Changing Air Force Means Basic Changes
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Jul. 1, 1999 To see our complete series of articles on Air Force and Navy basic training, visit our Web special "Tougher Service Members from the Start." To see our earlier series of articles on Army and Marine Corps basic training, see "Rite of Passage."
A squad of men and women in BDUs road marches down a trail. With camouflage paint on their faces and M-16 rifles at ready, they approach a tree line, spread out and begin to stealthily climb a hill. The sun has not yet burned off the ground fog.
Every few feet, they stop, crouch behind obstacles and search to their front. Their mission: take out a fortified hilltop compound. They emerge from one fog and suddenly plunge into another as they assault a guard tower and bunker. Their "plan" evaporates. Confusion. Crossed signals. The "fog of war."
A whistle signals the end of the exercise. The Air Force trainees assemble. Their military training instructors will critique their tactical assault skills.
That's correct: Air Force. Ground combat.
Welcome to the Lackland Scorpion's Nest.
Air Force officials figure up to 85 percent of all airmen will deploy to a world hot spot at least once during their careers. "These are combat skills they are going to have to know," said Master Sgt. Steven R. Batson, an instructor with the 737th Training Support Squadron here. Batson is also the combat training instructor and guru of the Scorpion's Nest, the place on base where recruits learn the rudiments of life in the field.
"The difference is we're no longer fighting the Cold War," Batson said. "We have to adapt."
With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force increasingly found itself deploying to areas where the threat was not the intercontinental missiles of a distant Soviet Union, but a satchel of explosives in the vehicle of a terrorist parked just outside the main gate of the base. The base itself was no longer a permanent installation full of creature comforts and direct access to a six-lane German autobahn, but a temporary site with Spartan facilities located at the end of a mine-filled, unpaved road.
These changes have forced the Air Force to rethink how new recruits should be trained, Batson said. "A couple of years ago, a group of senior [military training instructors] got together and proposed changing the emphasis in basic training," he said. The instructors proposed toughening the physical challenges in the six-week course and giving airmen a taste of what they can expect on deployment.
Batson told a "war story" illustrating why the MTIs believed the Air Force needed this training. The story is that on one of the first deployments after the end of the Cold War, an Air Force unit arrived at a "bare-bones" base with a runway, water and some rudimentary facilities.
"There were pallets full of GP-Medium tents," he said. "No one knew how to set them up. Legend has it, they had to ask a nearby Army unit for help." Air Force officials took the instructors' recommendations seriously and began changing the emphasis in basic training.
The MTIs felt airmen should understand what life was like in the post-Cold War Air Force. "At some point in their careers, airmen are going to live in a field environment. They need to know what to expect. Their first exposure should not be when they deploy," said Lt. Col. Buck Jones, deputy commander of 737th Training Group here. He formerly commanded the bare bones depot at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
Adding impetus to this proposed change was Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's decision that all services needed to toughen basic training.
The MTIs scrounged throughout the military to get equipment to fulfill their vision of what Air Force basic should include. They collected tents, pallets, ammo boxes and even a scrapped helicopter from Del Rio, Texas, that had been damaged in a hailstorm. The instructors use it as a training aid.
They scrounged an old trailer from nearby Kelly Air Force Base and made it into a headquarters, arms room and storage area. They collected sandbags, wood fencing and invested "sweat equity" in building what became known as the Scorpion's Nest.
The Nest is a tent city surrounded by guard towers. Each tent has sandbags at its entrances, and a "last ditch" defensive bunker marks the center of the camp. When the recruits finish M- 16 rifle marksmanship training, their military training instructors march them to the Nest and turn them over to 737th Training Support Squadron instructors. It's time to get dirty.
Surviving Scorpion's Nest
For the next two days, the Scorpion Nest instructors teach the recruits the ins and outs of field duty. Many of the original instructors were security police. Current instructors are in a variety of Air Force specialty codes, but they have all learned the ropes from on-the-job training.
"We give them an orientation, and then run them through a mock mobility line," Batson said. The recruits are issued web gear, sleeping bags and MRE field rations. They secure their gear in their new tent homes and then are issued M-16s.
"From there we go into the training area and teach them camp tactics," Batson said. This includes learning camouflage and concealment techniques and the importance of controlling light, noise and trash.
The instructors teach camp security. "We go over the idea of security in layers, and how to build a defensive fighting position," Batson said. As part of this instruction, recruits learn how to stand guard duty and to challenge intruders.
At 7 p.m., after a day of teaching recruits to defend their camp, the instructors conduct a combat retreat. "This is a formal retreat ceremony with 'Taps' in memory of all POWs and MIAs," he said.
That evening begins the phase known as Alamo's Revenge. "The recruits take their position in the camp and the instructors go into the trees and start probing the perimeter. We want to see if the recruits running the command post can dispatch hospital crews and move their reserves around to hot spots." The recruits must also evacuate casualties and drive off any attack.
At 11:30 p.m. most of the recruits hit the rack. "They still have one-hour security shifts until 0400," Batson said. "Then we get them up, brief them on what went right, what went wrong, and let them get chow."
During the second day the recruits go through a variety of training situations, including getting their faces in the dirt on a tactical low-crawl course. They also divide into two groups; one learns to set up tents while the other learns patrol tactics and hand and arm signals. Then they switch.
At noon, the recruits turn in their gear.
Then the field instructors announce a heavy enemy armored force is approaching. "They have to evacuate the camp," Batson said. "At 2 p.m., they begin a 5.8-mile road march." With the completion of the road march, the recruits have completed the field portion of basic training.
The Air Force plans to expand the idea behind the Scorpion's Nest to a full week -- Warrior Week. "The idea is built on a scenario of a seven-day deployment for 1,000 airmen to a tent city," said group deputy commander Jones. "They will process to the site just as they would during a deployment to the desert."
The site, built recently by Air Force engineers, is near the installation obstacle course. The tent city will be set up as if in a high-threat area and will contain equipment airmen would have in those areas. The tents will be air-conditioned or heated as needed. "Deployment will go from Sunday through Saturday," Jones said.
Much of the training that now takes place in classrooms will shift to the field, including force protection, the laws of armed conflict, the Code of Conduct and first aid. A session in the Scorpion's Nest will continue to figure in the schedule.
In addition to the current curriculum, recruits will be certified in chemical and biological warfare defense. "This way, when a unit is getting ready to deploy, the commander won't have to worry if his people are certified," Batson said. He said at most, the unit will need refresher training in putting on mission oriented protective posture gear and what the different MOPP levels mean.
During Warrior Week, the recruits will qualify with M-16s. "We'll feed them as if they were on an actual field deployment also," Jones said. "They'll get MREs for lunch and eat out of a field kitchen."
Jones said MTIs will test the program in the summer. Warrior Week is due to start in October.
The Air Force is looking at a Warrior Week culminating event along the lines of the Marine Corps' Crucible, the Army's Victory Forge and the Navy's Battle Stations. Only after they complete Warrior Week will a trainee be called "Airman."