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State of AETC: An interview with the commander

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, sat down to discuss the state of AETC from his vantage point at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 3, 2018. Reflecting on his first months as the commander of AETC and discussing his innovative vision for the future of the command, Kwast explains what it means to him to be a MACH-21 Airman, expresses his desire to develop the First Command as the “Learning Command,” and vocalizes his sincere appreciation of the support and adaptability from his teammates in AETC. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, sat down to discuss the state of AETC from his vantage point at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 3, 2018. Reflecting on his first months as the commander of AETC and discussing his innovative vision for the future of the command, Kwast explains what it means to him to be a MACH-21 Airman, expresses his desire to develop the First Command as the “Learning Command,” and vocalizes his sincere appreciation of the support and adaptability from his teammates in AETC. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas—Nearly six months after he became the commander of Air Education and Training Command, Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast sat down to discuss the state of AETC from his vantage point May 3 here.

Reflecting on his first months as the commander of AETC and discussing his innovative vision for the future of the command, Kwast explains what it means to him to be a MACH-21 Airman, expresses his desire to develop the First Command as the “Learning Command,” and vocalizes his sincere appreciation of the support and adaptability from his teammates in AETC.

It's been about six months for you as the commander of Air Education and Training Command. Where do you see the command now and going forward?

Where I see the command now is that we've accomplished the work of a strategy and done what the Air Force has asked us to do – move learning into the 21st century where we are assessing people faster, better, and smarter than ever before. They are learning more rapidly than any competition on Planet Earth.

We have finished the strategy and we've started to build out the infrastructure so we can really use the digital world we live in to accentuate learning on-command, on-demand from any device, anywhere on the globe. We have restructured the Air Education and Training Command staff so we actually have the right people in the right places, with the right skill sets to do this work of force development and the Continuum of Learning.

What are some of the challenges and strengths that you've seen across AETC?

Well, the strengths are that we have great patriots that really care about this business and understand it deeply. The human talent that we have here is extraordinary, and the American people should be very proud of these great Americans and the work they're putting in to make this country safe. They would be deeply, deeply grateful, and they would feel very good about the safety of this country.

The challenges of course are that change is hard, and our infrastructure is really not ready for the kind of digital age the world is moving into. So, we've got some long-term investments we have to make as an Air Force in order to move into the digital age and take advantage of the kind of learning that can be accomplished when you use the technologies of our age to accentuate our force.

As the former Air University commander, you were already tied to AETC. Was there anything that surprised you after you took command?

No, I had been watching very carefully and very closely because all of these pieces are interconnected. What I enjoy though about this new job is the ability to connect the dots between recruiting the right talent with the right passion and propensity to the requirement within the Air Force for the need for that talent and that characteristic.

When you pair somebody who's passionate about doing something with a job that you teach them to be successful at doing, magic happens. People are joyful and happy. They're doing their job, and they feel proud of their country and they know they're defending freedom.

Our mission and vision have slightly changed to “Inspire and Develop MACH-21 Airmen.” What is a MACH-21 Airman to you?

This is an Airman who can learn faster than their competition, can adapt when things are not working, and they can innovate faster than any opposition to create an advantage as a kind of lethality that allows our nation to defend its freedoms.

A MACH-21 Air Force essentially is comprised of Airmen who learn faster, adapt faster, and strategically out-think the enemy, because they are moving at MACH-21 speed.

And when you say “21st-century air power,” what does that mean to you, and how would you explain that to Airmen across AETC, so that it ties to their mission?

Everybody is tied to the fact that our world has changed foundationally, and yet we still live with a lot of industrial-age models in the way we manage people and the way we build technology concepts.

All of those are, to some degree or another, stuck in an industrial-age model. We now live in a digital world. Our economies, cultures and politics are interconnected across the globe. There is no place to hide in the world anymore with social media and the people on this globe that populate every square corner. The world has changed fundamentally.

For every Airman in AETC, this requirement to move into the digital age where we are moving at the “speed of life” is essential. It not only makes us more innovative because you can see more diverse ideas in trying to solve a problem, but it also connects you with the reality of our world and lets you start letting go of the past to be a pioneer for the future.

How do you see your force development commander role, and how does it change how we've developed the force in the past?

The force development role you could put into one sentence, and that is simply: I want to be able to see and visualize the entire Air Force, all 700,000 civilians, guard, active duty and reserve. I want to be able to see the data of each person and bore down to the granular detail of each person as an individual. What do you know? What can you do? What are your gifts? What are your challenges? This is how human beings help develop themselves.

If I can give you the tools to be able to see your own development, you can work on yourself to become a better human being and be better at doing your job. If I can see all of that data, now I can start putting the right person in the right job.

For example, when I have a job that the talent management professionals of our Air Force need to fill, they can turn to the force development commander, and I have the data that shows them that there are 64 people across the Air Force that have been perfectly developed with the right jobs, education, and the right training to fill that specific job.

Right now, we don't have that granularity, and in the past we pretty much paid attention to things like AFSC (Air Force specialty code), age, rank, and skill-set, and then you got the job. Now you can say, I want a person who's pretty aggressive in this job. I want a person who has a natural propensity for innovating. I want a person who has these specific qualities and characteristics. I need a person who speaks Swahili and I need a person who has lived in Cameroon, West Africa. You can quickly use the tools of our age to bore into that kind of detail and get the right person for the right job.

