NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force Special Operations Command is going back to the future.
As the U.S. enters its third year since 2001 without major combat operations, AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind sees an opportunity to reset how the Air Force trains its most elite corps — and he’s looking to the 1990s for inspiration.
“The intent, as we’re looking at all of our pipelines, is what can we establish as ‘basic mission qualified’?” he said in a Sept. 13 interview on the sidelines of the Air and Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
In August, the command revealed it was embarking on a wide-ranging review of its training requirements and processes, aiming to move the organization of 20,400 troops forward after decades at war in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The changes would revamp AFSOC for a faster-paced, more collaborative way of doing business — particularly as the Air Force shrinks and pivots toward competing with China rather than warding off terror groups.
Bauernfeind hopes to reshape the training pipeline so that airmen can level up over the course of their careers, rather than starting out with a wide range of qualifications that they may never use.
“We were very comfortable with basic mission qualifications,” he said of the pre-9/11 era. “Then you would get to your operational unit and … then get the additional special qualifications you needed as you grew as an operator.”
That changed as the demand for America’s most elite airmen grew.
The three-star general, a career special operations pilot, witnessed firsthand the Air Force’s transition from more routine combat operations of the 1990s to its rush to fight elusive enemies in multiple countries after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
In the early 2010s — as the U.S. marked its first decade of war in Afghanistan, the Islamic State began its resurgence after the U.S. drawdown from Iraq, and the Syrian civil war turned increasingly bloody — AFSOC scrambled to pump out as many fully qualified air commandos as possible.
“When we attempted to put all operators getting all training in [initial qualifications] … the training pipeline exploded,” Bauernfeind said. “These air commandos were not getting the sets and reps to learn their basic skills before we were putting the advanced skill right on top of them.”
Right now, AFSOC hopefuls can spend years becoming fully qualified before joining their first squadron. Then they’re ready to deploy as soon as they arrive at that duty station.
Going forward, Bauernfeind wants to use the first four years differently.
As he sees it, airmen would spend up to two years in initial qualification training before reaching their special ops squadron. Once there, they’d get up to 18 months of training time to learn more about their mission and the special operations culture before deploying.
That time is baked into the Air Force’s new combat readiness cycle, known as Air Force Generation or “AFFORGEN,” which moves units through three six-month periods of training and maintenance before a fourth six-month stretch where they become available for overseas missions.
Overhauling the process may boost morale and long-term retention for airmen who want to make a difference, Bauernfeind said.
“Young Americans want to come in and do,” he said. “They want to know that what they are doing is moving the needle. … When they know they’re just sitting there and training for years on end, that is not always a positive aspect.”
It’s unclear how many more airmen AFSOC may be able to process each year with the revisions. Those changes may also alleviate manning problems in understaffed squadrons.
AFSOC and other organizations that control the Air Force’s training programs — like Air Education and Training Command, 19th Air Force and 2nd Air Force — have already started making changes.
The Air Force confirmed in August that Bauernfeind is looking to cut the five-week combat dive training course as an initial requirement for three special warfare fields. Airmen may still be able to earn their combat dive badge, or “scuba bubble,” later in their career if needed.
Bauernfeind told Air Force Times that several other types of skills, like airdrops, aerial refueling and low-level flight, could become part of unit training rather than the initial pipeline. He said the standards used to decide whether airmen should move on in training will change accordingly.
“We’re not going to have people getting judged for things they’re unprepared for,” he said.
The service has also begun reviewing training for the AC-130J Ghostrider, the Air Force’s newest gunship.
It’s trying to fast-track special operations flight school by sending students straight to AFSOC training units after they earn their wings on the T-6 Texan II. That cuts out the intermediate phase of flying the T-1 Jayhawk, which is heading into retirement after serving as the stepping stone to mobility and special operations aircraft.
That decision can shorten pilot training time by six months, AFSOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse said.
Around 30 airmen are expected to go straight from undergraduate pilot training to AFSOC to learn to fly the U-28 Draco reconnaissance plane, the C-146 Wolfhound transport plane and the AC-130J gunship in fiscal 2024, Heyse said.
Airmen are also making the most of slowdowns in the Air Force’s pilot training pipeline by heading to survival training before starting flight school. That can reduce a trainee’s wait time by at least 30 days, Heyse said.
Other tweaks, like dropping a requirement that students learn a particular type of landing that has never been used in combat, are streamlining the C-130 syllabus as well. And adding more simulators and virtual reality software can free up aircraft to fly combat missions instead of being tied up in training at home.
Bauernfeind said his team wants the operational units to report back on whether their newest members are well-trained or if the changes are going too far.
He expects to have a fuller picture of what further revisions are needed within the next 90 days. Implementing them could take months, if not years.
Efforts within AFSOC to build a tiered training system mirrors a larger shift in that direction across the entire Air Force. The service said Monday it will split training into five levels that are increasingly difficult and specialized, from skills learned in boot camp to those needed for austere deployments.
As it looks to the future, AFSOC is also exploring ways to add more digital expertise into its ranks. Airmen could soon receive more intensive training in cyber warfare and electromagnetic spectrum operations, as the command invests in more tools to infiltrate enemy networks and sense who’s nearby.
“The nation that can control and manage the electromagnetic spectrum has got the upper hand in high-end combat,” Bauernfeind said. “My confidence goes up even higher when we have those teammates who fully understand what those data links are doing, what those jammers are doing, what those collectors are doing, and … if the systems are not operating as designed, can jump in.”
Bauernfeind acknowledged that airmen’s motivation can wane as opportunities for combat deployments dwindle. He hopes to replace the constant pace of operations with a burgeoning slate of training exercises. And he’s encouraged units to step up their practice at home, pushing their limits with back-to-back sorties, quick-turn refueling and more.
“The wings have responded masterfully,” he said. “They’re enjoying the fact that they’re flying more … because you can hone your skill.”
But a robust flying program costs money, and will require AFSOC to move some funds away from lesser priorities. It also means maintainers have to keep as many aircraft in the air as possible.
Bauernfeind recognizes that balancing the needs of those two communities is delicate.
“We don’t want to do this on the backs of our maintainers,” he said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.