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ISR training should use failure as a learning tool, intel chief says

May. 6, 2014 - 02:30PM   |  
Intelligence and cyber specialists fight off 'enemy' cyber attacks during Red Flag exercises. More such training is needed says the Air Force's chief intelligence official.
Intelligence and cyber specialists fight off 'enemy' cyber attacks during Red Flag exercises. More such training is needed says the Air Force's chief intelligence official. (Brett Clashman/Air Force)
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The Air Force needs to overhaul how it trains its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance crews by giving them opportunities to learn through failure, the service’s chief intelligence official said.

“You learn the most from when people get it wrong, not when you get it right,” Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, commander of the Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance agency, said Tuesday.

The service is beginning to embrace this trend through training such as the most recent Red Flag exercise earlier this year that included more cyber threats, he said.

“The culture of the United States military is such that we have to win, we always want to win. That’s the type of people that we send out to be leaders in our respective services,” Shanahan said. “Unless we go out and see what really doesn’t work in a Red Flag environment, then we are going to be caught off guard and we are going to be caught off guard in a way that people are going to die unless we train to a different way than we are training.”

The most recent Red Flag, in late January and early February at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., featured crews training for a degraded environment in which computers were compromised to test the ability of airmen to respond. Red Flag is the Air Force’s largest training event, which also includes representatives from other countries, in which “red teams” pose as enemies in training scenarios.

This exercise was just the beginning, and the service is working toward “finding new high-end training opportunities for the maximum amount of people,” Shanahan said. He is looking at the possibility to do two Red Flag exercises a year, instead of one, with the same amount of ISR training.

“You’re going to learn from getting things wrong, I don’t mean just getting things wrong, but understanding what went wrong and how it went wrong and changing it the next day to say we learned our lesson,” Shanahan said. “It’s the learning part of it.”

Shanahan’s comments, at the C4ISR & Networks Conference in Arlington, Va., come just weeks after the Government Accountability Office released a study into the morale and training of a growing and controversial part of the Air Force’s ISR community: remotely piloted aircraft pilots.

In the study, nine out of 10 focus groups told the GAO that the quality and quantity of training for drone crews is insufficient. Training issues, and problems with morale, have a negative impact on career progression, and leadership in the community lacks experience, according to the report.

“One unit commander stated that battlefield commanders that his unit supports have pointed out that his RPA pilots need training, and pilots in some focus groups noted that limited training opportunities prevent RPA units from excelling at their missions and becoming experts in their field,” the report states.

The culture shift for training is necessary to let airmen find the best ways to improve themselves, Shanahan said.

“We need to encourage a culture to thrive, to encourage them to take risks, to adapt on the fly,” he said.

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