That is something we have never been able to do in the history of our Air Force, but the data and the technology and the infrastructure could be there tomorrow to do that kind of granular placement of the right person.

How has the force development commander role differed from, or complemented your role as the AETC commander?

To me, it's one in the same. If I were to reframe Air Education and Training Command, I would say it is the “Learning Command.” We not only bring in the right talent by measuring what you know and what you can do when you're a high school student or college student in civil society, but we assess if you have the values and the skills to physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually do what it takes to come into the Air Force. Then we help that person learn through their entire lifetime.

Force development is the ability to develop every human being to their full potential, consistent with their passion in education, training and recruiting.

How does all this relate to the headquarters reorganization and transfer of functions to the numbered air forces?

What we have done is we have said, OK, we are now the force development command. Over the years, AETC really was broken down into recruiting, education, and technical and flying training, with the AETC staff really running a lot of those functions.

We are now moving those functions down to the numbered air forces so that those commanders are doing all of that work, and we as the AETC headquarters are the ones that connect the dots between them all. We look across the span of a young person in high school who wants to join the Air Force. We inspire them, we measure their talent, we bring that talent in and we develop that person to become the best version of themselves possible.

And now that we have that person, we offer them up to the talent managers of our Air Force to put them in the right jobs. That's the job that was not being done before by AETC that we're going to do now. We're going to manage that data and knowledge, and we're going to manage that insight for our Air Force so that we unlock the full potential of every human being so that nobody goes unnoticed or gets lost in the fray. Our goal is to never again put somebody into a job where a specific talent is needed, but we just put whoever we could find. Now, we actually use data to be able to say, you actually have a handful of people in this Air Force who are perfectly developed for that job right now. We wouldn't be able to tell you who they were in the past unless it was a specific AFSC. Now we can do that.

You've charged Airmen to be bold, to take risks, to embrace change, and to learn from failure. As their commander, what kinds of risks and change are you looking for? And how can failure make us better Airmen?

This is really the basics of innovation and the basics of adaptation. You need people who are smart and know their job. We need people who are naturally curious and look for creative, diverse views of the problem, and then are willing to try new things.

This is where we talk about being bold. Being bold doesn't mean being reckless. Being bold means that when you see a problem or something frustrates you with your job, that you really look to a diverse group of people to consider the same job and the problem and look for new ways to solve the problem.

Having the willingness to try a new way comes with risks. This is just the reality: life changes. The environment changes around us and so does technology. If we don't have every Airman thinking about three basic questions, “What's the job I'm trying to do and what's getting in my way of doing it better, faster and smarter than anybody else on Planet Earth to when there is a problem or an opportunity to do it better? Am I willing to try something new?”

When we talk about failure, I actually really look at it a different way. It's called discovery. If you do this right, you will try many different ideas to solve a problem. If you try 10 ideas, maybe eight of them will not work. That could be couched as failure, however, I consider it discovery. I've discovered what does not work and that's the kind of courage that I'm talking about – the willingness to be able to discover new ways. If you don't find the solution the first time, you don't get discouraged and you're not afraid that your boss or your peers are going to look at you and think you did not succeed.

Instead, you just discovered what doesn't work and you find a new way of solving the problem.

Sir, can you elaborate on what AETC hopes to accomplish with Pilot Training Next?

Pilot Training Next is really Learning Next. As we have our pilot shortage right now, which is a result of production issues and absorption issues, we're finding that our production machine just can't seem to keep up with the strategic environment of our economy and the world. As airlines are hiring away our pilots, we can't seem to keep up.

Pilot Training Next is really discovering what it is that makes people good at this art of military aviation and being an Airman in the vertical dimension. When we know what makes people good at that, we might be able to find ways of teaching them to be good at it faster and better than ever before. We might be able to increase our adaptability and flexibility to produce pilots at the volume and at the affordability that we need. If we needed 10,000 pilots this year, we can produce 10,000 pilots this year, and if we only need a thousand pilots, we can produce a thousand, and it doesn't break the bank to go from one to the other or leave a lot of people unemployed.

We need more agility in our production machines, which are an industrial-age legacy of producing pilots that were designed in the 1950s. We are looking for the digital-age version so we can design a strategy to do it faster, better, smarter and cheaper than anybody else on Planet Earth.

What advice would you give to a brand-new AETC Airman?

I would say that you are getting to reinvent our Air Force from the ground up. What a glorious time to be alive, when you are coming in on the ground floor and the entire nation is moving from an industrial age to the digital age. We are doing the same thing here in Air Education and Training Command. We are moving from one world paradigm that was built for us in World War II, and we are building it for the 21st century.

This is groundbreaking work, and every Airman has the opportunity to innovate and to bring their ideas on how we can do things in a different way that is clever and novel and useful.

Is there anything else that you'd like to mention or anything that you'd like members of AETC to know?

I just want to thank the entire Air Education and Training Command team for their trust in me and taking this leap of faith with me, because change is hard. It drives anxiety, and there's fear and uncertainty and doubt, because we don't know what the future holds.

But, we know one thing, we cannot keep doing things the way we're doing them now and still produce at the rate and at the affordability that our nation needs. So, there is a strategic dilemma here we have to solve.

I want to thank everyone for the help, trust, faith, and the willingness to go on this journey of discovery with me. I truly am grateful that every Airman in Air Education and Training Command is willing to be a pioneer of the future, along with me. Together, we will succeed.