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AFSOC’s Advanced Skills Training

In a time of continuous and unbroken war-fighting, the units in Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) need their newly assigned people to be “combat ready” as soon as possible. A program exists that delivers new people to AFSOC operational units who are fully mission ready at the moment of signing in at the front desk. That program is also, surprisingly, the program that has the most recruiting challenges, historically the highest attrition rate during training, and provides new people for the most dangerous missions in all of Air Force Special Operations. During 2008, AFSOC also recognized this program’s high degree of success and has moved to adopt its methods in its organic, in-house training programs for many of its weapons systems. Success should be imitated.

THE SYSTEM WORKS

A new combat controller cannot possibly arrive at an operational unit with less time in service or at a lower rank than did Senior Airman Zach Rhyner. In April of 2008, Rhyner found himself deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan with a team of Army Green Berets. For his part in the action, Rhyner received the Air Force Cross, second in combat awards only to the Medal of Honor. Here is some of what he did, derived from the medal citation and other sources:

Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, then an airman, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his actions in Shok Valley, Afghanistan, April 6, 2008.

Rhyner directed and controlled 50 “danger close” air strikes and strafing gun runs while wounded and under intense enemy fire during a gun battle against a well-trained insurgent force. The deadly and violent battle lasted more than six-and-a-half hours against an enemy force estimated at 200 fighters. Rhyner, who was pinned down on the side of a 60-foot cliff, held his ground amidst a flurry of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades striking all around him. He quickly and instinctively returned suppressive fire, which assisted the remainder of his element to find positions of cover. Rhyner maintained his composure despite the intense incoming enemy fire, and immediately directed multiple 2.75-inch rockets and 30 mm cannon strafing runs from AH-64 helicopters against enemy positions less than 200 meters from friendly forces.

Rhyner was hit three times by 7.62 mm rounds in the opening exchange of gunfire. He was wounded once in his left leg and struck twice to his chest, only to be saved by his equipment mounted on his load-bearing vest. Ryhner continued to calmly and effectively return fire on the enemy with his M4 rifle and directed precise danger close air strikes from A-10, F-15E, and AH-64 attack aircraft. On multiple occasions, under sustained and effective fire, Rhyner courageously placed himself between enemy forces and wounded soldiers to lay suppressive fire and allow fellow teammates to retrieve critically wounded and dead team members from the line of fire. Rhyner integrated seven helicopter lifts through the objective area to conduct medical evacuations and team exfiltration.

Rhyner suppressed enemy positions with a total of 4,120 rounds of 30 mm cannon fire, 450 rounds of 20 mm cannon fire, nine AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, 162 2.75-inch rockets, 10 GBU-38 bombs, one GBU-31 bomb, and two GBU-12 bombs. Additionally, he fired more than 100 rounds from his M4 rifle to deter the enemy’s advance and protect his team. Rhyner’s team leader directly attributed the entire team’s survival to Rhyner’s skill and poise under intense fire while wounded during this harrowing six-and-a-half hour battle.

Rhyner’s story is compelling, but it isn’t all that rare. There are many such stories in the recent history of special tactics and combat controllers, but most of the men involved have made it up to four stripes before receiving Silver Stars, much less the Air Force Cross. Junior enlisted personnel in the Air Force are filling the role of battlefield airmen admirably. The training and preparation provided by AFSOC’s Advanced Skills Training (AST) system at Hurlburt Field, Fla., has been radically revised over the past few years and those revisions have paid off in combat capability. It’s worth the trouble to look at how this program has evolved over the years, to learn its lessons and see if those lessons apply to other career fields or weapons systems.

TRANSFORMING TRAINING AND AIR COMMANDO INITIATION

In the past nine years, Air Force Special Operations Command has reorganized and revamped how it finds, indoctrinates, and trains new combat controllers. In doing so the command has pioneered a new paradigm for its organic training of people. The combat controllers of AFSOC’s 720th Special Tactics Group experienced a serious shortage of trained people in the late 1990s. Their missions and deployments had grown in size and in number while sizeable increases in the number of people who began training did not produce the needed increases in numbers of graduates. Recruiters sent more volunteers, but after a year, the output of successful graduates and qualified combat controllers showed no increase. As Air Force Special Operations Command pushed for action to solve the problem, the command did not have authority over most of the training courses or the living situations of the prospective trainees. Cooperation from Air Education and Training Command (AETC) would be essential to re-engineer the pathway to this career field. While the combat controllers took great pride in the fact that very few in the Air Force were inclined to apply for their jobs and that still fewer could complete the training and qualify, they also needed more people. Change was clearly needed to find a way to increase their numbers, but the proper changes to create the desired results were not so clear.

