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.
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.