Air Warfare Center, Nellis AFB

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

We visited the USAF Warfare Center in 2015, when Major General Jay Silveria, was the commanding officer. A visit last month was postponed due to the COVID-19 impacts, but, hopefully, we can return later this year.

But we did have the opportunity to have a round table via teleconference on May 12, 2020 with the following officers: Colonel Jack Arthaud, Commandant of the USAF Weapons School (USAFWS), Lt. Col. Ethan Sabin, Commander of the 6th Weapons Squadron, and Lt. Col. James Combs, Commander of the 8th Weapons Squadron, Major Peter Mattes, Director of Operations, 19th Weapons Squadron.

We started by asking Col. Arthaud how the training approach being pursued currently differed from his earlier experiences.

“In a word, I would say integration. Clearly, what has evolved is a much more challenging and complex air warfare environment.  We have shifted from a primary focus on training to execute de-conflicted operations or parallel operations, to higher levels of teaming, higher levels of group coherency and integration, because that’s what the threat demands.

“When I was a student in 2006, the 22-week course spent 20 and half weeks on individual weapon systems expertise with the remainder on collaboration. Our way of war then was focused on de-conflicted air warfare or sequential air operations, As an F-15C operator we would focus on doing our air sweep and then there would be follow up strike packages and then a wide variety of support assets in the air operation.

“We were not an integrated weapons school but we added a number of elements, such as the Mobility Weapons School, and a full complement of air, space, cyber and special operations platforms, all resident in the Weapons School today which facilitate training for integrated force packaging.

“And with the shift to deepen integration, our integration phase of training is now six of the 22 weeks versus to the week and a half I went through as a student 15 years ago.

“With this has come a shift in the skill-sets we prioritize and develop. What it means to be credible has changed over the last 15 years.

“At that time, being credible really meant being the best fighter pilot in your aircraft or being the best tactical C2 controller, as examples. And now what we’ve seen is that there’s a need for leadership of the integrated force.

“There’s an increased need for critical thinking and problem solving. There’s a need to understand the capabilities of your platform in depth —   not only so you can optimize the employment of your own platform, but so you can understand how best to combine your platform with others, to best to accomplish the functions and tasks that are necessary to solve the tactical problems facing the integrated force.”

The Colonel provided a very clear differentiation between then and now, and in the discussion which followed we discussed a number of key aspects of the approach being shaped now in close interaction with the other warfare centers which are operating in relative close proximity, namely, USN NAWDC, and the USMC MAWTS-1.

In fact, officers are embedded from each of these centers within each other’s centers as well.

What we will do for the rest of this article is to highlight some key takeaways from the discussion, with some extrapolations from those takeaways along the way as well,

The first takeaway is that clearly the services are working dynamic problem-solving approaches.

They are dealing with evolving adversary capabilities and approaches, and the services clearly are not assuming that they “know” in advance what will be experienced the battlespace.

The warfighting centers are cross-learning with regard to anticipated threats, tactics and challenges rather than coming up with single service solution sets.

A very different training regimen is required for force integration to shape a force designed almost on the fly to operate against an evolving threat environment.

At Nellis, they are focusing on effects-based training where the focus is upon problem solving to achieve a specific effect required for specific tactical operational settings.

As one officer put it: “We’re trying to train our weapons officers, our instructors, and our operational Air Force officers to be able to adapt effectively in a period of uncertainty or in a fight with more uncertain terms.

“I think that we need to be prepared for some technological surprises that might occur and we need to train to that reality.”

The officer added: “We don’t know for sure exactly what we might see, but let’s go ahead and make some reasonable guesses about what a difficult task or problem might be, and then let’s allow our instructors and our students to innovate and try to go solve that forward-looking tactical problem.”

The second takeaway is that the USAF is clearly leveraging what fifth generation capabilities can provide for the joint force.

During our 2015 visit, the first F-35 for the Weapons School had just arrived and Major General Silveria had recently become the first USAF general officer to complete qualification training in the F-35.

Now with the three services each operating the jet, they are working the significant integration opportunities which flying the same aircraft provides across the force, but remembering that the USAF has forty years of experience in flying low observable aircraft, a legacy experience which provides certainly a leg up on global adversaries, if leveraged properly in the training and operational arenas.

The third takeaway is clearly that the team is thinking in kill web terms, or in terms of an integrated, distributed force. 