Combat controllers and pararescuemen from the 720th Operations Support Squadron Advanced Skills Training flight at Hurlburt Field, Fla., off-load a UH-1 Huey from the 6th Special Operations Squadron during a combat search and rescue training scenario on the Eglin Air Force Base range Sept. 13, 2007. AST is the last phase of training for combat controllers before they go to operational special tactics squadrons. In June 2008 the AST Flight became the Special Tactics Training Squadron. U.S. Air Force photo by SRA Ali Flisek.

Late in the year 2000, Col. Bob Holmes, the 720th Special Tactics deputy group commander, set out to find the solution. The training pipeline for Air Force combat controllers was then and remains today one of the most demanding in the U.S. military. The combat controller has to be able to parachute out of airplanes with the Army Airborne, to scuba dive and conduct riverine operations with the Navy SEALs, to call in air strikes as a joint tactical air controller, and to conduct air traffic control at the most austere airfields to ensure de-confliction and air safety in the middle of chaotic combat. Lt. Gen. Clay Bailey, the commander of AFSOC at that time, listened to Holmes’ request for a measure of control of Army Airborne School, Navy Dive School, and several Air Force schools and agreed to see what was possible.

Bailey sent a delegation of his staff to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to look into the attrition rate of the combat controller pipeline and to communicate with Air Education and Training Command to see what could be restructured for better results. With them, Holmes sent his recruiting and training officer, 1st Lt. Christopher Larkin, a combat-experienced combat controller who was 12 years an enlisted combat controller before getting his officer commission. The trip resulted in a proposal to move the prospective combat controllers to Hurlburt once they finished the basic courses.

Larkin proposed that the advanced courses – Pre-Scuba, Combat Diver, Military Free Fall, and others – become a phase of training called Advanced Skills Training. For this phase of the training, the candidates would be assigned to Hurlburt Field. The team conceded that the INDOC Course, later renamed the Selection Course, should remain at Lackland and under AETC, and that this course would remain a good first hurdle. Other basic skills training such as Army Airborne, Air Traffic Control, and initial Combat Control School remained also as a method of proving the candidates merited the move to Hurlburt. The move from the home of AETC to the home of Air Force Special Operations would then be an effective signal to the trainees that they had changed their surroundings, their cultures, and their futures.

Previously, for a period as long as two years, the candidates were home based at Lackland and had large spaces of “casual time” between the course dates, living on the large base with little organized to keep them busy, physically fit, or mentally focused on their future as combat controllers. Holmes and Larkin reasoned that the candidates needed the culture of combat controllers to motivate them during the waits, and the presence of the operational controllers at Hurlburt would help them keep their goal in view and would provide them with role models and perhaps even mentors – all good things from which young airmen could benefit.

Agreement came quickly at the major command level and in April of 2001, not long before September 11, Larkin became the first flight commander of the Advanced Skills Training Flight at Hurlburt Field. There wasn’t any dedicated equipment and he had to beg for meeting rooms from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron to bring the trainees together for classes or meetings, but he did have them together with qualified combat controllers to tell them and show them what their futures held. Soon thereafter, most of the people from Hurlburt and almost all of the qualified combat controllers were deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom, and newly promoted Capt. Larkin found himself as the ranking combat controller on the base. He began calling on the retired controller community to provide the instruction and mentoring needed. As he moved back into a combat unit a year later, the AST had just begun to produce graduates.

The very sound ideas of total immersion into cultural assimilation and team unity for the trainees worked. The attrition rate fell, the candidates succeeded to a much greater degree, and the career field of combat controllers began to fill. The numbers began to come up just in time; however, because of September 11, requirements for combat controllers grew. The success of the revised pipeline could be seen as providential in that the new system was in place exactly when it became most necessary to increase output of the training.

Five years later, the combat-ready squadrons of combat controllers acknowledged that the new controllers are fully combat ready upon signing in at the units. Gone are the orientation and processing-in requirements that meant not deploying the new controllers for four to six months. They now can deploy to combat immediately if required, and in fact they do so regularly and routinely. Attrition from the program at Hurlburt has itself virtually vanished. Today, the retired senior enlisted combat controllers among the Special Tactics Training Squadron (STTS) faculty have over 150 years of operational experience, sharing their maturity with the young and eager candidates. The program continues its evolution.

Success has inspired investments over the past six years. The AST Flight has grown into the Special Tactics Training Squadron, which unfurled its new flag in June 2008. Additionally, SOCOM and AFSOC invested in a new building to house the squadron with its own equipment for the candidates to use instead of having to borrow from other units on the base. AFSOC has also added other training programs into the squadron, including training for security forces, combat aviation advisors, and other AFSOC airmen who will deploy to combat in jobs performed largely on the ground. Chosen as the first commander of the STTS quite naturally is Maj. Chris Larkin, returning from a combat tour and staff duty in AFSOC headquarters. When asked if he had foreseen the squadron having several missions and such success, Larkin responded, “This is a result we couldn’t even have hoped for back in 2000. I get to live the dream.”

