Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Pulling the Plug on CBAT

In the Global War on Terror, one fact has become abundantly clear for the U.S. Air Force: The days when airmen remained hunkered down inside an airbase perimeter are over.

Journalists embedded with combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been surprised to see a growing number of airmen "outside the wire," performing such functions as security, convoy operations, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), repair of civilian infrastructure and more.

True, the number of airmen operating in the field remains relatively small (at least compared to the Army and Marine Corps), but their ranks are growing. And they've won praise from their counterparts in other services. Air Force officers and NCOs leading convoys in Iraq compiled an enviable record, and platoon leaders in the 82nd Airborne told their superiors during the recent troops surge that they actually preferred USAF EOD techs for clearing operations.

Recognizing that more its members would find themselves in ground combat operations, the USAF developed elaborate plans to train airmen in required skills. Know as Common Battlefield Airmen Training, or CBAT, the program called for a month-long course at a specially-designed training facility. Bases under consideration to host CBAT included Barksdale AFB, Louisiana; Moody AFB, Georgia and Arnold AFB, Tennessee.

By one estimate, the CBAT effort would train up to 14,000 airmen a year, during a series of 25-day classes. The program would be supported by a 800-member staff and millions of dollars in new facilities. As you might imagine, Congressional delegations (and local officials) were competing eagerly to bring CBAT to their local Air Force installation.

But a funny thing happened on the way to implementation. The Air Force announced today that the planned training program--once deemed a priority--has been scrapped. As the Shelbyville (TN) Times-Gazette reports:

The U.S. Air Force has cancelled plans for the Common Battlefield Airmen Training (CBAT) program, which Arnold Air Force Base had been under consideration to host.

[snip]

Arnold AFB is the home of Arnold Engineering Development Center, a collection of facilities including wind tunnels and rocket engine and satellite test cells. But the Arnold AFB reservation has a large amount of unused land and had been one of three Air Force bases -- along with Moody AFB near Valdosta, Ga., and Barksdale AFB in Bossier City, La. -- competing to host the CBAT program. Environmental studies had been conducted for each of the three locations, but the selection process had been delayed for months.

In a press release, the USAF claimed the program was no longer necessary:

"After a thorough review, we have determined that creating a new program to teach combat skills is not the best solution for our Airmen or the Combatant Commanders we support. The best way forward is to optimize our existing training venues.

"Foundational and specialized training for our Airmen is in place and meets the needs of the warfighter. We are focused on delivering the right training at the right time...."


Needless to say, the Air Force decision has left a lot of people scratching their heads. After spending months--and hundreds of thousands of dollars--developing CBAT, the service has decided to use "existing training venues" to prepare its airmen for combat.

The decision makes sense--but only to a point. Specialized instruction for airmen who are most likely to operate outside a base perimeter--think pararescue specialists, combat controllers, security forces, EOD, tactical air control parties and transporters--has already been incorporated into existing tech schools and other training forums.

Additionally, the Air Force has expanded basic training from six to eight and one-half weeks, adding more blocks of instruction on marksmanship, emergency medical skills and convoy operations.

But, as anyone who's been through Lackland will tell you, the level of instruction at basic training is, well....basic. A few more hours on the rifle range or learning to apply tourniquets is no substitute for the kind of intense training that CBAT would have provided.

Beyond that, there's the issue of standardization. With the current hodge-podge of courses, it's hard to see how every airman will be trained to the same level of proficiency. Besides, we thought the Air Force learned long ago that one of the best ways to ensure standardization is to create a schoolhouse, staffed by experts, and providing the same level of training to all who need it.

That's one reason the USAF created its survival school at Fairchild AFB, Washington. Earlier, piecemeal attempts at teaching skills in survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) were unsuccessful, so the service centralized its training and created a cadre of professional experts.

Thanks to the Fairchild program (and similar efforts run by the other branches of service), military aircrew members--and other personnel--receive standardized SERE training before they enter combat, and many receive more advanced instruction at the Washington base and other locations.

CBAT offered a similar opportunity for the legions of airmen who will operate outside base perimeters in current and future conflicts. But, in an era of tight Pentagon budgets--and costly efforts to recapitalize the Air Force fleet--we're guessing that the service saw an opportunity to save a few million by scrapping the ground combat training program.

Was it a wise decision? The obvious answer is "no." While the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided valuable training for many airmen, there is a real need to capture the lessons learned and institutionalize them for future generations of Air Force personnel. CBAT offered an ideal venue for doing just that.

Without a centralized CBAT program, there are also legitimate concerns about whether those lessons learned will reach all personnel. In places like Iraq, a wide range of airmen--including medics, engineers and even public affairs personnel--could find themselves in a ground engagement. Will two more weeks at Lackland (and follow-on training) at home station be enough to given them the survival skills they need? Only time will tell, but in our estimation, the Air Force is taking a calculated--and unnecessary--risk.

9 comments:

Mrs. Davis said...

