As far back as World War II, the Air Force learned that to create the best-trained force possible, many of its best performers had to become instructors. The better the instructors, the more skilled the Airmen they turned out.
Today’s Air Force Weapons School builds on that tradition, taking some of the service’s most promising Airmen out of operational commands and putting them through some of the most intense graduate-level training anywhere to teach them how to apply their specialized skills in combat—and how to teach others to do the same.
Weapons School graduates are like the Ph.D.s of combat training, carrying a patch and prestige that stays with them throughout their careers. Among its notable graduates is Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.—a Weapons School graduate-turned-instructor-turned-commandant who went on to become Air Force Chief of Staff.
Brown exudes the school’s motto of “humble, approachable, credible,” as do many of its graduates, who are forged by intense training to become true experts in their fields.
There is only one Weapons School standard, and that standard is exceptionally high.Col. Jack Arthaud, Weapons School commandant
“We take folks who are already leaders and relative experts within their community, we bring them here, and then we make them better,” Col. Jack Arthaud, Weapons School commandant, told Air Force Magazine. Students are taught to be “both tactical and technical experts within their specialty” he said. “Once we develop that depth of expertise … we combine it … at the end of the course in that five-week Weapon School Integration phase.” Students are asked to combine the capabilities of their platforms with those of others “to solve the toughest tactical problems that we can put together in a training environment, and we do so across the air, space, and cyberspace domains.”
The Weapons School has both officer and enlisted programs, and most run about 22-and-a-half weeks:
- Weapons Instructor Courses (or WICs) cater to weapon systems, Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC), or their unique roles and missions, Arthaud said. These courses are for officers, as well as enlisted joint terminal attack controllers.
- Advanced Instructor Courses (AICs) are geared to weapon systems, AFSCs, or taskings, but are engineered specifically for enlisted Airmen. Courses for loadmasters and space operators are slightly shorter. There are eight AICs offered now and two more are in development, Nellis Air Force Base spokesperson 2nd Lt. Richard R. Caesar said.
For officers, the school generally seeks out captains with between four and eight years’ of experience, though first lieutenants have also made the cut from time to time, Arthaud said. For enlisted, he said, the school mainly targets staff sergeants who’ve accrued four to 10 years of service, with senior Airmen and technical sergeants “occasionally” earning acceptance into the school’s ranks.
WICs and AICs, which are either partially or completely taught on-site at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., share a common goal, Arthaud said: creating and developing “expertise for our warfighters.”
“There is only one Weapons School standard, and that standard is exceptionally high,” Arthaud stated. “We have different cultures … but there is one common thread across all this and that is a commitment to excellence and to a culture of learning, and debriefing, and a continuous passion to get better and to make those who are around us better.”
Students must complete two core requirements of academic work and complete training specific to their skillset before they attend the Weapons Integration Phase, where students from different WICs and AICs come together in realistic combat scenarios.
By the time they’re done, “each graduate has completed an average of 380 hours of classroom academics, written a graduate-level paper, and accomplished an average of 21 intense combat-training missions,” Caesar said.
The school graduates about 150 students per session. The “Alpha” class runs from January to June and “Bravo” from July until December.
According to Arthaud, about 135 Weapons Instructor Course students start each class, with approximately 120 graduating. Thirty to 35 enlisted AIC students typically begin each class, with 25 to 30 at the end, he said.
The Weapons School is extremely selective, but competition ends when the program starts. It’s a culture of unequivocal moral support, said Jeanette R. Rivera-Breznai, a graduate and former Weapons School instructor now serving as deputy director of intelligence analysis, partnerships, and engagements at Headquarters Air Force.
“It’s one of those places where you compete to get in, but once you get there, everybody locks arms, and it’s the most supportive community you’ve been a part of,” she said. “Everybody wants everyone to graduate, which is the rarest thing I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”
The academic core curriculum is rigorous, and the post-mission debriefings are even more so, making some school days last around 20 hours, Arthaud said.
“You’re always on the edge of flunking or passing,” recalled Air Force Association President, retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, a 1982 Weapons School graduate who went on to be vice commander of Air Combat Command and lead Fifth Air Force.
Those exhausting debriefs serve a purpose, said Maj. Alex Wallis, an air battle manager who graduated in 2015.
“They’re long because they really want you to get to that depth,” he said. Instructors sit side-by-side with students throughout, rather than sending them to decipher challenges on their own, he said. After each mission, WIC instructors listen to “every word that went over the radio” and dissect what was said, why and how they said it, the accuracy of each statement, and how they prioritized things and why, he added.
All that attention to detail helps students become not just their own worst critics, but also their best evaluators, said Maj. Cara Treadwell, an intelligence WIC graduate now serving as director of operations for a squadron that supports the National Security Agency.
“If you’ve … debriefed yourself really hard and been brutal, that debrief from the instructor may not be that long, because you’ve kind of self-reflected enough that they don’t need to double down on that,” she said.
