Lt. Gen. Marshall B. Webb commands Air Education and Training Command at JB San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, where he oversees recruiting, training, and education for all Air Force personnel. AETC, which trains more than 293,000 students annually, is in the midst of a technological revolution. The command is leveraging technology in the classroom, in dorms, and in self-paced training that exchanges industrial-model training—one size fits all—to more customized, tailored approaches that are ultimately more efficient and effective. He spoke with Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele in July.
Q. Force Development has been your main focus. What does that mean to you?
A. What we have today, I call it “developing the Airmen ‘need.’ ” This is a deliberate effort to maximize force readiness, … building competencies that we think we need our Airmen to have, whether you’re talking about officers or NCOs, because a competent empowered mid-career officer and NCO is the Air Force’s asymmetric advantage—frankly, it’s America’s asymmetric advantage vis-a-vis the great power competitors, specifically China and Russia.
Q. How does that great power competition issue translate into curriculum changes in officer or NCO training?
A. Air University, through all levels of Professional Military Education (PME) has already moved out and is well on the road to establishing, by the 2022 time frame, … 60 percent of the content be about [strategic]competition, meaning specifically China and Russia, and 40 percent of that 60 percent specifically about China. The way that we grew up as youngsters, we knew Soviet doctrine, Soviet organization, Soviet methods of combat, the Soviet mindset. I think it’s fair to say we’re nowhere near that [level of familiarity] with respect to China—not to mention that this is an Eastern mindset versus a Western mindset. … It’s really to be the way we were in the Cold War Soviet era, how we understood the Soviets. We need to be that way with China [today]. So we need to really focus our curriculum efforts, in all of the PMEs, whether it’s SOS, Air Command and Staff College, War College, NCO Academy, senior NCO Academy. Because, back to my first point, … this empowered NCO that understands Commander’s Intent, mission-type orders, mission command, becomes very important. … These are going to be small teams, working with other teams, led by mid-career officers and NCOs. And it starts with education and training. That’s a generational lift but it’s well underway, and we will have [it] fully inculcated in ’22.
Q. What you just described is essentially the ACE framework—Agile Combat Employment. It’s small units, operating in remote locations, with multi-capable Airmen doing lots of different jobs. How are you adapting training to support that concept?
A. This is another work in progress. What we see today, in July 2021, is that agile combat employment and multi-capable Airmen mean something a little different to PACAF, something a little different to AFSOC, it’s something a little different to AMC—you get the point. I am in kind of the catbird seat from an AETC perspective, along with the Air Force Expeditionary Center, which is really knee-deep in this. But we need to be developing what we think [is] … appropriate at basic training and tech training. … There are enough common threads that you can tell clearly where we’re going: small teams that have to have good situational awareness, have to understand the big picture, have to understand mission command, have to be comfortable with making decisions in uncertain environments. Competence and empowered has to be part of the equation; these things are all fundamental.
Q. ACE seems to be about teaching somebody to be comfortable getting outside the box, adapting on the fly. And that changes the fundamental idea of what your are teaching and training, doesn’t it?
A. Yes, that’s true, but the American citizen that arrives at our gate today is a much different American citizen than the boomer generation, of which I’m, of course, a part. These citizens coming in have had a whole different experience, the world at their fingertips, called an iPhone. While it may be kind of a paradigm shifting mechanism for the Boomer generation, they adapt to this naturally.
Q. So you’re saying military training is catching up to the modern individual?
A. That’s right.
Q. In terms of curriculum, how does that change things?
A. There are some evolving changes with respect to basic training and … tech training that are curriculum based. You can expect more small group dynamics and tactical skills decision- making, exercises and things like that. These will become more fundamental than they were before. But it is about mindset. [Letting trainees] utilize technology, even in Basic Training. WiFi access to learning modules that they can be doing in their dorms or off time and at their level of competency, and continuing that through tech school. You see a lot of fruit in the labors at tech school in this area, where we’ve been able to take immersive technologies and flipped classrooms, so Airmen have a facilitator in the classroom but it’s not an instructor at a whiteboard teaching a lesson. The acceleration on time to the competencies on a given skill is astronomical. Really impressive. … Those taking part in this experimentation [are learning faster, and those who see them] are looking over the divider wondering, ‘How do I get to be part of that?’ Because it’s just natural. It’s a natural environment and it’s one that I think derives a lot of satisfaction.
Q. That means you can move to more self-paced learning?
A. That’s right. Back to this multi-capable aspect. We certainly want them to have a firm foundation in a basic skill set, but how much do we want to add on? … That’s the give and take. We all kind of intuitively understand you have to have a firm foundation in your primary career field. But gone are the days when you need—or you can afford—20 people working on a jet, because one guy does electronics and one guy does hydraulics and one does something else. We’re not going to be able to do that. And by the way, these [young people] are fully capable and competent to take on more. So, it’s really adjusting the rheostat knobs to where’s the right level foundationally. What do we need to get to in tech school? What is good enough at tech school and can then be taught in the unit. This is about being lifelong learners, not just in school and then we’re done learning once we graduate.