APPLYING THE LESSONS TO A WIDER FORCE

A graphic of the STO and CCT training pipeline. U.S. Air Force image.

The success of AST has had even more far-reaching effects. The lessons learned from the training of the combat controllers are benefiting the other parts of Air Force Special Operations Command. The present AFSOC commander, Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, has directed that the lessons of the AST be applied to other AFSOC weapons systems, emphasizing Air Commando cultural immersion and institutionalized training for weapons systems that are small in number and do not have formal schools in Air Education and Training Command.

To accomplish this, Wurster ordered the institution of the Air Force Special Operations Training Center (AFSOTC), and placed Col. Paul Harmon in command of the new organization in October 2008. The very large task of expanding AFSOC training for new aircraft and new areas of the world, increasing the numbers of people in the command by 25 percent, and making them into Air Commandos has now been given more structure with those responsibilities being consolidated in the AFSOTC.

In a still larger context, traditional AFSOC aircraft flying squadrons with forces continually deployed for combat operations have also conducted in-unit training of new personnel and have had to prioritize where the aircraft and instructors must go. The result is always the same and always predictable. Training is delayed or canceled and new people cannot qualify in their mission and rotate to the front. Rotations seize up. The same situation occurs in peacetime when units performing in-house training decide their highest qualified instructors must represent the unit at all joint training events. The temptation to use up the experienced people and give little experience to the new ones is as old as flying squadrons and is a proven method of avoiding risk. In AFSOC’s current situation of continuous combat, such training stoppages are detrimental to the mission and cannot be tolerated.

Additionally, such unique training programs as creating new combat aviation advisors (CAAs) for the 6th Special Operations Squadron before were left to the unit to perform in house, but with orders to more than double the number of CAAs in short order while conducting multiple missions down range, the ability to assess and train large numbers of new people overwhelms the squadron’s capacity. Similarly, aircraft training on AC-130s or other aircraft that are too small in number to have formal AETC schoolhouses will be included in AFSOTC’s 19th Special Operations Squadron which will have dedicated instructors and aircraft for training. AFSOTC will also contain the USAF Special Operations School at Hurlburt to conduct initiation and history courses to educate new Air Commandos on the rich heritage and accomplishments of Air Force special operators. With all of the tools, Harmon and his training center thereby keep things organized and provide the new Air Commandos their formal training while segregated from the operational units but also keeping them close enough to learn and be motivated by their new operational culture.

Albeit with a lot to accomplish, Harmon’s new unit has a head start as the STTS moved from the Special Tactics Group to join the AFSOTC, and Larkin is one of his subordinate commanders.  Harmon himself has years of experience both in AFSOC and in AETC. He’s seen the difficulties of in-unit training with scant resources and he’s seen the need for immediate combat readiness in new people. Training traditionally loses in an operational unit commander’s allocation of resources, and that has often been the case in training new gunship crews, new combat aviation advisors, or conducting the training in the Special Operations Division of the Air Force Weapons School.

With the formation of the AFSOTC, a long-standing tension between training and operations achieves some separation. With the persistence of long-term combat and with AFSOC’s continuous deployment of parts of almost all of its operational squadrons, the need to institutionalize training and separate it from operations has grown to be acute. Now Harmon’s task will be to populate his training center with the proper complement of instructors with combat expertise so the training given to the new people going through the AFSOTC courses truly prepares them for their missions. His task will not be easy, but the emphasis from the top in the form of AFSOC commanders’ intent will give the AFSOTC the ability to grow its instructor force and achieve a balance that will ensure eventually that AFSOC can continually feed the fight without using forever the same limited numbers of qualified people, using one set of people until they are literally used up.

Long-term sustainment of combat capability means long-term programs for training new people. The Advanced Skills Training experience is one AFSOC has learned from and one that the new AFSOTC can put to good use as it remodels programs to assess and train people for other AFSOC missions. The nine years of experience of people like Larkin are well placed within the new organization, the lessons of the past are fully acknowledged, and the future becomes a bit brighter.

It will take some time for AFSOTC to fully accomplish all that is expected, because just to gain flying instructors from the flying units will require those squadrons to upgrade replacements, then transfer people to the new schoolhouse. It took time for AST and the combat controller pipeline to evolve. The AFSOTC will take time as well. But as in the case of AST, the improved results from taking the time and making the changes needed, will result in improved combat capability in a number of Air Force Special Operations Command weapons systems. The new Special Tactics Training Squadron illustrates what can be achieved by taking the time and the trouble to get it right.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.

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Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...