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Interview: Col. Robert “Shark” Garland, Commandant, USAF Weapons School

Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in Las Vegas, Nev., is perhaps best known as the home of the Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron. But it also is home to the Air Force Weapons School, the equivalent of the somewhat better known – thanks to the 1980s movie Top Gun – Navy fighter pilot school on the other end of the state at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon.

Begun with the same emphasis on training the service’s top pilots, it was known as the Air Force Fighter Weapons School until 1992 – when the word “Fighter” was dropped. Today, the Air Force Weapons School takes in the very best captains and majors the Air Force has to offer from two dozen combat specialties. Six months later, they emerge as the Department of Defense (DoD)’s top “go-to” experts for all of those areas and how to best use them together in a 21st-century battlespace.

According to Commandant Col. Robert “Shark” Garland, a Weapons School graduate, former instructor, and lead F-22 pilot, it is the equivalent of 22 Ph.D.s from Harvard and MIT combined – times 10. In June, Garland spoke with Defense senior writer J.R. Wilson about the school and the contributions its graduates make to the Air Force and the nation.

J.R. Wilson: When and why was the Weapons School established?

Commandant Col. Robert “Shark” Garland: The school was established in 1949, initially called the Air Gunnery School, by fighter pilots who wanted to write down and capture the lessons they had learned from recent conflicts. And basically that’s what they did; they got together in a room and talked about and wrote down what they had learned and mistakes made – so they wouldn’t make those mistakes again, but also to capitalize on what they did right.

As the nation’s technology and capability continued to improve, that later evolved into the Air Force Fighter Weapons School [in 1965]. Then, in 1992, it became the Air Force Weapons School, because it is no longer just a school for fighter pilots or made up of squadrons of fighter aircraft. The school now boasts 17 squadrons working with 22 combat specialty systems in the Air Force arsenal. And only a fraction of those are fighters.

How long is the course?

The standard time for the syllabus [is] 5.5 months, although it takes years of training and preparation to even compete, to apply to the school. You have to be a seasoned instructor in your field of expertise before you can even apply to the Weapons School. Then we select the very best of those applicants twice a year and bring them here.

How many students do you have per course?

Across the 22 specialties, we average 110 students per class or about 220 per year. That is based on the capacity of the various major weapons systems across the Air Force to supply applicants. Normally we see four to five applicants per systems specialty, but some may have two or three times that number. So the size of the specialty and how many instructors we have here in that specialty dictates how many students we can bring in for each course.

Once new weapons officers return to their home units, how are they employed?

They go into mid-level supervision positions, working for their squadron commander and operations officer. Their job is to take everything they have learned as instructors throughout their careers, plus the expert training and leadership training they got at the Weapons School, and make other officers like themselves. So a new weapons officer leads and mentors others in his squadron to be like him.

Does anyone ever come back for a second try?

This school involves extremely intensive training and leadership instruction. There have been reasons people have had to leave that were beyond their control and we’ve had the opportunity to bring them back – but they have to start over again from the beginning, no matter where they were in the course when they left.

Others come back as instructors – a two- or three-year assignment. You can imagine how phenomenal a professional tactician and leader a weapons instructor is, because they went through the school once as a student, then through Weapons School instructor upgrade training – basically a second time through the course, this time from an instructor’s perspective. That means they essentially go through the full syllabus multiple times – once as a student, then for instructor upgrade, then twice a year for up to three years as instructors.

You have said officers graduating from the Weapons School typically become the next generation of Air Force and DoD leaders; can you cite some examples and explain why that is the expected result?

Our job here is to provide a graduate with two significant capabilities. First is tactical expertise needed to continue to dominate in a specific spectrum of operations, from air dominance to space and cyber, mobility airlift, special ops, etc., at the tactical level. But they also are trained leaders.

We’re fortunate to have members of the business sector who come in to provide motivational discussions and help our students – and instructors – learn the techniques and procedures associated with mid-level and senior leaders. We learn about body language, how actions speak louder than words, how to take care of people first while accomplishing the mission. Because that is our twofold focus – creating a tactical expert and a leader – they naturally migrate to senior-level positions in our profession.

What rank is the typical student and by what criteria is he or she chosen (i.e., do they have to be fighter pilots)?

Captains and majors – and they no longer have to be pilots. When they come out of college and specialty training cycles and become operational officers in their specialties – pilots, electronic warfare, space, and intel, etc. – they typically participate in that specialty for three to four years, during which time they upgrade from a basic officer to a potential instructor in that arena.

