With the number of aircraft expected to shrink in the years ahead-particularly fighter jets-the service will require a different talent mix, and eventually will end up with fewer fighter pilots and more officers in other specialties considered more relevant to the war on terrorism, officials said.
The catchphrase that best captures the new emphasis in Air Force training programs is "expeditionary combat skills," said Gen. Donald G. Cook, head of the Air Education and Training Command.
The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past three years has compelled the Air Force to take a fresh look at how it trains recruits, as well as non-commissioned officers and commanding officers, explained Cook.
"We are taking lessons from the war to basic training, tech training, unit training and regional training centers. We have to define what skills our airmen need," he said. "Our challenge is developing a culture of expeditionary airmen."
Although the service began adapting its doctrine and tactics after the Cold War ended, it has yet to refocus its training programs to encourage more airmen and women to develop expertise in areas the Air Force needs, but are perceived as unglamorous. Neglected fields include information operations, space systems, logistics readiness, transportation, supply and maintenance.
"In reality, the Air Force we have today is more like our grandfathers' Army Air Corps than it was our father's Air Force," Cook said.
Underlying the revised approach to training is the expectation that the Air Force will get smaller. The extent of the downsizing, however, is not yet known, said Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper. The cutbacks mostly will affect airplanes, not necessarily service members, he told an Air Force Association symposium. "We will be smaller in equipment, but not that much smaller in people."
As more sophisticated fighter jets such as the F-35 and the F/A-22 enter service during the next decade, the Air Force will be retiring older airplanes in larger quantities than the number of new aircraft it will buy.
"We are replacing current aircraft with fewer aircraft that are more capable," Jumper said. "Typically, it takes three squadrons to make sure we can get two off the ground and deployed. What we want is an Air Force where you have three squadrons and all three can deploy anywhere."
Specialists in growth areas such as space, information operations, and command and control, increasingly will come from the reserves and the Air National Guard.
"There is an opportunity for the Guard and reserve to take advantage of technical school open seats in 2005," Cook said.
The Air Force Space Command, meanwhile, wants to see the service build a "space cadre" of professionals who will be trained to manage complex systems. This career field won't be restricted to commissioned officers, Cook said.
"When we first started flying global positioning system satellites, it was all contractors and lieutenants and captains on the floor," he said. "Today, it is senior airmen. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some opportunities for the right (enlisted) people to get the right jobs."
Flight schools will see fewer active-duty pilots and more "combat systems officers," said Cook.
"We have for too long in the Air Force undervalued the potential and the capability of our navigators," he said. Unlike the Air Force, the U.S. Navy promotes naval flight officers to three-star and two-star rank. "Why? Because early in their Navy careers, they get opportunities to lead, manage, use judgment and make decisions of responsibility."
The combat systems officer will be a new career field in the Air Force, Cook noted. "We take the former navigator career field and we combine it with weapon system officer, electronic warfare officer, and you go through one fundamental training program. . We will open up a greater career path for our combat systems officers. They will understand the air battle management and the employment of air power much more than it is done today."
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also have fueled the demand for Air Force combat controllers and para-jumpers, or PJs.
Combat controllers help ground troops locate and pinpoint targets for pilots aboard fighter jets and bombers. PJs are highly trained operators who assist in the search and rescue of military personnel or civilians.
About 153 PJs and 140 combat controllers currently are undergoing training, and there are still not enough of them to meet the needs of regional commanders, said Cook. "We graduated a class of 24 PJs a couple of months ago. That was more than we graduated in all of 2003."
Another piece of the "expeditionary" training in the Air Force is learning how to run convoy operations alongside the Army in Iraq.
About 500 airmen already have completed convoy training at a new range at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
"We decided to stand up a basic combat skills force at Lackland," said Cook. It is a four-phase program that includes weapons qualifications, field exercises, integration and armor movement. The trainees operate an actual convoy on a range, and learn to fire automatic weapons and machine guns.
"The field exercise is realistic," said Cook. "It's not paintball."
Running truck convoys is not a typical Air Force job, but it is an important contribution to the Army's mission in Iraq, he said, although the cultures of the two services never will be confused. "We continue to remind the Army that we don't have companies. We have flights and squadrons."
No matter how integrated the services become during combat operations, each must preserve its unique identity, Cook said.
"Airmen training airmen is key. Training with other services to try to become people that they are not does not work . We want blue people training blue people."
For entry-level pilots joining the Air Force, change also is on the way. The Air Force plans to outsource the management of introductory flight training to a contractor team, starting in 2005 or 2006.
The service currently pays for aspiring pilots to receive their license at one of 250 private flight schools. Cook said that arrangement is wasteful, because it does not allow for proper screening of the candidates.
"We have absolutely zero washout rate in that program. But when they get to pilot training, the story is different," he said. "What we want to do is put the discipline into that program upfront."
The Air Force soon will kick off the "Introduction to Flight and Navigator Training" program, intended to consolidate all training in one location, with all courses taught by contractors, said Cook. Twelve bidders have submitted proposals, he added. "It will become a true screening program, and not just a program where we give people a private pilot's license and then they don't stick with us through pilot training."
Helicopter pilots, for their part, no longer will train with Army aviators at Fort Rucker, Ala.
The breakup resulted from the Army's decision to retire the Vietnam-era Huey helicopter and to focus its training program on combat aircraft-Apaches, Black Hawks, Kiowa Warriors-that the Air Force does not fly.
"The Army has decided to go in a new direction" under the Flight School XXI program, said Cook. "We are taking over our own helicopter training. We have acquired 45 Hueys from the Army. We'll recap them and make them Huey II, to train our pilots for the next 25 years."
Although Air Force fighter pilot instructors will see fewer U.S. trainees, they will be teaching more foreign aviators from allied countries.
The Air Education and Training Command now is under contract to train 12 Polish pilots who will be flying F-16 Fighting Falcons. AETC instructors at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, will provide entry-level training on T-38C aircraft, before the Polish pilots move on to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., to fly F-16s.
AETC also is training a group of 50 Pakistanis on the T-38, and several instructor pilots from Japan. Italian pilots also will be arriving at the F-16 schoolhouse. The United Arab Emirates, which purchased the most advanced version of the F-16, soon will be sending over pilots for flight training.
"The world is a changed placed," Cook observed. "We are very excited about the opportunity to expand the international training."
The Air Force plans to increase the use of virtual-reality simulators not just to teach flying skills, but also to teach operators how to employ equipment such as aerial refueling devices and cargo handling systems.
"We have spent all our time developing simulators and weapon systems trainers for the pilot crew upfront," said Cook. "We have not made the same investment for enlisted aircrew training-whether it's loadmasters or boom operators."
Surprisingly, pilots generally get trained faster than the boom operators, he said. "We've got the back-end boomers driving the flying hour requirements . so why don't we make the same investment in training boom operators as we make in the pilots."
To address that imbalance, the Air Force purchased full-motion simulators for boom operators that will allow them to cut back on flight hours in order to get certified.