Technology and the Troops

Dec. 1, 1986
Some people worry that technol­ogy is getting to be too much for the troops. The systems and opera­tions of the armed forces—particu­larly the Air Force—become pro­gressively more complex with each passing year. How can young Amer­icans, fresh from civilian life, hope to absorb the necessary training and cope with their duties?

An answer for the worriers is readily available. Tens of thousands of new airmen pass through Air Training Command’s tech schools annually. The operating commands are well pleased with the trained technicians they receive from ATC. And there is no indication that the troops are overwhelmed by the technical complexity of their jobs. To the contrary, they’re ready for the challenging work and seem to thrive on it.

By its very nature, training doesn’t leave the big questions hanging long. The results show up quickly. “We aren’t preparing to do our mission,” says Lt. Gen. John A. Shaud, ATC’s new Commander. “We’re doing it.” He described ATC’s time-tested approach to providing technical manpower for a technical force.

It begins with the quality of the trainee. Out of every 100 serious applicants who want to join the Air Force, only thirty-two are accept­ed. The other sixty-eight flunk their physicals or their mental tests, or something turns up in the back­ground investigation that dis­qualifies them. Still more of the original 100 will wash out before they complete basic military train­ing at Lackland AFB, Tex. For nine­ty-three percent of those who make it through basic, the next assign­ment will be further schooling at one of ATC’s six technical training centers. These trainees aren’t stumped easily by the difficult mate­rial that they will encounter in the course work.

Just before General Shaud left his previous post as USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, a news­paper reporter asked him if the Air Force has to look for already devel­oped technical skills in the airmen it recruits for technical jobs.

“Not really,” General Shaud said, elaborating on the point in a recent interview with AIR FORCE Maga­zine. “From a technical training view, you take in young people with two fundamental characteristics.

We recruit people with the capacity and energy to learn and with the right attitude for high-tech training. The capacity to learn is displayed through the test battery [the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Bat­tery (ASVAB)1, and, by being high school graduates, they demonstrate that they have the persistence. We are high on both of those scales, especially compared with the other services.” (See the accompanying box.)


High school graduates as a percentage of total active-duty nonprior-service accessions.

FY ’82

FY ’83

FY ’84

FY ’85

Air Force















Marine Corps





DoD Average





“The real question we have to an­swer is if they are teachable. If they are instructable, we can take those basic skills and mold them.” Be­yond that, ATC’s recruiters watch for young people motivated to be part of a high-tech team. It is that desire, General Shaud said, that at­tracts the best potential airmen to the Air Force to begin with and that leads them to reenlist later on. It comes as a surprise to some—often including parents—that such young people welcome the discipline of military life. “Taking discipline well is natural with people who want to be part of a team,” General Shaud said.

The Training Process

General Shaud watches two indi­cators of how well ATC is doing its job. “One is the quality of the train­ing process itself,” he said. “That’s where you make sure you’re doing it smart and that you’re up to speed on training technology. The other is the quality of our output. The using commands give us continuing feed­back so we can know if our state-of-the-art training process is turning out the kind of graduate it’s sup­posed to.”

ATC is currently getting good sig­nals on both of those indicators and is constantly tailoring and reshaping its program to keep up with the times.

In its FY ’87 report to Congress, the Air Force said that it had “reduced the average initial skill course length from 16.8 weeks in early 1970 to 11.7 weeks in 1985, while there have been quantum leaps in the material being taught.” That statistic, General Shaud said, does not reflect a flat reduction in course lengths across the board. In­stead, ATC was able to shorten the time on some, but actually extended the length of others.

“First,” General Shaud said, “those people we can send to the field without technical training, we are sending directly. Maybe there will be some ways in the future, with advanced training software, etc., that we can send more young people right out of Lackland to the field—to be trained by ATC, but at their bases.

“Second, because of advances in the ways that we train and because we have young people who are in­creasingly computer literate, some courses just don’t need to be as long as they used to be. That speaks to the quality of the recruit.

