Over the course of five and a half months, the U.S. Air Force Weapons School makes its students the very best mission commanders in their particular disciplines, and ultimately they are finely honed into leaders of airmen. The curriculum provides them with the opportunities to lead, but ultimately they are taught the techniques and personal characteristics that will make them effective leaders. Exemplified amongst Weapons School graduates are those who are actually asked to come back to Nellis and join the instructor cadre.
The Weapons School’s instructors also devise tactical doctrine, and conduct tactics validation in conjunction with other units at Nellis. They are constantly, actively accumulating knowledge and lessons learned from units deployed in real-world combat operations, as well as evaluating problems and solutions that arise in engagements during large-force exercises. In addition, the Weapons School provides academic advisory support to numerous units, augmenting training for thousands of airmen from the Air Force, their sister services, and even U.S. allies each year. It is a controlled learning environment and nerve center for the best practices in air, land, space, and cyber warfare.
That edict is reinforced by sixty-five years of guiding principles that the Weapons School was founded on. For a Patch, or even a prospective Patch, there must first be the relentless pursuit of both personal and professional perfection—a mindset of not accepting being anything shy of flawless at what they do, regardless of the arena. Secondly, there must be a commitment to making the next generation better than the one preceding it. Warfare is ever-evolving, and if there is no attempt made to stay ahead of a potential adversary and to produce warriors more lethal and capable than the ones before, defeat is inevitable. Lastly, if there is a doubt, then there is no doubt. That is to say, if there’s a doubt that someone is ready, there’s no doubt that individual is falling short of the standard. Period.
Weapons Officers understand it’s not what they do, but it’s why they do it.
The reason? It’s their calling. How do they know? It’s because they’re the best on the planet at it. For them, it’s all about service. It has nothing to do with them as individuals—talking about the patch, the symbol that represents what they do there at Weapons School. So while it’s an awesome, hard-earned piece of fabric and they are grateful for the opportunity to be able to wear it, it really comes down to the why. It’s the servant’s heart. It’s more important to worry about someone else than it is to take care of themselves. So while they may wear the patch, it’s a weight they bear, demonstrating their ability and willingness to take care of others. That’s a huge responsibility, and they don’t take it lightly.
“Weapons Officers perform at a level that is non-standard,” Colonel Adrian “Elmo” Spain, Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, says. “That’s why we have to be humble and approachable, and the credibility piece comes with the patch on our shoulder.”
The Weapons School curriculum is broken down into three phases, not unlike martial arts training. The first is Core I, where the Weapons Undergraduate, known as a WUG, focuses entirely on his or her own combat specialty or MDS. The curriculum is a building-block approach, where the WUG demonstrates proficiency in a given area of capability before moving onto the next block. For example, the fighters at the 433rd Weapons Squadron would start with 1 versus 1 basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) before progressing to 2 versus 1, or 4 versus an unknown number of bad guys. By the time the Core phase is finished, the next big step is integration.
In the Core II phase of instruction, the different squadrons start working together according to the mission their particular aircraft or specialty has. For example, F-15Cs start integrating with F-22s, F-16s start integrating F-15E Strike Eagles, A-10s with rescue helicopters and transports, and so on. It begins with smaller elements, then progressively getting larger, integrating with the Command and Control (C2), Electronic Warfare, and ISR platforms; and last with mobility and tankers, until they are ready to put it all together.
The Integration phase of weapons school is the final block of instruction. Air-to-Air assets begin to work with surface attack assets or rescue assets, ICBMs start to work with other strategic platforms, and so on. The WUGs start getting more and more exposure to and experience working with the other pieces of the battlespace dominance puzzle. Over the course of the week leading up to graduation, the WUGs conceptualize, plan, brief, execute, and then debrief an air campaign over a simulated threat nation, whose defenses and capabilities are based on real-world assessments of countries who have inferred or demonstrated hostile intent toward the United States and her allies. In this Advanced Integration exercise, aircraft from the Geographically Separated Units (GSUs) of the Weapons School come to Nellis for this phase, with every squadron having their assets on scene to take part—the exception being the ICBMs, of course.
A Weapons Officer’s responsibility today is to use their skill and ability in order to defend the lives of each of us—yes—but the highest responsibility is to take care of those they protect. That is why failure in their chosen profession is absolutely not an option. It can’t be, right? If they fail, what happens? Someone behind them perishes. Unacceptable. In the eyes of these men and women, it is better that they are lost and those behind them survive. They are charged with protecting the lives, and ultimately the interests of our country and the allies that we as a nation protect, too.
All of that requires resources, and if those resources dry up or are allocated elsewhere, the results will be catastrophic.
“Without this institution running on all cylinders and producing graduates, the common understanding our Airmen have of the threat, and what it really takes to counter it will atrophy over time,” Colonel Spain notes darkly. “It’s not because there won’t be really smart and talented folks doing their best, but because they haven’t been exposed to higher-end, finer points of their profession…the PhD level of execution that this school provides. So our Airmen will get proficient at some things, but only at what they know and have been exposed to at their local units or from academics, which in most cases will not be sufficient to deal with the threat in today’s environment.”
Not good news…
In the next part of this ongoing series, we get a better look at what it’s like for a Weapons Undergraduate (WUG) to actually go through the various phases of the course. We also get a look at the Weapons School experience from the perspective of the instructors, who are the best in the world at their respective disciplines.