The problem is management and it is going to take a long time to fix.

Wally Gator said...

They will just use more CBTs, computer based training. I hope they put a stop to all the CBTs too.

Ed Rasimus said...

Might be a good point, or might not. In reality (that's an assumption of correctness, which should cause immediate awareness by the reader), most AF folks will fill technical roles not only within "the wire" but within the CONUS. Those who deploy, admittedly an increasingly larger proportion, will still largely be removed from the field operations.

That means it is reasonable to not train universally throughout the service. Note that the conclusion was that training should be emphasized in existing venues.

I'm admittedly a bit out of date, but there are a number of AF specialties that operate beyond the wire. Even fast-mover operators like moi, found himself on one tour of duty as an Air Liaison Officer embedded in an Army Brigade and moving in the zone to forward operating locations of artillery observers, FACs and battalion/company areas. I got additional training in a specialized venue for that. Anything I would have gotten in my primary officer training or even operational course would have been inadequate and long forgotten.

AF has long had PJ's, SAR personnel, combat controllers, forward construction engineers, air traffic elements, radar sites, and special operators working outside the wire. All were trained in those dedicated specialized venues.

Background Noise said...

It's not just the specialized elite AFSCs that are going outside of the wire. I agree that those AFSCs should receive standardized training. Keep in mind that there are many instances of other base support career fields being pulled to augment convoys on an as needed basis and this is not necessarily a foreseeable occurrence prior to deployment.

I've been out of the loop on the actual training BAT training for a couple of years, but when the training was established at some bases (Beale for example) as almost a grassroots experiment it was required training for all hot AEF deployers and the practical experience that was gained was quite valuable from what friends have told me. Especially when you hear some of the stories of regular junior enlisted and NCOs who ended up engaging the enemy. The bottom line is that a little training spread over the course of a week is better than none at all. Especially when the instructors have a lot of flexibility in what they are teaching folks.

As a matter of practicality, if the training is at the base that the deployers are stationed out of it's a lot easier, cheaper, and more convenient to put on, and the overall quality of the training is probably not terribly diminished. Plus, you can put more people through the training.

All in all, maybe not such a bad thing to move away from standardized training. I wouldn't count this development as another nail in the coffin for the AF.

kitanis said...

I was sent to the Air Mobility Warfare Center at Ft. Dix New Jersey back in 2000 and went through a week of training.. followed by a "deployment" of three days to practice all we learned to defend a forward base. Convoy operations, sweep and clearing of buildings, map reading, training on a FATS simulator and then practice combat shooting afterwards wtih MILES gear etc.
When I got to a Air Combat Command unit soon afterwards.. No one cared.. they never acknowledged the training.. claimed that the ACC could not afford to send troops to a school for skills they would never use.

Maguro said...

Not sure a "one size fits all" training course would be much use. 90% of AF deployers will work on base in their primary AFSC and the existing 1-week course taught at base level is OK for them.

The people who are really in harm's way - Cops, for example - get specialized training like Phoenix Warrior.

CBAT sounds like it was a bit of a boondoggle, to be frank, especially since the AF hlready has a perfectly good venue and cadre at the AF Expeditionary Center (formerly known as AMWC).

kitanis said...

PHOENIX READINESS is what I was refering to Maguro.
When I went through it.. security forces, civil engineers, services, admin, communications, mulitmedia, chaplains, aerial port, combat controllers and we had USMC dog handler teams and Coast Guard Port Security platoon all mixed into our deployed "wing".

But apparently its up to the commands to pay for the personnel to go through the PHONIEX WARRIOR course..hence the reason not everyone gets to go to though the program

lela said...

I absolutely agree with you! Cancelling CBAT is a horrible idea. Our Airmen, who are being called on in increasing numbers to assist with combat-related duties, need the training. It's a shame that the "powers-that-be" don't understand.

Storms24 said...

I think this is just another example of the Air Force's identity crisis. Can anyone explain what CBAT or hand-to-hand combat training or this silly ABU has to do with AIR POWER or AIR/SPACE SUPERIORITY?

We've been fed dozens of chapters from SOS, ACSC, AFFOR, AF Doctrine Documents, and AFTTP's that talk about "leveraging power of informational technologies" and advancing the "development of our core competencies..." How does convoy operations or combat firearms qualification wearing full NBC-gear contribute to the tenets of air and space power?

I'm not arguing that we do not have personnel "outside the wire" in harms way and by all means they should be given whatever training necessary to fight & survive (as we have historically done with our pilots). But that group should be the exception - not the rule. Lets be honest, the vast majority of AF personnel do not need this kind of field combat training.

We need to re-focus on the roles, missions, and functions of our service - not take on taskings for which we are so ill-suited and ill-prepared (read: in-lieu-of-Army). It may be that the land forces do not have enough manpower or that they've sacrificed too much of their support functions in favor of combat forces. But the answer IS NOT to abandon the AF distinctive capabilities to become a manpower pool for the Army.