Airmen Get New Skills for War

L.A. Times

For a service usually stationed so far from the front lines that it has earned the sobriquet “Chair Force,” some of the scenes now unfolding at the Air Force’s primary training base almost seem blasphemous.

New recruits are being trained to use rifles. They are being taught hand-to-hand combat skills. They are being prepped as battlefield medics. The new regimen is part of a complete revamp of basic training ordered by Air Force commanders in somewhat belated recognition that their airmen, once sent to large isolated bases with hundreds of thousands of troops between them and enemy forces, are now regularly in harm’s way.

In Iraq, the Air Force has taken over supply convoys to ease the burden on the Army and Marine Corps, and specialized forces have been used in Army-like combat patrols, conducting raids and seizing suspected insurgents outside such facilities as Balad air base, north of Baghdad. Commanders estimate that about a third of all Air Force personnel have been deployed to the Middle East and Central Asia since Sept. 11, 2001.

Until recently in Air Force history, airmen and their commanders were “a garrison force” that deployed fighter jets in battle but little else, said Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, former head of air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan who took over as Air Force chief of staff in September.

“Now everything we have operates off those forward air fields,” Moseley said. “Fundamentally, it’s a different business.”

It is hard to underestimate how drastic a cultural change the move is for the youngest of the armed services. The shift dovetails with larger military needs demanded by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for terrorists. But it is a delicate balancing act, one in which the Air Force is attempting to adapt to a world of guerrilla warfare even as it insists it is remaining true to the reason it was created: to wield dominant air power.

The Air Force views itself as the “high-tech service,” responsible not only for the world’s most sophisticated fighters and bombers, but also for most military space programs and the bulk of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

As a result, its recruits tend to have more education and are as likely to join to become computer experts as armed warriors. Last year, 28% of enlistees had some college education, compared with 24% for the Army.

As recently as the mid-1990s, combat training for Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base amounted to little more than lectures on the Geneva Convention and the law of armed conflict.

After the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia — which killed 19 Air Force personnel — basic training was tweaked and a “warrior week” added to the 6 1/2 -week program in 1999.

But the bulk of Air Force basic training focused on what the service calls “airmanship”: coursework on Air Force history, recognizing ranks and how to dress appropriately. The guns issued to recruits were plastic, and basic training was still the shortest of all the services’. Army basic training lasts 10 weeks; the Marine Corps puts recruits through 13.

“In Air Force basic training we did not talk about the role of a warrior; we did not talk about weapons,” said Col. Gina Grosso, a Harvard-educated personnel specialist in charge of overhauling Lackland’s curriculum. “Even though we’ve been [in front-line air bases] … since 1991, we were not teaching basic warrior training.”

In November, that all began to change.

As part of a revamped course ordered by Moseley, recruits now learn “warrior skills” during their first week at Lackland. About half of the program is dedicated to combat-related drills, such as defending an air base under attack or operating during a night mission.

In January, the recruits were given M-16 replicas that can be taken apart and reassembled, models that will eventually be given to all new trainees on the day they arrive.

“They feel more like a warrior from an earlier point,” said Tech. Sgt. Timothy Bruton, who has trained some of the first recruits to go through the weapons program. “The talk is: If there is a weapon, you’re going to be deployed to active environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

For some recruits, the new emphasis on battle skills and hard, physical training is unexpected. Asked whether he anticipated Army-style exercises, Nicholas Harrison, a trainee from Temecula, Calif., covered with dirt and sweat after crawling through an obstacle course, answered bluntly: “No.”

After a moment’s reflection, and a chance to catch his breath, Harrison added: “I’m glad they do it. It’s a necessary tool,” particularly since trainees are apt to land in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The prospect of going to a combat zone is consuming, he said: “I think about it every day.”

It is a common refrain among the new recruits. The anxieties of war are all too real, particularly with Wilford Hall Medical Center — the Air Force’s main military hospital, where its war casualties are taken — standing on a nearby part of the base.

