Captain Joshua Arki graduated from the U.S. Air Force academy in 2004. He went straight to pilot training and earned himself a fighter slot, his initial assignment being F-16s with the 55th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. His follow-on assignment took him across the world to Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea, where he continued to fly F-16s. He was in Korea when he received word he’d been selected for U.S. Air Forces Weapons School.
“My initial exposure to Patch-wearers was in the B-Course at Luke,” the captain recalled. “The IPs (Instructor Pilots), if they couldn’t answer a question I had, would go straight to the Patch. I didn’t really understand the concept at first; in the academy and such, I learned about chain of command, and what they were doing by circumventing the commander and director of operations just didn’t make sense to me at the time.”
Known as “CATA” to his fellow fighter pilots, Arki is energetic and intense, a fast thinker and a fast talker, but considers his words very carefully as he explained where his interest in earning the patch came from.
“What I came to realize is the Weapons Officer was the right-hand man of the squadron leadership, and was the tactical expert in house. Not only did he have the expertise, but he was also a really great leader. I was interested in being that guy right away, and have pursued it ever since.”
As an F-16 pilot, you’re both single-seat and multi-role, so you are tasked to be really good at several different missions, and you pride yourself on being able to execute those missions, regardless of location or conditions. Anything less is unacceptable. The reality of your current proficiency – or deficiency – becomes very apparent when you arrive at Nellis.
“Coming here has been very eye-opening, as I knew it would be. Straight out of the chute, the IPs give you much tougher problems, you have a much better training area to work with, you have amazing threat simulation from the various Aggressor Squadrons, and the instructors are the best in the world in their areas of specialty. They’re also not shy about letting you know where and how you screw up.”
“Are you tired?” I asked, almost rhetorically.
The question elicited a response of somewhat restrained chuckles and pained expressions on the faces of the instructors and students across from me. They weren’t just tired—they were exhausted. The learning curve at U.S. Air Forces Weapons School isn’t a curve at all. It’s a straight, vertical line. The instructors have to prepare the course, and execute the course with the students, debrief the students, and ultimately prepare the WUGs for success once they graduate. It’s a monumental task.
So to the instructors, it begs the questions, “What keeps you here?”
“You’re surrounded by people with a common vision,” Major Candice Sperry, “STICKI” to her fellow airmen, expounds. “They care enough about others to continue to do this, to do what it takes to make others better.”
A native of Pennsylvania, Sperry joined the Air Force in 2001 and became an Electronic Warfare Officer on EC-130 Compass Call aircraft. In 2009, she became winner of the Robbie Risner Award, an accolade afforded the top Weapons Instructor Course graduate from their course year. With her selection, she was the first female in the history of the U.S. Air Force to earn it. More than one hundred seventy weapons officers throughout the combat air forces, mobility air forces, and Air Force Special Operations communities were considered that year, and Sperry rose to the top of the heap.
As then-Chief of Academics, Sperry’s role at the Weapons School was the development and maintenance of the classroom curriculum, regardless of the discipline or area of specialty. As if having to know everything about how to teach everything wasn’t enough, at the time she was the integration office’s Mission Employment Phase subject matter experts.
“It dawned on me, my first class back here as an instructor, it wasn’t like the last place I worked. You know how it is; you get annoyed because you feel like you’re doing everyone else’s job so you never have time to do your own? Being an instructor here is the first time in my career where everyone does their job, so I can actually do mine. It’s fantastic!”
Major Angela Waters, an instructor at the 328th Weapons Squadron, the Space Warfare folks, smiles brightly after considering my question. A wife with small children at home, “pH” started her career at the Air Force Institute of Technology, and got her initial exposure to Weapons Officers at Minot Air Force Base in the frozen tundra of North Dakota.
“I was working quite a bit with the weapons and tactics shop there, and that was my first exposure to who and what Weapons Officers are,” she explains. “I got interested, but at the time I was unfortunately in a career field without weapons officers. So I came out to the Warfare Center here at Nellis initially, and then transferred over to the Aggressors.”
As an Information Operations or IO aggressor, Waters spent three years emulating current and emerging threat capabilities, providing adversary operational and tactical influence operations and network operations. From her assignment there, she was chosen to help stand up the Cyber Warfare division within the 328th Weapons Squadron.
“The challenge is we’re used to conducting day-to-day network operations and maintenance support. Since most of us have a traditional support background, bringing out nine instructors to hash out what a cyber warfare course should look like was…interesting,” Waters explains.
The initial instructors at the Cyber WIC all have varied background. Some are network defenders by trade. Others were exploitation or attack specialists. The goal was to create a course with common-ground in the beginning to both of those disciplines—a look at the basics of both sides—before drilling into the bedrock of the mission set.
“It is a ton of hours we’re putting in. We as computer geeks are learning about bombs and fuses and some of those things before we actually started in our own area. We have to build the course as we are teaching it, and it’s very tough because you’re essentially a student and validating your own teaching points at the same time. It makes things very challenging.”
In the next part, we take a look at the devastating effects of Sequestration and the consequences of reduced operations for the U.S. Air Forces Weapons School, as well as the importance of the institution’s mission for both tactics and leadership.