They are working closely with the US Navy in terms of shaping how distributed maritime operations can come together most effectively with the USAF’s evolving airpower distributed operations capabilities as well.

And with the USMC able to shape a very flexible mobile basing capability on the kill web chessboard, shaping ways to maximize the capabilities the individual services bring to the fight but to do so through interactive sensor webs to shape effective distributed strike is an evolving focus for force integration.

And for distributed operations to work effectively, one of the challenges is finding ways to enhance C2 capabilities at the tactical edge and resident in mobile bases to support the overall integrated force.

The fourth takeaway is that the objective is clearly to have greater capability to operate through what is be labelled the advanced battle management system.

But in many ways, the force is already doing so through the capabilities already fielded and being shaped on the training ranges. One officer referred to ABMS as the available battle management systems which is a good way to differentiate between the training for the fight, we are in now versus a world in 2030.

“The best way I would characterize how C2 has changed in the last decade is less vertical orientation and more horizontal feeders out there in order to create our own web of information sharing with what I term the current ABMS, which is the available battle management system.”

The fifth takeaway is how training for distributed integrated operations is yielding innovative ways to operate which have strategic consequences.

Too often it is assumed inside the beltway that operations and tactics are on a level distinctly different from the strategic level, thereby easily missing the kinds of innovations going on at Nellis and its sister warfighting training centers.

The kind of kill web integration which is being shaped now and with the addition of new capabilities in the near and midterm has a strategic consequence.

For example, the challenges China presents to the United States and our allies in the Pacific requires that air and maritime domains partner well.

Working to shape how to partner effectively at the tactical level in a kill web approach allows the United States and its Allies to keep the Chinese off balance and not allow them to prepare for a one attack vector.

They have to be prepared for a much wider variety of potential dilemmas that we could throw at them.

For example, the US Navy and USAF are working closely together in the electronic warfare domain. The approach is to leverage the relevant platforms to provide for a variety of capabilities which can be used to degrade the enemy’s C2 or air defenses.

Training to integrate the platforms to achieve a wider range of attack envelopes to complicate the adversary’s calculations is tactical training with a strategic impact.

And this area is clearly a growth area given the enhanced importance of digital systems to the combat force, both Blue and Red.

The sixth takeaway which is clearly kill web related is the significant change over the past decade with regard not just to sensors but the ability to move sensor data around more rapidly in the battlespace to allow for more effective decision making at the tactical edge.

Obviously, this is a key driver changing both the capabilities to integrate platforms, but also how to command task forces operating in integrated rather than sequential manner.

The shift from hierarchical C2 to empowering tactical decision making at the edge is clearly a significant part of the change as well for the training world.

How best to empower rapid decision making at the tactical edge but ensure more effective strategic decision making with regard to how to manage the battle, and how to best determine which targets are prioritized?

Notably, in the Pacific there are three nuclear powers.

Nuclear deterrence is woven throughout any considerations of conventional operations, so there is a clear need to add a strategic overlay of the battlespace, which considers potential consequences and focuses on making the right target decisions in a fluid battlespace.

In short, what we heard from the USAF officers was, not surprisingly, highly congruent from what was learned from discussions at Norfolk, Virginia earlier this year in a discuss with three senior admirals with regard to the shift in training.

“The synergy across the training enterprise is at the heart of being able to deliver the integrated distributed force as a core warfighting capability to deal with evolving 21st century threats.

“There are a number of key drivers of change as well which we discussed.

“One key driver is the evolution of technology to allow for better capabilities to make decisions at the tactical edge.

“A second is the challenge of speed, or the need to operate effectively in a combat environment in which combat speed is a key aspect, as opposed to slo mo war evidenced in the land wars.

“How to shape con-ops that master C2 at the tactical edge, and rapid decision making in a fluid but high-speed combat environment?

“In a way, what we were discussing is a shift from training preparing for the next fight with relatively high confidence that the next one was symmetric with what we know to be a shift to proactive training.

“How to shape the skill sets for the fight which is evolving in terms of technologies and concepts of operations for both Red and Blue?

The featured photo: A B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., prepares to land at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, prior to the start of Red Flag 20-2 March 5, 2020. Red Flag is an exercise conducted multiple times a year that prepares Airmen for future threats through experiences in realistic combat scenarios. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Philip Bryant)