Airman 1st Class Alexander Smith had always loved the outdoors. Before he enlisted, he ran his own landscaping company, but while he really enjoyed working with his hands, something was missing. He wanted to help people. When Smith considered his options, he realized he could do both as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape specialist.
Smith invested nearly eight months preparing for what he knew was going to be an “extremely physically demanding” course, and training went well—until he got to coastal training, not quite halfway through the six-month program. Hunkered down on the beach and shielded from the rain under a one-man life raft, he watched as the wind whipped across the sand, burying his equipment. Though he would eventually find it, he worried he would have to tell the cadre he’d lost it all. The fear, he recalled, “got into my head.”
For Airmen 1st Class Alexis Hataway, on the other hand, it was the rigorous physical requirements, not the mental challenge, that proved hardest to overcome. She especially struggled during navigation training, when SERE candidates are required to lug a 70-pound rucksack 50 to 60 miles over the mountainous terrain for five days.
Like Smith, Hataway also spent about seven months prepping for the course. Initially unable to do a single pull up and barely able to do even 10 pushups, she met up with her recruiter about five days a week to work out before shipping off to Basic Military Training (BMT). “He pushed me to be a better person and allowed me to kind of grow in that, so that helped me a lot,” she said.
When it came to the SERE training Apprentice Course, the longest of the three-part journey to become a SERE trainer—and where washout rates historically hover around 50 percent—Smith and Hataway graduated at the top of what turned out to be an exceptional class: Only two of 28 students failed to graduate on Jan. 7, said Col. Nicholas Dipoma, 336th Training Group (TRG) commander.
Of the two who didn’t make it, one remains in the pipeline, having dropped because of an injury, Dipoma said.
The Air Force is the only U.S. military service that specifically trains personnel to teach aircrew or others how to survive in enemy territory. The 336th Training Group, based at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., trains the SERE specialists to be the instructors who train more than 6,000 students annually, most of them aircrew members, to survive if they are ever shot down or captured. SERE trainers prepare them to survive in any environment, whether urban, desert, mountains, or the freezing, barren Arctic.
But, there aren’t enough trainers to go around. At a time when potential peer conflict with Russia and China make such skills increasingly important, one in five SERE jobs is vacant. And while the field remains “healthy enough to function,” Dipoma said, it can no longer sustain 50 percent attrition in the training pipeline.
“Over the next four years, if we don’t turn attrition and the pipeline around—while also maintaining the same high standards—the career field would be in a bad place,” he added. “Before this class, that trend line was going in the wrong direction.”
The Air Force has been tracking performance data for years to pinpoint the characteristics that indicate success. They studied everything from pre-accession performance to training improvements prior to shipping off to BMT. In addition, the 330th recruiting squadron—the only squadron solely focused on recruiting Battlefield Airmen and related combat support career fields, such as SERE instructors—is also studying the issue. They’re watching medical attrition to better understand injuries and track every failure and success throughout the pipeline.
“That information is used to focus our efforts on recruiting the right applicants later on, and to develop [candidates] into their top potential,” said Maj. Mike George, director of operations for the 330th Recruiting Squadron.
In fiscal 2017, USAF sent 990 Special Warfare and combat support candidates to Basic Military Training, but only 145 actually completed their full pipeline. After the 330th stood up in fiscal 2018, the number of candidates sent to BMT declined to 705, while the number who successfully completed their pipelines rose to 373—a 257 percent increase, said Staff Sgt. Richard Walkowiak, a special warfare recruiter, named Recruiting Command’s 2020 USAF Rookie of the year. George said Walkowiak “has had the most success recruiting SERE specialists in the history of Special Warfare.”
Walkowiak credits that success to understanding the unique nature of the career field and to making sure the right people are signing up for the job. Before he started recruiting Special Warfare candidates, he worked closely with SERE specialists at Fairchild as a member of the 336th Training Support Squadron.
“When somebody tells me I need to find a SERE instructor, I’m not necessarily thinking that they have to be into the outdoors,” Walkowiak said. “By all means, that’s a great place to start looking, and I have heavily focused on … ice fishing tournaments, snowmobile races, outdoor expos, just to kind of name a few. … But, I would say the key to all of this is you have to be able to confidently speak on what the career field is and about all of what they do.”
Before the 330th stood up, too many people were signing up to be SERE specialists without really understanding what that meant. They wanted to, “just kick down doors and go down range,” and they didn’t know that SERE is an instructor role, Walkowiak said.
It also took time to get an accurate sense of what it takes to complete the course.
Senior Master Sgt. John Conant, the SERE Apprentice Course commandant, said it’s now clear that critical thinking and adaptability are keys to successfully completing the course, and that mentoring makes a difference.
“We have adopted a coaching and mentoring approach, instead of gatekeeping,” said Chief Master Sgt. Alexander Guerrero, 336th TRG command chief. That worked “20 or 30 years ago,” he added, but “personalities have changed. Generations have changed. How you get across to individuals has changed.”
While one person may find the physical training too grueling to continue, another may find it difficult to prioritize the many tasks asked of students. Coaching can help candidates work their way through challenges.
“Almost every cadre member … has talked someone out of quitting training,” Dipoma noted.
Conant said it’s important for the cadre “to treat our students as if we would want to be treated,” while simultaneously showing them “through our actions, that the journey is not impossible.” When students work out at the gym, so does the cadre. When they are getting pelted with sand on a barren beach in the middle of the night, so, too, is the cadre. When they are carrying a heavy ruck as they hike up a mountainside, so is the cadre. And, when they make a shelter out of snow in the freezing Arctic, so does the cadre.
“I’m an instructor, but I can be a mentor also,” Conant said. “I can evaluate, but I can also be involved. For a student to look over and see their cadre member, or their instructor, in that capacity, you know, willing to do everything that we’re asking them to do, it goes a long way, culturally speaking.”
Preparing for Peer Conflict
Dipoma, a former pilot, said SERE is a “growth enterprise” for both the Air Force and the joint force as the Defense Department shifts its focus from years of counterinsurgency operations toward great power competition. Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has challenged the force to adjust the way it trains Airmen, warning the nearly uncontested air superiority the United States has enjoyed for decades can no longer be assumed.
“Tomorrow’s Airmen are more likely to fight in highly contested environments and must be prepared to fight through combat attrition rates and risks to the nation that are more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environments to which we have since become accustomed,” wrote Brown in his “Accelerate Change or Lose” white paper, issued shortly after he became the service’s top uniformed officer. “The forces and operational concepts we need must be different.”
Dipoma said the possibility of conflict with a peer adversary “demands that Airmen be able to survive” in mountainous or woodland environments, but also how to act if captured in urban terrain, whether “in a wartime environment or hostage situations, [or to survive] peaceful detention, perhaps by a less-than-friendly government,” he said.
Lt. Col. Ana-Maria Ehrler, commander of the 22nd Training Squadron, which conducts SERE training for aircrews, said that as a pilot flying in Iraq and Afghanistan, she did not have to worry about getting shot down in air-to-air combat, and that if something did happen, rescue forces were “no more than 45 minutes or an hour away.” But that may not be true for Airmen going through the training course today.
They may need to be able to survive in open ocean, in jungles, in mountains, or the Arctic, and they may have to do so for “days, weeks, or months,” not just hours, she added.
“It’s completely changed how we’re training the aircrew in order to prepare them for those environments,” Ehrler said.
Instructors need to understand what SERE students are going through, so they can impart those lessons to their future students. One day, those skills might help keep a downed pilot alive.
“They’re not just survival instructors,” Walkowiak said. “There’s a lot more to it than that. They save lives with the things that they know and teach.”