The Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas is considered one of the premier tactical and leadership schools in the world. Although it began life with a focus on turning out the best of the best USAF fighter pilots, for the past two decades it has expanded to all of the major combat specialties in the Air Force.
While a typical group command involves three to six squadrons, the Weapons School Commandant has 17 – 10 at Nellis and 7 scattered around the country – with more coming. In 2012, a cyber warfare squadron will represent the twenty-third combat specialty taught at Nellis; others in the future include an F-35 weapons squadron and, potentially, an air operations squadron.
Col. Robert “Shark” Garland, an F-22 pilot and squadron commander who graduated from the school in 1998, then returned a few years later as an instructor, came back again in May 2011 as commandant. His enthusiasm for the school, its instructors and students and the role he now plays was apparent in a recent interview with Faircount Media Group senior writer J.R. Wilson.
J.R. Wilson: When and why was the Air Force Weapons School established?
Col. Robert “Shark” Garland: What the Air Force has done, very intelligently and effectively, is look at the overall scope of USAF strategic requirements as well as the national DoD strategic requirements for defense and offense and said, “we have all these systems, our technology improves every day, bringing on new capabilities and upgrading old capabilities, so it would make sense, because our responsibility as an Air Force is to ensure battlespace dominance, to use the breadth of all the assets the Air Force has in its arsenal to that strategic end.”
In short, we used to be a fighter weapons school and our job was to train fighter pilots. Today we have 22 combat specialties – fighter, airlift, helicopters, cyber, space, intel, etc. – which we integrate with a single goal: To achieve battlespace dominance.
And that, ultimately, is why we are an Air Force Weapons School rather than a specific specialty school.
Considering all that you cover, how long does it take to complete the Air Force Weapons School?
This is a five and one-half month graduate level course, conducted twice a year. It is a seasoning, taking the combat, mobility and strategic Air Force’s very best instructors and putting them through a significantly challenging PhD-level course. So while there are instructors throughout the Air Force, there also are Weapons Officers [Weapons School graduates].
How many students are in each session?
Overall, we average about 110 students per course or about 220 each year. It depends. One of our 22 specialties might have four or five eligible students per course and another 10 or 15.
For example, the F-22 community has seven squadrons – eight, counting the Guard – made up of anywhere from 20 to 30 pilots, and we can select one applicant per squadron. The F-16 community has numerous operational squadrons around the world capable of offering good Weapons School candidates, so that pool is much larger than it would be for the F-15C community, for example.
Once new Weapons Officers return to their home units, how are they employed?
The great thing afforded us at the school are the resources, facilities, phenomenal expertise of our personnel, leadership capabilities and quality and the time to create graduate-level instructors we can call Weapons Officers for the Air Force. If we had that opportunity for every single person across all Air Force combat specialties, you can imagine how lethal we would be.
But those resources and that time simply is not there, so the next best thing is to train as many Weapons Officers as we can, then send them out with the directive to “make others like you,” spreading the wealth of experience, leadership skills and knowledge they got at the Air Force Weapons School.
Does anyone ever come back for a second try?
After a graduate becomes a Weapons Officer for a unit at the squadron or wing level, supporting COCOMs around the world for one to three years, some come back here to repopulate our instructor corps, which is a two to three year assignment. But first they go through Weapons School instructor upgrade training – basically a second time through the course, this time from an instructor’s perspective.
That makes the instructors here the very best professionals in their chosen profession, but also tactical experts for the Air Force, having essentially gone through the full syllabus seven or more times – once as a student, once as a new instructor, then twice a year for as long as they remain here as instructors.
What happens to them when they complete their term as instructors?
They typically go to service level professional education, usually at the intermediate level, followed by an opportunity to participate at the staff level on a major command, learning more about how senior staff work and what processes are used and required to successfully execute the mission. So it is really an overall seasoning of the officer.