And possible future Weapons School candidates are identified during that first assignment. We try to keep them in their service specialty assignments because it gives us the opportunity to continue to grow and mature that person. And after four or five years, we can choose them as candidates for the Weapons School.

Do the other services – or allied militaries – have similar schools?

Yes, on both counts. The Navy has Top Gun, for example. But each is run very differently.

What we have endeavored to do here is create the most dynamic, complete, coherent academic institution teaching tactical expertise and leadership skills we possibly can. But we also want to share that with our sister schools because we are going to be fighting side by side with them.

In what ways do you work with the other service schools?

We integrate with them. We also have the Navy Growler School that participates in our final Mission Employment phase as part of their syllabus. That has proven very effective and, as a result, the Navy EA-18G Growler school is the only other DoD school where we recognize the “W” [weapons officer], because they are included in our syllabus and we in theirs.

And we have the greatest training field in the world with the northern training range just north of Las Vegas. Every service is aware of that training capability and that’s why we’re all here.

Do non-USAF officers ever come through the Weapons School?

We do integrate and use officers from other services as instructors, but they have to go through the school one time to become an instructor. Right now, we have a Navy exchange officer doing that.

We use that as a cross-fertilization to sort of spread the gospel across DoD. That enables us, when we are called on to fight, to do that smartly, collectively, coherently, and from a joint perspective.

Is an Air Force officer who graduates from one of the sister service schools still designated a weapons officer?

No. You only get a weapons officer patch by paying your dues – completing the course here.

Are non-USAF officers who graduate from Nellis given the same assignments as someone who graduated from their own service school?

They are designated as the equivalent of an Air Force weapons officer within their service. Navy Top Gun grads are called “training officers” rather than “weapons officers,” but the results are the same. But anyone who comes here has been through their own school first.

The service schools that are similar to ours are endeavoring to do the same thing we are – create future tactical experts and future leaders.

Is there any difference in how graduates of the different schools are viewed by senior commanders when they are seeking expert advice?

I don’t know. Speaking only for Air Force Weapons School graduates, I know there have been instances where, in a room full of people, the senior officer, seeking advice, clears the room of everyone except the Air Force weapons officer – and it doesn’t matter what service that senior officer is from. The Air Force Weapons School has a reputation for excellence, both at the tactical expertise and mid-level supervision level.

And if you have a senior officer who is an Air Force Weapons School graduate, they also are senior leaders with a more strategic perspective and can help support decision-makers with any contingency operations.

Do your students ever include special operations officers?

Absolutely. Special ops are in the 14th Weapons Squadron and are one of our 22 combat specialties.

From a strategic perspective, that helps put the big picture together. Our job in conflict is to secure and maintain battlespace dominance, not just air superiority, but battlespace dominance. And SOF [special operations forces] plays a major role in that mission set.

How well have Weapons School graduates fared in ultimately being given joint commands or rising to the rank of chief of staff or Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman?

We have had weapons officers serve at every level of command. Gen. Richard Myers was a graduate and later commandant of the Weapons School who went on to become chairman [of the Joint Chiefs]. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, a Weapons School graduate, was a recent Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

How have your graduates fared in civilian life once they leave the military?

From my personal experience, the significant level of training the Air Force affords students at the Weapons School improves us as individuals, not just as professionals. It teaches us to be tactical systems experts, but it also teaches us to be leaders. And that continues as the graduate goes on to senior leadership positions in the future, which means you have someone capable of senior executive service, whether in the Air Force or DoD or in the private sector.

What lessons learned from the past decade of conflict in Southwest Asia have been integrated into the course?

All of them. Everything that happens, on a daily basis, is debriefed. That’s the amazing opportunity we have – we have outreach to all of our men and women in harm’s way, across all our services and combat operations. We not only have weapons officers in those missions, but also in staff positions managing the resources afforded those executing those missions.

So everything that’s going on, whether in peacetime or combat, is recorded and passed back and integrated into our school courses. We regularly upgrade and improve our syllabus across all 22 specialties to ensure we are learning from those who have gone before, whether that was 1949 or yesterday. We want to know what works and what needs to be improved.

You describe the school as a “center of excellence for air, space, and cyber.”  Please elaborate on what that means for each of those sectors.

When I say air center of excellence, I’m summarizing what we do in five-and-a-half months of training. We have the capability to train students with experience and expertise across the battlespace spectrum. That includes air, space, and cyberspace.

When we refer to the air domain, we’re talking air superiority – denying any adversary the ability to fly where we don’t want them to while we can fly anywhere we want. That means they do not have the ability to fly or to attack our ground forces from above. That is air and ground superiority.