“We’ve taken advantage of econ­omies in the time line where they presented themselves to teach the skill directly in the unit or to shorten the tech training course. And we’ve used some of that time to increase the course length in sortie-produc­ing skills and put the focus on the training that we need.” Among the courses lengthened are those for maintenance on aircraft and aircraft systems, avionics, jet engines, mu­nitions, and weapon systems.

As military systems become more complex, it does not automati­cally follow that the tasks for hu­mans will be more difficult—or even more complex. Use of modern test and diagnostic equipment, for ex­ample, has taken much of the guess­work out of field maintenance.

“One of the things that a comput­er does very well is handling and resolving complexity,” General Shaud said. “A person working on the flight line today can make a judgment about the fitness of an air­plane rapidly. Compare this with the old days when, if you had a re­ciprocating engine with a mag drop, you had to tinker with it forever.”

Where the Sorties Are

Although technical training is the biggest item by far in ATC’s operating budget, the command annually trains 344,000 people in more than 4,300 courses covering some 300 specialties. This includes basic mili­tary training, Officer Training School, AFROTC, technical train­ing, flying training, survival train­ing, and instruction of foreign na­tionals. A significant share of this work load is carried by ATC’s field training detachments and mobile training teams.

ATC aircraft fly the heaviest sor­tie rates of any major command in the Air Force and account for al­most a fifth of all USAF flying.

When General Shaud said that “there’s great energy and vigor in this command,” it’s easy to under­stand what he means.

The ATC fleet of T-38s and T-37s is aging, but is still up to the vig­orous daily workout it gets. The T-38s are being refurbished and modified under a program called “Pacer Classic,” and that should keep them flying through the year 2010. The major aircraft moderniza­tion needs are a replacement for the T-37 primary trainer and the addi­tion of a business-type jet for spe­cialized undergraduate training of tanker, transport, and bomber pi­lots. (See “What’s Ahead for the Pri­mary Fleet?” on p. 77.)

Undergraduate pilot training (UPT) must take a student—whose acquaintance with aviation consists typically of a three-week screening program in light aircraft—and have him ready, forty-nine weeks later, to move on toward the cockpits of the late-model machines in the operat­ing commands. ATC’s trainer-air­craft needs, therefore, are based not only on the point at which the stu­dent begins learning but also on the kind of flying he will do within the year.

“That first step, when a young person first puts on a flight suit and is introduced to the world of flying airplanes, is an important one,” General Shaud said. “It can’t be so sophisticated or so much like ad­vanced aircraft that it makes the step too difficult. I have a hunch that as we design airplanes to introduce young people into flying, they’ll look very much like the 1-37. I like the idea of side-by-side seating at first because of the decisions our instructors must make early on, such as whether an individual has flying skills that are worth pursuing or if it’s in everybody’s best inter­ests for him to go do something else for a living.

“When you get to the second phase, and as we look to a trainer for the future, I like the idea of tan­dem seating. It’s important, particu­larly for the student on a fighter training track, to feel—in as much as it’s possible—that he’s flying the airplane individually, that he’s re­sponsible. I don’t think that an ad­vanced trainer will look a whole lot different from a T-38.

“We have to make sure, of course, that the presentation of the avionics and instruments is reason­ably similar to whatever the presen­tations in new aircraft, including the ATF [Advanced Tactical Fighter] and the ATB [Advanced Technology Bomber], will be. We can’t make the UPT cockpit too different from most of the cockpits that our stu­dents will be flying later. The UPT trainer will probably not be at the leading edge of instrumentation change, but we will be best advised to have it reflect the majority of air­craft that the students are intended for.”


Undergraduate Pilot Training


Undergraduate Navigator Training


Missile Launch Officer


Weapons Controller


Air Force ROTC


Ground Radio Communications Repairman


Air Traffic Controller


Weather Specialist


General-Purpose Vehicle Mechanic


Jet Engine Mechanic


Administrative Officer


Computer Operator


Basic Military Training


These are average costs per graduate in sample training programs and reflect initial or

entry-level training only. Specialized training often follows in the operating commands.

The Air Force’s investment in a seasoned, fully upgraded airman or officer is formidable.