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Airmen Get New Skills for War

The Air Force adds ground combat to basic training. Afghan and Iraqi deployments, plus military gaps, drive the drastic cultural change.

April 10, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — For a service usually stationed so far from the front lines that it has earned the sobriquet "Chair Force," some of the scenes now unfolding at the Air Force's primary training base almost seem blasphemous.

New recruits are being trained to use rifles. They are being taught hand-to-hand combat skills. They are being prepped as battlefield medics. The new regimen is part of a complete revamp of basic training ordered by Air Force commanders in somewhat belated recognition that their airmen, once sent to large isolated bases with hundreds of thousands of troops between them and enemy forces, are now regularly in harm's way.

In Iraq, the Air Force has taken over supply convoys to ease the burden on the Army and Marine Corps, and specialized forces have been used in Army-like combat patrols, conducting raids and seizing suspected insurgents outside such facilities as Balad air base, north of Baghdad. Commanders estimate that about a third of all Air Force personnel have been deployed to the Middle East and Central Asia since Sept. 11, 2001.

Until recently in Air Force history, airmen and their commanders were "a garrison force" that deployed fighter jets in battle but little else, said Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, former head of air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan who took over as Air Force chief of staff in September.

"Now everything we have operates off those forward air fields," Moseley said. "Fundamentally, it's a different business."

It is hard to underestimate how drastic a cultural change the move is for the youngest of the armed services. The shift dovetails with larger military needs demanded by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for terrorists. But it is a delicate balancing act, one in which the Air Force is attempting to adapt to a world of guerrilla warfare even as it insists it is remaining true to the reason it was created: to wield dominant air power.

The Air Force views itself as the "high-tech service," responsible not only for the world's most sophisticated fighters and bombers, but also for most military space programs and the bulk of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

As a result, its recruits tend to have more education and are as likely to join to become computer experts as armed warriors. Last year, 28% of enlistees had some college education, compared with 24% for the Army.

As recently as the mid-1990s, combat training for Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base amounted to little more than lectures on the Geneva Convention and the law of armed conflict.

After the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia -- which killed 19 Air Force personnel -- basic training was tweaked and a "warrior week" added to the 6 1/2 -week program in 1999.

But the bulk of Air Force basic training focused on what the service calls "airmanship": coursework on Air Force history, recognizing ranks and how to dress appropriately. The guns issued to recruits were plastic, and basic training was still the shortest of all the services'. Army basic training lasts 10 weeks; the Marine Corps puts recruits through 13.

"In Air Force basic training we did not talk about the role of a warrior; we did not talk about weapons," said Col. Gina Grosso, a Harvard-educated personnel specialist in charge of overhauling Lackland's curriculum. "Even though we've been [in front-line air bases] ... since 1991, we were not teaching basic warrior training."

In November, that all began to change.

As part of a revamped course ordered by Moseley, recruits now learn "warrior skills" during their first week at Lackland. About half of the program is dedicated to combat-related drills, such as defending an air base under attack or operating during a night mission.

In January, the recruits were given M-16 replicas that can be taken apart and reassembled, models that will eventually be given to all new trainees on the day they arrive.

"They feel more like a warrior from an earlier point," said Tech. Sgt. Timothy Bruton, who has trained some of the first recruits to go through the weapons program. "The talk is: If there is a weapon, you're going to be deployed to active environments in Iraq and Afghanistan."

For some recruits, the new emphasis on battle skills and hard, physical training is unexpected. Asked whether he anticipated Army-style exercises, Nicholas Harrison, a trainee from Temecula, Calif., covered with dirt and sweat after crawling through an obstacle course, answered bluntly: "No."

After a moment's reflection, and a chance to catch his breath, Harrison added: "I'm glad they do it. It's a necessary tool," particularly since trainees are apt to land in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The prospect of going to a combat zone is consuming, he said: "I think about it every day."

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