Q. Does that mean that for some people you can shave weeks of training?
A. It’s possible. …[But] we need to be responsible with who the field wants. Do they want someone earlier who has a basic competency and they teach the rest in the field, or would they rather we start the multi-capable aspects before we hand them to you? The jury’s still out.
Q. Pilot training has been going through a rethink for a couple of years. Vance recently completed its last traditional class, so the future is here. What does that look like?
A. We have operationalized … Pilot Training Next, or PTN. They were Edisons, inventing the light bulb, inventing the phonograph, inventing the good stuff. … Now, at Vance, it’s Henry Ford: It’s assembly line production. They are taking those concepts … and fully transitioned to winging our pilots at the end of the T-6 phase. Then, depending on their assignment, they go through the Air Mobility Fundamentals course or a fighter fundamental course, which is today of course, the T-38, and will be T-7 eventually. We just started a squadron’s worth at Randolph, and we will make the decision later in the summer … on whether we go to Laughlin and or Columbus to scale that out as well. The limiting factor is really equipment, because it’s a lot of immersive devices. A wing has got to be ready for this. And if we haven’t properly resourced them then we just can’t scale it.
Q. What is the end state you hope to see?
A. What it will be when it’s fully mature, is you get your assignment to Vance Class 23-01 or whatever, and your [Virtual Reality] goggles show up in the mail along with your laptop and your whatever devices you need to connect, and you get what we call early access to content, where you can do whatever level of pre-study you want. Then you keep all that when you show up at Vance and start your pilot training [where] you will have a diversity of training devices, which are, you know, basically, a seat with a cockpit that is reconfigurable to the type of aircraft you’re flying, that connects through the cloud system and the data analytics, and you continue your training. Then it’s a blend of simulators and real flights. That is not fully realized right now, but it’s close.
Q. What about helicopter training?
A. We’ve run group trials, the first one just graduated in June. That was a helicopter-only track. This is a little bit of back to the future. I’m a helicopter pilot, by the way, and I went through Fort Rucker [Ala.,] as a helicopter-only guy in 1984-85. … Flying [vertical lift only] can be done. And it’s being done with this cohort that just graduated. This is a track we are pursuing, one, because [we] can, and two, frankly, because of the pilot situation we’re in … the pilot crisis effort. [Separating helicopter pilots allows for] … 90 slots that we can free up for fixed wings, because the crisis is on the fixed wing side. The Air Force learning mentality has adapted over time, we’re past saying [to qualified helicopter pilots who want to switch to fixed wing that they have to start from scratch. Now] they can go through a transition course, just like transitioning from an F-15 to F-35.
Q. Are we all done with COVID-19 and its aftermath? What did you learn given that experience that could make you better for the long-term?
A. We’re not out of the woods. We’re still fighting through it. … We’re not at a state where everybody is vaccinated because we’re not … obviously, mandating vaccinations. We see a ton of folks that have either already vaccinated when they come in or that volunteer to get the shots during those first weeks, but we still see cases. We still have to quarantine when we do have these isolated cases. So we’re still in the midst of it. We’ll see what happens with these other variants. In a lot of ways, COVID worked as an accelerant to really bring about needed changes. Chief Bass recently said, ‘I can’t believe we still do tests with paper and pencil.’ … [COVID-19] kick-started how we do recruiting, with more online methodologies and more, modern ways of using technology. …
Q. If you could pick three things that you changed and will stick with now, what comes to mind?
A. It would not be a blanket statement to say the whole Air Force [now] understands that … WiFi is a necessity, as opposed to a convenience. People want to learn in their dorms … I mean, that has been a fundamental game-changer for us: all access, all the time, to content for learning. It’s proven out what General Kwast, my predecessor, said, that Airmen will continue to learn and seek out learning opportunities if given the choice. I think there was some skepticism about that but you see it play out. A second is the social distancing aspect. We didn’t really have a flu season last fall, because guess what? People were staying physically distant, and they were washing their hands, and yeah, these fundamental things work. The last one, and I heard this play out from every senior leader visit that occurred down here—and we had a bunch, we had Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, a couple of chiefs—it was the realization at the squadron level, even at the flight level, [that they had license to figure things out for themselves.] People said, ‘Hey, sir, I’ve never led in a pandemic before.’ Well, you know what? I said, ‘I’ve never lived through a pandemic either. You have the tools to. You understand what the commander’s intent is. Move out. Do the mission to the best of your ability.’ Inevitably, every squadron commander that I heard talk to leadership said, ‘I can’t imagine a better time to lead in the Air Force because there are no left and right limits, I understand what my mission is, I’ve just got to figure it out.’ That’s true whether you’re talking to a pilot, a squadron commander, at BMT, or tech school. They said, “The leadership said figure it out and go, and that’s so motivating!” … That sense of job satisfaction and sense of empowerment was palpable, and people really responded to it. That’s the magic. That’s the special sauce.