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Second to None: Building the Airmen We Need for America’s Air Force

  • Published
  • By Dan Hawkins
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. – Every year, approximately 40,000 men and women step off of a bus at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and are greeted by a military training instructor to begin their Air Force journey. Approximately eight weeks later, those men and women march down the bomb run in their blues as Airmen in the United States Air Force.

From basic to technical training and beyond, Second Air Force is responsible for taking the best civilians our country has to offer and transforming them into exceptional Airmen of character.

“Basic military training and initial skills training are absolutely vital to generating the force and underwrites our ability to defend the nation,” said Maj. Gen. Andrea Tullos, who became the 2nd Air Force commander almost a year ago after serving as the Air Force’s Security Forces director. “Roughly 93% of our total force starts their military service in Second Air Force as they develop into the Airmen we need for America’s Air Force. What we do here and throughout Air Education and Training Command is absolutely foundational to our Air and Space Force’s ability to fight and win in today’s joint all-domain environment.” 

Headquartered at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Second Air Force is comprised of five training wings, 18 groups, 84 squadrons and 59 detachments that graduate approximately 150,000 Air Force, joint and coalition partner students annually in 265 Air Force specialty codes from Basic Military Training, technical training, medical or distance learning courses.

After taking the oath of enlistment, the first stop for all Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve enlisted Airmen is Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.  Once trainees become Airmen, they begin technical training, primarily at five installations: Goodfellow, Lackland, and Sheppard Air Force Bases in Texas; Keesler AFB, Mississippi; and Vandenberg AFB, California.

Instructors at each base are responsible for a specific portion of an Airman’s formal technical training, such as aircraft maintenance, civil engineering, medical services, computer systems, security forces, air traffic control, personnel, intelligence, firefighting, and space and missile operations.

Commissioned officers attend technical training courses for similar career fields at various locations.

“Unlike some of our sister Services, the Air Force conducts centralized BMT and decentralized technical training – we ship our accessions based upon a technical training start date, not a BMT start date,” Tullos said. “Having said that, our training really is a joint endeavor, with 16% of our initial skills training being joint, including various engineering, medical and vehicle maintenance career fields, as well as select programs like airborne or military free fall for Airmen training in special warfare specialties.”

The numbered Air Force’s current priorities nest under Air Education and Training Command’s lines of effort, including advancing force development, enhancing lethality and readiness, transforming learning and cultivating an environment of excellence.

Advance Force Development

One of Second Air Force’s biggest charges is to overhaul a legacy training pipeline and make it more agile, enabling faster delivery of fully-qualified Airmen to their operational units.

Putting in place the right pieces to “Develop the Airmen We Need” to succeed in today’s complex, joint all-domain operational environments has been a top priority for Tullos since taking over the command in summer of 2019.

“We realize today’s Airmen expect to come into the service and train using tools like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and more,” said Tullos. “While it has been effective, our older training methods don’t account for today’s rapidly-changing technological landscape. We want our Airmen to be able to progress at the speed of learning, so we have moved to more active learning strategies to maximize learning effectiveness.”

Enabling Airmen to get constructive credit for what they bring to the Air Force from their experiences before joining the service, as well as automating the “overwhelming” majority of training support processes so they can keep pace with Airmen, not the other way around, is part of the plan, Tullos said.

“Taking these qualified recruits who also possesses the will to succeed, and instilling the core values, good order and discipline, and foundational skills to be successful in the profession of arms is our core job,” Tullos said. “We owe every Airman a modern, learner-centric experience that befits their experience and education right when they walk in the door.”

Enhance Lethality and Readiness

The 2018 National Defense Strategy emphasized the military’s need to stay ready to execute their vital role in reinforcing traditional tools of diplomacy to ensure our elected leaders and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength. 

“We have taken a hard look at the foundational warfighting skills we provide new Airmen,” Tullos said. “Across the spectrum, we are aligning foundational competencies to meet National Defense Strategy objectives and ensure Airmen immediately add value when they join their first Air Force team.”

In late 2018, a revamped expeditionary skills and weapons training curriculum was introduced at BMT, entirely focused on lethality and readiness, Airmanship, fitness, and warrior ethos.

As part of the changes, every Airman, regardless of specialty, receives foundational weapons handling training, as well as fundamentals of marksmanship skills during BMT.

“The operational readiness of our force is paramount and one our most significant evolutions here has been our transition to the new M-4 rifle qualification course,” Tullos said. “All of our trainees will be required to meet the qualification standard to graduate and become Airmen.”

Other changes have focused on the infusion of Comprehensive Airman Fitness principles across all levels of Second Air Force.  One example is how BMT trainees receive Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training, incorporating technology to create an interactive, immersive learning environment.  As Airmen move to technical training, Airman chosen to be a part of the student leader teal rope program receive special training by the SAPR office and then serve as a link between Airmen-in-Training and the base’s SAPR office for needed support.

Of course, COVID-19 has had an impact on readiness across the basic and initials skills training pipelines as the entire team has focused on mitigating risk to Airmen and communities while still executing the mission.

“The amazing partnership between our leaders, supervisors and cadre, particularly our MTIs, and our medical professionals who have given us the blueprint for success and who have trained us on how to strictly follow public health guidelines, has promoted a culture of safety,” Tullos said. “So far, every Airmen who tested positive or became symptomatic has recovered and reentered training.”

Paraphrasing former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s “…with every challenge is an opportunity,” the timing of COVID-19 and the training pipeline needs that came with it also presented the chance to verify the feasibility of holding BMT at a secondary location, specifically at Keesler.

