every group that goes out “is much better prepared, and they learn a great deal from everyone that returns,” he said.

The often-questioned Air Force fitness program helps with deployments as well. “If you are wounded in combat, and you are physically fit, you have a better chance of survival. It also has a big impact on Tricare and the amount of money we spend to keep the force healthy,” said McKinley.

But doing the physical training test once a year may not be enough. Perhaps commanders should be able to hold them at random. “I’d expect that to be coming before too long, … with more teeth put into it,” said McKinley.

Airmen take cover during combat skills training at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Topics covered include convoy operations, weapons, and lifesaving skills training. (USAF photo by MSgt. Eric Grill)

The service should also fix the “horrible” PT uniform it has right now, in his opinion: “I’m mainly talking about the shorts. We all know that,” said McKinley, to laughter from the crowd.

Unmanned aerial vehicles were another hot issue the chiefs addressed. Specifically, why can’t enlisted personnel become UAV pilots

That is far from a settled point. “This is where our Air Force is going,” noted McKinley. “We are going to be using more and more of these, because they are just fantastic weapons.”

One manning option may be “group piloting,” according to ACC’s Sullens. In the future, the person who puts a UAV up in an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance orbit may be enlisted, while a rated officer “kind of waits in the wings, hovering over a group of seven or eight UAV pilots,” so someone can step in to fire weapons.

This January will mark the first time in 40 years that there has been a Presidential transition during a war. For the average airman, this transition may have little impact.

“I try to tell the folks at the academy, along with the cadets, don’t worry about that,” said Air Force Academy command chief Davis. It will take time for top-level policy changes to trickle down to rank-and-file airmen.

SSgt. Kevin Bliem, a crew chief with the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, marshals an A-10 attack fighter at Bagram AB, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Rachel Martinez)

No Weekend Warriors Here

But for the Air National Guard, the election may instigate quicker changes. Many governors will change, bringing in new adjutants general to oversee state operations.

The Air Guard “is made up of 54 different air forces that work for 54 different adjutants general and governors—so some of us will have the double whammy,” said ANG chief Smith.

Years of overseas deployments have made the old phrase “weekend warrior” obsolete. Guardsmen “sell insurance, they work at a factory, they’re patrolmen, and getting off from work for an AEF deployment for four months is difficult,” Smith said.

Support for families of deployed airmen is a big issue in part because many Guard personnel live far from military bases. Unlike active duty airmen, they often have no professional family readiness personnel close by.

Yet “we’ve been deploying along with the Air Force since the [1991] Gulf War, and through all this our retention has remained strong,” at an annualized rate of about 92 percent, said Smith.

Sullens added that the biggest challenge with the Total Force right now is “the ability to truly use a chief as a chief in any duty, or a master sergeant as a master sergeant in any duty.” Sometimes legal or regulatory restrictions keep Total Force airmen from being interchangeable.

If an active duty airman has had a punishing deployment schedule, Sullens asked, why can’t that position be turned over to the Guard or Reserve temporarily

Similarly, when the time comes to pick the next ACC command chief, if the most qualified candidate happens to be a reservist, shouldn’t he or she get the job

“Instead of truly taking the big Air Force approach and doing what is best for the service, we bend to that policy or that law,” said Sullens.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Nuclear Wake-Up Call,” appeared in the June issue.