A staff officer is not just a pilot or instructor, but a tactical expert, educated at the graduate school level, both here at the Weapons School and through DoD Professional Military Education. From a private sector perspective, these are the future CEOs and company presidents and senior vice presidents.
What rank is the typical student and by what criteria is he – or she – chosen?
Most Air Force officers become captains after four years, then several more years to reach the rank of major. So it takes years of learning and maturing, growing and seasoning, to reach the level of instructor in their combat specialties, which is a prerequisite for coming here as a student.
We don’t want to get them too early, before they have the necessary skill set and experience, but we also don’t want to get them too late because we may lose the opportunity to use them as mid-level squadron tactical experts and leaders once they leave the school. We need to get them thinking more strategically, like squadron commanders and future senior officers. We also need to get them into other schools and staff level opportunities, because the next step is command.
Do you have students from the other services, the Coast Guard, foreign militaries, etc. – or Air Force officers who have gone through other service schools?
We don’t have foreign officers take the full Weapons School course. Domestically, we remain focused on the major DoD services. But, as an exchange, any course could have an officer from another service.
We don’t really see that [non-USAF students] a lot because the other services have their own schools. We wouldn’t have a Navy pilot going through the Air Force Weapons School, for example, but you might have a TOPGUN graduate on an exchange assignment as an instructor at the Weapons School. But, first, they would have to go through the instructor upgrade course.
What lessons learned from the past decade of conflict in SW Asia have been integrated into the course?
All of them. This course continually evolves, not just every six months with the start of a new course, but on a day-to-day basis, which I believe is our charge as Air Force officers, as Weapons School instructors and as leaders, both at home and abroad.
Many of our 93 graduates who received their certificates this past weekend will be in combat as their next assignment. So it is my charge to ensure they are as prepared as they can be, because the day after they leave here, they are going to war.
How important to maintaining battlespace dominance and how large a part of the school’s training do you expect cyber warfare to become in the next decade?
It is important that we integrate cyber as quickly as possible, recognizing the fact we need experts from that community who can integrate into our Weapons School syllabus as our 23rd combat specialty in 2012.
Today’s world is evolving so fast and technology is improving so quickly – something both we and our adversaries recognize – we must be at the forefront of every new technology and capability. So while we may have a new and evolving area where personnel are still being brought in to deal with those, we have to get up to speed as quickly as we can.
Take a cyber operator – if that individual has been doing it for two years, he knows two years more about it than I do or our other instructors. So any capability he can bring to the school is 100-fold better than having nothing.
To what degree are incoming students expected to knowledgeable in some or all of the school’s 22 combat specialties?
They already are specialists in their career field before they get here. When they leave, they will have an understanding of all the other specialties. As a Weapons Officer, a fighter pilot, for example, knows what a space or intel or cyber specialist does because we bring them all together here.
You also compared 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?
I only have six months, so I can’t make an F-16 pilot the same level of expert in space sensors as a space sensor specialist. But the missions I give them throughout the integration and mission employment phases, the problems I give them, include problems a fighter pilot cannot solve without the help of cyber forces, intel specialists, every asset in the Air Force. So he will have a graduate level understanding of how all the specialties are used to achieve battlespace dominance.
If an Air Force Weapons Officer is asked a question pertaining not specifically to his career field, then I can confidently say he will have an answer. And if he does not have specific details – i.e., exactly where an F-16 pilot would want to operate with reference to a SAM site or how long he could stay there based on gas and ordnance – he can answer that in a broad context, but also know where to go to get specifics, probably from another Weapons Officer who is a specialist in that area. And he can do that quickly to ultimately give the senior leader a timely answer.
How would you sum up the importance of the Weapons School and the value of its graduates to nation?
There is no course beyond this one. That’s why the Air Force Weapons School is considered the premier tactical training institution on the planet – not just in the Air Force, but all of DoD and, clearly, throughout the world. And our 218 instructors are the very best in their chosen professions anywhere on the planet.
An extended version of this interview appears in the upcoming Defense: Summer Edition.