Another intelligence graduate, Capt. Levinia St. Jean, said she’d like to see that approach spread across the larger USAF Intelligence Community.
“Aside from the Weapons School, we don’t teach folks how to self-reflect or debrief after they teach something,” she said. “So they say, ‘yep, I did a good job, move on.’ You’ve got to take that time to sit down and figure out where you can get better.”
All that introspection comes at a cost. A Weapons School tour can be on par with a deployment, Rivera-Breznai noted. Treadwell recalled that her husband was only able to visit twice during her class, and screenshots of conversations he saved from that period were like a pingpong match of “I love you’s exchanged at “odd hours of the day.”
“I think that that’s also part of the extra mile that people ask weapons officers to go,” she said.
Capt. Francesca Chun, an intel WIC alum from Class 18A, now teaches with the 19th Weapons Squadron. She got married while she was a student and her husband was about to deploy. Two years later, they have a baby and her husband is a student at the Weapons School.
“He gets to see the baby once a week, I see him in the hallways at work, and I tell him good luck on his flight,” she said. “But, I also realize … if he can’t come home on a weekend, that’s just how it is.”
Instructors demand excellence, and most students deliver.
“If they’re still swinging, and they haven’t hit the ground, and they’re trying,” students will be given every opportunity to graduate, Rivera-Breznai said.
The way in which Weapons School alumni approach problem-solving also distinguishes them from the rest of the Total Force.
Rivera-Breznai said the institution excels at creating leaders who can make split-second decisions with limited information without being intimidated.
“You are given … very complicated missions with other people that you’ve never work[ed] with before, on very little sleep, with huge gaps of information,” she said. “So they want to see, when you’re in those tough times, what falls off the table? What decisions are you going to make? And more importantly, are you going to stay in the fight and figure it out to make sure the mission gets done?”
Further, she said, students learn to own the consequences of those decisions, and to “be willing and ready to remedy the risk you took” when making them.
However, Wallis underscored that the proof is in the pudding—not the patch.
“I don’t look at my attendance at the Weapons School as me having an inherent right to something that other Airmen won’t,” Wallis said. “What I hope is that I can apply the tools that were given to me in that course and be effective in the job the Air Force asks me to do, and that the Air Force will value that product over a patch on my shoulder.”
Nearly all the graduates we spoke to agreed: The school is there to make Airmen more effective warriors, not to supercharge graduates’ assignment prospects. Even though attending the school may help the trajectory of your career, it’s not meant to be a resume booster.
“It’s not designed to rehab careers [or] boost careers,” Wallis said. “You know, it has a very specific function. And if you can apply the tools you get to be successful in it, then you’ll probably be successful in many other environments as well, that the Air Force will value independently of a patch on your arm.”
At a time when the Air Force is developing new concepts and tools to enable joint all-domain command and control, the Weapons School’s long-term approach to showing students how they fit into the larger picture seems particularly appropriate.
“The school really tries to strike a balance between creating depth of expertise in your specific career field … or weapon system or airplane, while also having a broader understanding of how to apply that expertise to larger tactical problems, which requires an understanding of what other domains are doing and how you can support those activities, or how you can benefit from those activities,” Arthaud said.
All Weapons Instructor Course and Advanced Instructor Course students complete crash courses in the “attributes, challenges, threats, and capabilities” of each warfighting domain, providing a common baseline knowledge to help inform them how to tackle tactical challenges. These include:
- Air operations (to include air superiority, suppression of enemy air defenses, and attack and strike operations)
- Cyber operations (offensive and defensive)
- Space operations (offensive and defensive)
- Counterspace operations
- Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
Even though U.S. Space Force is less than a year old, the Weapons School has emphasized space as a warfighting domain for years, Arthaud noted.
Students learn about orbital warfare—“in space, in-domain combat where you are using space capabilities to gain an advantage in whatever your particular mission objective might be”—as well as using air power in support of space-related aims, and vice versa.
“We feel that the relationship is mutually beneficial and goes both ways, and that air and space have a unique operational relationship that we want to sustain here at the Weapons School,” Arthaud said.
The school’s 328th Weapons Squadron was slated to transition to the Space Force at the time of his interview, but Arthaud did not anticipate any impact on academics or “integrated training opportunities” as a result.
Cyber operations are also inherent to the school’s instruction.
Today, though, no matter which domains students are focusing on, Arthaud said it all comes back to great power competition.
“We’ll train our graduates to be capable and proficient across the entire conflict spectrum, but given the experience of our force over the last 20 years, there is a greater need for us to focus on the high end of combat to ensure that we … rebuild those muscles for the high-intensity fights,” Arthaud said. “So, the Weapons School’s primary focus is on training to skills, tactics, and scenarios that improve the Air Force’s capability … to use the NDS [National Defense Strategy] 2018 line, to compete, deter, and win.”