“Air Force BMT remains vital to renew the force and to the delivery of air and space power anytime, anyplace,” Tullos said. ”This capability was a deliberately developed option to disperse the delivery of BMT during contingencies to provide surge capacity and introduce agility in the training pipeline construct.”

Tullos reiterated that BMT at Keesler is a contingency option and there are no current plans to continue BMT at multiple locations following the coronavirus pandemic.

The current COVID-19 operating environment has also provided a peek at the full concept employment of mission command, where the most junior Airmen are expected to understand and execute commander’s intent.

“In reality, our experiences in safely fighting through COVID-19 are helping us prepare our Airmen for any contingency operation, whether they realize it yet or not,” Tullos said. “They are operating in a communication-degraded environment, with constrained movement and a host of supply line challenges.”

The recognition of space as a warfighting domain and the standup of the sixth military service branch has also been a concentrated line of effort for the Second Air Force team.

“We’re fully engaged with the U.S. Space Force, and we’ve completed revisions to both the officer and enlisted undergraduate space training curriculums,” Tullos said.

Transforming the Way We Learn

With a focus on leveraging opportunities for blended learning environments that include facets of distance, facilitated and hands-on training in the classroom, whether indoors or out, Tullos sees the transformation of learning as an area of unlimited growth potential.

“I believe this priority represents an infinite number of iterations to ensure we’re integrating the latest technology into the training environment in parallel with our operational units,” Tullos said.

Tullos is adamant that the use of expanded, blended learning capabilities, including VR and AR, during the COVID-19 response, has been vital to not only ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the training pipeline, but has led to opportunities to more rapidly transform the learning environment.

“Our ability to expand these opportunities under the conditions of coronavirus have been essential to our ability to fight through and sustain production despite the need to mitigate the COVID-19 threat,” the general said. “In many pipelines, we will never go back to delivering a fixed number of days of training in a classroom.  Our instructors and Airmen are thriving in small groups of student-centric learning.”

One of the biggest takeaways is how the instructors are transitioning to more of a facilitator role, while students begin teaching others.

“In the facilitator role, instructors can focus more time on Airmen who are struggling with a concept while the faster or more experienced trainees can progress at their own pace,” Tullos said. “We’re finding even our slowest learners are learning more deeply and progressing faster than under previous constructs.”

As long as Airmen demonstrate they’re embracing the service’s core values and have the will to learn, the staff is committing the time to enable their success.

“While we’ve changed the delivery, we haven’t changed our standards,” Tullos said. “We’re committed to training to task, not time.”

Another way Second Air Force is reimagining the training enterprise is through the evaluation of direct duty assignments.

Take the case of Airman 1st Class Emily Perina, who entered the Air Force in April 2020 with a two-year accredited associate’s degree as a physical therapy assistant from the State College of Florida, plus an active physical therapy assistant license, four years of work experience in outpatient sports medicine settings and completion of three clinical internships.

Using the concept of the continuum-of-learning and constructive credit, Perina was granted an exception-to-policy to bypass technical training completely and was sent direct to her duty assignment at Luke AFB, Arizona, following BMT graduation. 

“Not only did the direct-duty assignment help save $28,000 in technical training costs, but it also delivered a fully-qualified Airman to her duty location four months early,” Tullos said, while also noting the 25% manning level for physical therapy assistants at Luke. “Rather than training Airman Perina to do a job she is already qualified to do, her line supervisors are now focused on training her to be the Air Force physical therapy assistant her unit needs.”

Although cases like Perina’s will never be the rule, having a process that rewards Airmen for what they’ve achieved makes sense.

“When we have an Airman Perina walk into a recruiting office, we want to ensure we’re giving her the right introduction into the profession of arms to make her a successful Airman first and physical therapy assistant second,” Tullos said. “We believe this will incentivize people who have special skills we need to come join us, without having to ‘start over,‘ if you will.”

Cultivate an Environment of Excellence

The re-dedication to a culture of Airmanship has been key to cultivating an environment of excellence for Airmen beginning their careers.

“We have broken down every block of BMT to ensure we’re setting that foundation properly,” Tullos said. “If we can’t align our training tasks to Airmanship, communication, combat skills or comprehensive fitness, then we don’t believe it belongs in basic training.”

This also includes the Airmanship 200 program, which formally integrated core Airmanship and force development concepts into the technical training environment. The key to establishing this culture lies in the hands of military training instructors and other cadre who serve as the center of gravity for building Airmen.

“Our MTIs are laser-focused on instilling core values, heritage, good order and discipline, and confidence in our trainees so they have the tools to progress the rest of the way through the initial skills pipeline as followers, leaders, members of a team and members of the Air Force family,” Tullos said.

Revitalizing infrastructure across the training enterprise is also on Tullos’ radar.

“You’ll hear us talk about bringing the flight line to the classroom and using virtual reality tools so our Airmen train in an environment they will eventually operate in,” Tullos said. “We want our Airmen to have an experience in training that is similar to what they will find at their first unit.  We want our students to learn the tough lessons in the classroom, so they don’t have to learn them for the first time in whichever battle space they eventually find themselves in.”

Moving forward, Tullos believes in the commitment to service and dedication of today’s Airmen.

“I’m excited about this new generation of Airmen who are volunteering to serve our nation during these challenging times…and there is no shortage of volunteers,” Tullos said. “There has been a lot said about Generation Z, and while every generation is different, I believe they have the same potential to be the ‘Greatest Generation’ as any other generation.”