Special Treatment for Special Warriors

Nov. 27, 2018

MSgt. Maria Teresa Pineda, a special operations recruiter, hefts a sandbag during a Battlefield Airman Prep Course at JBSA-Lackland, Texas. Recruiters are put through the course to learn the challenges BA recruits face. Photo: EJ Hersom/DOD

It can take two years and up to 10 recruits to produce a single special warfare airman today. Finding a way to make that process more efficient—yet no less effective—is the focus of a critical new Air Force initiative.

A new recruiting command is taking shape to help identify the kinds of candidates who can best succeed in USAF’s six special warfare specialties—combat controller; pararescueman; special operations weather technician; tactical air control party specialist; explosive ordnance disposal technician; and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialist—and a new up-front conditioning program aims to better prepare candidates for the rigors they’ll face in training.

Attrition rates for the six specialties range from 50 to 85 percent. That high washout rate contributes to the elite persona of special warfare jobs, but burning through candidates at such high rates is ultimately inefficient.

The Air Force reactivated the 330th Recruiting Squadron here as one of the first steps in a multipart strategy to reduce attrition and boost the numbers of special warfare airmen. The service had previously tried to foster mentor relationships between hopeful recruits and prior-service special operators across the country with the hopes they would increase graduation rates.

As USAF’s only unit solely dedicated to recruiting for special operations and combat support, the 330th stood up June 29 with 96 airmen dedicated to the task.

Maj. Heath Kerns, who has more than a decade as a special tactics officer and now commands the 330th RCS, said the Air Force cannot afford to expend “exorbitant amounts of effort” only to lose most of “these rare personnel” before they ever complete the one- to three-year training pipeline.

Kerns said the pararescue indoctrination course—the initial course of the pararescue pipeline—has historically high attrition rates because it is very intense physically and demands quite a bit from candidates very early on in the pipeline. In contrasst, in the combat controller specialty and special operations weather technician pipelines, the culminating apprentice courses are difficult because they assess much of previously learned skills over two years of training and this course takes place after several less-intense joint schools which do not require as much mental/physical stamina. Initial results are promising for pipeline courses with historically high attrition rates, but it is too early to tell how these changes have affected the combat controllers and special operations weather technicians, according to Kerns.

“We have changed many variables in the system, so it’s hard to isolate all the facts,” he said.

“In recruiting we know that many factors come into play over a two- to three-year training pipeline. While recruiting has less to do with training, how our recruits are doing long-term is something we always must keep in mind. The solutions that we build must lead to long-term success. We are not exclusively focused on only getting them through the first gate. Ultimately, all of this, from recruiters to the training pipeline, must work together to deliver the most lethal fighting force to our operational squadrons,” he said.

At least twice, Kerns said the Air Force suffered 100 percent attrition. “They literally had no one left, and no one graduated the course,” he said. “Obviously [that] is just a total failure across the entire spectrum of that process.”

Trainees endure a rigorous eight-week physical regimen of running, rucking, and swimming to prepare for the special warfare training pipeline. Photo: Ismael Ortega/USAF


Recruiting for special warfare specialists in the Air Force starts with understanding that the core target group of potential candidates probably doesn’t even know the Air Force does this kind of work.

“Brand awareness,” Kerns said, is a major challenge. “No one knows who we are and what we do.”

The kinds of potential recruits the Air Force wants may know all about the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers, the Navy SEALs, and even the Marine Corps’ Force Recon units, but Air Force special operators don’t get that kind of attention.

“That’s one of the major problems that we’re addressing,” Kerns said. “It comes largely from priding ourselves on being quiet professionals, just the humility to want to focus on doing your job and not worrying about the press.”

Recruiting fits in with other steps the service is taking along these lines. In October, the service activated a Special Warfare Training Wing, which has aligned training components similarly to other services.

Recruiting the right kinds of individuals—people who are most likely to succeed—is also critical. Special warfare demands “very tough” recruits with high intellectual aptitude, as measured by the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), as well as the fortitude to not give up when the going gets rough.

The Air Force wants former high school and college athletes who are not just fit, but physically and mentally tough. Football, wrestling, lacrosse, and rugby—considered the “more arduous, more contact-related sports”—produce strong candidates, but so do high-endurance sports like long-distance running and “adrenaline-charged” recruits attracted to high-risk extreme sports, such as rock climbing or skydiving.

It’s all about finding that “X-factor,” Kerns said: “That drive, that dedication, that duty—sacrificing yourself for the benefit of your brothers and sisters, putting others first for a greater cause.”

It’s a quality that “gets tested very painfully and thoroughly” throughout special warfare training.

“When you’re tired, when you’re exhausted, when you’re hungry, when your body’s cramping, can you still push through and take care of the guys alongside you to accomplish your mission?” he asked.

“We can train people physically,” he said, but getting fit is only part of the battle. “We can get them physically fit in the short term, but “their bodies break down over a long and arduous training pipeline.”

To stave off attrition and increase success, the Air Force hired former special operators, dubbed “developers,” who work with recruiters and recruits to help prepare them for the training that lies ahead. The developers help with nutrition, share reading lists and motivational speeches, and interact with recruits on a social media platform.