We also have the ability, through improved technology, to have assets from the space domain integrate into our air superiority domain and help support that battlespace superiority concept.

Then, [there is] the computer network, or EW spectrum, where if we can ensure dominance there, then we believe we can operate with impunity throughout the battlespace. Because today’s battlespace is not just soldiers on the ground or fighter aircraft overhead; it is ground, air, space, and cyber forces, all integrating to achieve battlespace dominance.

In what ways and to what extent have UAVs been integrated into the curriculum, and what advantage do you have with Creech AFB, the primary Air Force UAV facility, just a few miles away?

They are 100 percent integrated as another of the 22 combat specialties. How we use remotely piloted vehicles is significant to the overall capability of our Air Force arsenal and an integral piece of battlespace dominance.

Having Creech AFB just up the street, so to speak, affords us a unique opportunity to train with them on the Nellis range, which is the premier training range in America. So it helps us get the most out of that training experience.

How important to maintaining battlespace dominance and how large a part of the school’s training do you expect cyber to become in the next decade?

We obviously recognize there are multiple domains of conflict. The historical domains are obvious, both ground and air, and the U.S. has been able to secure those throughout history. But human technology has evolved to the point now where there are numerous other domains that can be contested, such as space and the electronic domain. We recognize that – and so do our adversaries.

All our services have to be able to operate and succeed in contested and degraded domains across the battlespace. Cyber is the latest evolution of that and so will become increasingly important in our curriculum. It already is set to become our 23rd combat specialty and part of the curriculum in 2012.

You have said the weapons officers who graduate will become the “go-to” experts for senior command – up to and including the president – in 22 separate combat specialties; to what degree are incoming students expected to be knowledgeable in some or all of those?

An Air Force weapons officer needs not only to be at the top of his specialty, but also be able to answer questions about any of the other combat specialties. They already are instructors and mature, seasoned operators in their chosen specialty. We then make that individual a Ph.D. – tenfold – in six months.

You often compare the school to a combination of Harvard and MIT – times ten; how is it possible for your students to master 22 separate specialties, some of which may be completely new to them, in such a short time?

When you are in an auditorium with 100 students who are a mix of everything the Air Force has in our arsenal, then you are producing experts who are off the charts. That’s why this is the air center of excellence.

Our students go through hundreds of hours of academic training, some on their speciality, but also on that of all their peers. Then they go through intense tactical missions; once they have that, you not only have the very best F-16 pilots the Air Force can produce, they also are integrated with all the other best combat specialists. So the focus no longer is on what you do best, but how you also can become the best in all other specialties.

When I graduated 93 new weapons officers Saturday night, they were the very best in their fields, but also now have a graduate-level understanding, working knowledge, and grasp of the requirements, attention to details, and specific operational requirements of all assets in the Air Force arsenal. Can an F-16 pilot operate a space system? No, that’s not his specialty. But he has an in-depth knowledge of how that space system works and how it integrates into the space- and air-dominance construct, so he immediately recognizes all the systems that will be needed to accomplish any given mission and where he has to go and who he has to talk with to ensure all those assets line up to accomplish that goal.

You are a Weapons School graduate and former instructor; what posts did each of those take you to, in what time frame, before you returned as commandant last month?

I graduated from the Weapons School in 1998 as a weapons officer, then came back to Nellis and taught for 3.5 years. Because the Weapons School is considered to have the finest officers and experienced and prolific tacticians, when it is time to look for mid-level career professionals to move into a new community, such as the F-22 in 2002-03, our senior leaders look here first. I was very blessed to be chosen for the initial F-22A Raptor cadre because of my position [as an instructor] at the Air Force Weapons School.

That subsequently led to command of an F-22 squadron, the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley AFB [in Virginia]. I also continued more professional military education at the Naval War College, then worked operational tests on the Joint Staff for the secretary of defense. Then I was offered the opportunity to come back to the Weapons School as the commandant.

This is not unique to me, but the standard, the average of what we produce and expect of our graduates.

How would you sum up the importance of the Weapons School and the value of its graduates to the nation?

The significance of what we have here greatly enhances the capabilities of the Air Force and DoD as a whole. We are working under tight budget constraints, but we still have a charter to defend the United States of America from an air, space, and cyber perspective and all the domains involved. And we must be on the forefront of all those, both offense and defense.

Any final thoughts?

This is the premier tactics and academic institution on the planet. Seeing our graduates and instructors in action demonstrates that. And our location here at Nellis, with the northern training range, is priceless in helping us achieve dominance in air, space, and cyber.

This article was first published in Defense: Summer 2011 Edition.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...