“I think it’s only natural,” Violeta Cruz del Valle, a recruit from Providence, R.I., said of her anxiety. “But I feel I’m ready for anything that comes my way.”

If the Air Force gets its way, the changes that began in November will be just the first step in what Moseley calls the “most dramatic restructuring” in Air Force training since the service was created 60 years ago.

Last month, Moseley announced his intention to expand basic training by two weeks. Air Force leaders are pushing Congress for $28 million to develop a 70-acre site at Lackland into four bases — complete with tents, defensive positions and wire fences — where recruits would practice their battlefield skills.

“It’s going to be pure exercise,” Grosso said.

In classic Pentagon fashion, the new weeklong deployment has a catchy acronym — BEAST, or Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training. It will be the centerpiece of an 8 1/2 -week training program that will have its first six weeks dedicated to either combat, unconventional weapons or advanced first-aid training.

Although the curriculum is still being hashed out by Grosso’s staff, one week leading up to BEAST will focus on basic combat lifesaving skills. Airmen will learn to perform a tracheotomy or perhaps administer an intravenous feeding tube while facing enemy fire. Another week will introduce “initial war skills,” teaching techniques as varied as map reading and basic hand-to-hand combat.

If Congress approves the funding this year, Grosso believes the expanded training could be launched by the end of 2007.

Some Air Force officials acknowledge that one reason behind the training overhaul — and the new land combat duties — is an effort to remain relevant in an age when opposing air forces are few and far between. Already, the Air Force is finding itself picking up missions that have historically been the purview of the Army or Marines.

Balad, for example, has long been one of the most dangerous areas for U.S. troops in Iraq, and the air base there has been attacked so frequently it has been called “Mortar-itaville.” When Air Force Col. John Decknick first arrived there in the autumn of 2004, the Iraqi insurgency was gaining in strength, and the Army units protecting the base were strained.

“They were working their butts off,” Decknick recalled. “They were short-handed.”

His bosses in the Air Force made the Army an offer: Balad being an air base, shouldn’t the Air Force help protect it? The Army jumped at the offer, and three months later a task force of 220 airmen was patrolling local villages and marshland, conducting nightly raids on suspected hide-outs and eventually capturing 18 insurgent leaders.

The mission lasted 60 days, and Decknick, who has spent 10 years helping to expand Air Force ground security skills, said it remained a “test of concept.” But if Moseley gets his way, it could be a sign of things to come.

These new missions come even as the Air Force is fighting off efforts to cut its budget and some of its most prized weapons programs. Air Force leaders strenuously deny the changes are part of an effort to claw back some of the Pentagon budget. But some acknowledge the blurring of Army and Air Force duties raises political questions that, in many cases, have yet to be answered.

“We’re paying the bill for Army shortfalls,” Grosso said, acknowledging that some of the new duties would have normally been assigned to an overtaxed Army. Although she says her job is not to “make Army foot soldiers” out of Air Force recruits at Lackland, it will be up to senior leaders to decide where the dividing line is between a combat-ready airman and a traditional Army grunt.

“We should be able to go into Iraq or Afghanistan and set up a bare base,” Grosso said of the newly trained airmen. “Do we need [airmen] to be driving convoys in Iraq? That’s a political question.”

For his part, Moseley appears undaunted by such distinctions. He has plans to set up a school at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, home to Decknick’s security forces that conducted the Balad mission. The school would focus solely on teaching ground combat skills, a move Moseley hopes would create a cadre of “battlefield airmen” who specialize in protecting bases in hostile environments.

The chief of staff is also instituting foreign language training in either Arabic, Chinese, Spanish or French for all senior enlisted airmen and mid-level officers when they attend courses tied to their promotions. Moseley believes they may need those skills if they are deployed to the front lines.

“This is a very high priority for me,” Moseley said. “It is my ethical and moral duty to train every one of these airmen to be able to do their duty in this new environment.”

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