“It’s a whole process,” Kerns said. “It’s helping them build that mental resiliency.” The idea is to help recruits succeed through training and preparation.

“You still have to have that toughness,” Kerns said. “We’re trying to give … every opportunity for success [to] that kid that didn’t have the opportunity to swim or didn’t have the role models that were encouraging him in those ways.”

Better preparation means fewer surprises, he said. “They know exactly what to expect.”

More focus on what kinds of people will succeed has also produced more viable candidates. While in years past, training slots went unused for lack of candidates, now the pipelines are growing more crowded. This year, the tactical air control pipeline produced more candidates than class slots, according to Kerns, as well as the battlefield airmen development course, “where we’re able to push more than they’re initially able to handle.”

Historically, “that was always the reverse,” Kerns said. “There had always been more class slots than they had personnel to fill them, and then the people that showed up weren’t the right quality. Now we’re flooding them with higher quality.”

Battlefield airmen recruits train for amphibious operations in—and out of—water. Amphibious training includes mask and snorkel recovery, as well as sharing a snorkel underwater. Photo: Ismael Ortega/USAF


Just getting people to training, however, is only part of the challenge. Getting them through up to two years of challenging training is not easy.

The new eight-week Special Warfare Prep Course covers the four specialties of combat controller, special operations weather technician, tactical air party control specialist, and pararescueman. It is modeled on a Navy SEAL training course designed for the same purpose—to better prepare future special warriors for the brutal training they’ll experience on the way to earning their special warfare credentials.

Physical training, close monitoring of performance, and focused remediation to fix problems all aim to increase the likelihood that candidates can pass the course. Standards, however, remain constant.

“This is not a selection course, it is a development course,” said Innovation Cell Program Manager Patrick Wilson, who oversees a program that uses advanced sensors to monitor candidates’ conditions as they progress through the course.

Trainees drill in swimming, running, strength, conditioning, and mobility in a program that treats the recruits like professional athletes, which allows access to physical therapists and trainers.

“That’s our job, to get them through, to make them into better battlefield airmen,” said MSgt. Stephen Thomas, an instructor.

Mike Fisher, a prep course swim coach, was a NCAA Division 1 qualifier and competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trials. He helps students gain confidence in the water through two-hour swim classes, five times a week.

Water confidence training, he said, includes some pool skills, such as mask and snorkel recovery and buddy breathing—sharing a snorkel—under pressure.

Injury prevention is a critical focus of the prep course. “We’ve traditionally had a lot of students get injured, and their risk of getting reinjured was too high,” he said. That contributed to the high attrition rates. “We work really hard on injury prevention in this course because often, injuries are career-postponing or worse.”

Students are screened to try to spot potential injury risks early.

If a candidate squats poorly, athletic trainer Rachel Matson might have them do single or double squats, mobility exercises for each joint, or stability exercises, all of which could improve movement and reduce the risk of injury.

Athletic trainer Rachel Matson monitors a recruit. Trainees are treated like professional athletes, with access to physical therapists, trainers, and a system of sensors that track a candidate’s physical condition as they progress through the course. Photo: Johnny Saldivar/USAF

Candidates are monitored constantly. With at least one sensor attached to candidates at all times, instructors monitor about 300 data points for every student and consolidate the data into a central database to help spot trends.

Monitoring takes place both inside and outside the gym. One sensor, shaped like a hockey puck, tracks candidates’ core temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate; another conducts an electrocardiogram “with a whole bunch of bells and whistles” at the start and end of the day, Wilson said. A third is a wristband that measures the quantity and quality of candidates’ sleep and correlates the effects of sleep problems on performance with the impact alcohol consumption can have on performance, to help candidates understand the implications of lost sleep on their individual effectiveness. Tracking sleep helps identify those who are suffering from stress and those who might benefit from float tanks or meditation to help them unwind.

To enhance performance, candidates sleep in Tempur-Pedic beds and are held on lockdown for the first five weeks, which also helps build camaraderie and teamwork.

Psychological testing administered several times throughout the course also provides insights.

“This is the first time we have treated humans like weapons systems,” Wilson said.

It is not clear yet just how much all this special attention will affect attrition.

Hughes stated in an email that it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions, but answers should be available soon. “We expect to have sufficient data for a more conclusive assessment next year,” he said. “Ultimately, the purpose of the prep course is to create fitter, faster, stronger, more mentally resilient airmen for entry into the pipeline training.”

While the jury is still out on attrition, Hughes said course leaders are seeing higher physical fitness scores. “We are now focused on building out the mental-resilience component of the course to complement the great work on the physical component,” he said.

Overall, he added, Air Force efforts to look at the entire special warfare talent pipeline do seem to be having an impact. “It has allowed us to develop a more consistent and predictable program for onboarding candidates, sequencing them into Basic Military Training, working with them during BMT, transitioning them to the prep course, and then aligning initial AFSC training courses with prep course completion,” he said. That means less time wasted between classes waiting for training and a more efficient, effective path through the process.