The first groups to experience the Air Force's new, expanded Basic Military Training curriculum say the changes pushed learning outside the classroom, forcing recruits into a greater focus on leadership, collaboration and fitness.
The Air Force announced earlier this month it has expanded BMT from seven-and-a-half weeks to eight-and-a-half weeks in an effort to align more closely with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' heightened focus on readiness and lethality, and to mentor the next generation of leaders.
While the service in recent years has said it wants to better acknowledge how it selects airmen for particular career fields, BMT's primary focus "is to create 'Big-A' airmen," said Col. Jason Corrothers, 737th Training Group and BMT commander.
"We need all of them to be stronger, to be fitter, to have those habits of mind, those habits of body that strengthen our Air Force regardless of whatever particular career field that they're called to serve in," he said during a Nov. 16 interview.
It's an effort to mold the next generation of 21st-century troops, or what Air Education and Training Command calls the "Mach-21 airman."
The BMT curriculum has been enhanced with additional physical fitness training, combat skills training and weapons courses to train airmen for real-world events during the earliest days of their service.
"Whether or not that is a special warfare candidate, a defender ... or Security Forces candidate or whether or not that's a personnelist, every single person, every single graduate of Basic Military Training has to be afforded the same experience to include physical fitness ... so that they start to be ready for any fight that our nation needs of them," Corrothers said.
The BMT changes include:
- An increase from 31 to 44 fitness sessions throughout training. Workouts have a "balanced mix of cardio, strength and interval training," AETC has said.
- The Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training, or BEAST, course occurs later in training. BEAST, which previously took place in week five, has been moved to the final training week "as the culminating event of BMT" before graduation, officials said.
- A new first-aid course replaces the Self-Aid/Buddy Care program. Instead, airmen receive a beefed-up "Tactical Combat Casualty Course," which mimics real-world situations for airmen to practice life-saving skills in battle scenarios.
- An increased focus on weapons handling and familiarization.
- Elements of "Airmen's Week" have been incorporated throughout the 8.5-week training regimen. Airmen's Week previously occurred the week following BMT to offer airmen perspective into the Air Force's honor code, leadership and character development, among other life lessons.
- An emphasis on Air Force heroes and warrior culture. Instructors have introduced the "warrior identity, as well as Air Force history and heroes, every week throughout training," said Master Sgt. Richard Bonsra, a military training instructor, in a release. "Those topics will then be reinforced during all training events, such as naming physical training sessions after a fallen airman to cement the experience."
Corrothers said the service left room to fine-tune the course as needed.
"What I appreciate what our Air Force has offered us is the opportunity to understand that we're 100 percent certain that we don't have this 100 percent right yet," he said.
Instructors have dedicated more time to weapons assembling, disassembling and proper handling, said Chief Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, superintendent of Basic Military Training.
"Previously, we would teach a trainee how to sling a weapon around their shoulder and march with it in formation," he said in an interview.
The new focus is to pinpoint how an airman may use a weapon in an operational setting, he added.
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"They would go out there and shoot a couple rounds and call it good," Hoover said. Airmen are now moving to an assessment-based shooting experience in which they may have to qualify by firing a certain number of rounds at a target.
"And they have to troubleshoot whether that weapon were to jam on them and they would have to go through the process to unjam that weapon and fire downrange ... without someone necessarily doing all of that for them," he said.
Corrothers said there are additional benefits to the new emphasis on weapons training.
"They may not have ever handled a weapon before," he said. "So additional rounds fired will bring additional comfort with that weapon."
Corrothers said one big change is a new emphasis on more realistic training, including switching to the M4 carbine at BMT over the M16 used now "because that is the operational platform the airman would use downrange."
"We should train the way we fight, and we fight with M-4s," he said, but did not specify when the transition may occur.
Better Fitness Routine
Learning a skill and making it routine takes time and must be instilled early, Hoover said, adding that same mentality must be applied to fitness.
"Fitness is a lifestyle and a lifetime commitment," he said. "The task here is not to pass a PT test; the task here is to become fit."
Hoover said an airman must look past that to keep healthy. BMT's lessons should persuade them to live with Air Force values in mind, on or off duty, he said.
"The idea is, even when you leave here, you're still working. You need to understand you need to continue to exercise, continue to eat right, continue to take care of yourself so that you can be able to go fight if our nation asks us to," Hoover said.
Pushed to His Max
Unlike the common idea that most people join the Air Force to become pilots, Airman First Class Michael Tompkins joined the service because he loves dogs.
"I just wanted to get through BMT because I want to become a dog handler," he said. "I love animals. I [used to] volunteer at the zoo all the time."
So he put his faith in seeking out a similar job in the Air Force.
"It was a challenge. I've never been through anything like that in my entire life before," said Tompkins, a native of the Philadelphia area. He described going into BMT with a child's mindset, but "anything less-than-average isn't worth it."
He was part of the first class to go through the curriculum changes, which graduated Nov. 2.
"BMT forced me into a leadership role early on," Tompkins said during the interview with Military.com. He is now in tech school with the 343rd Security Forces at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
That's the attitude AETC officials hope to get out of all recruits through the updated training.
"It's that responsibility that my military training instructor put upon me that made me [feel] like I needed to do it," Tompkins said. He became dorm chief of his flight class during the first week of training.
He said setting an example enables other airmen to step up too.
"I definitely saw a change in the individuals in my flight as the weeks went on," he said, crediting team-building exercises and other ways airmen are given the opportunity to engage with one another during BMT.
"I needed to do more. Being a dog handler in the Security Forces world, we're one of the first ones ... to go into battle. It's that service before self. And I just want to be a leader at this point, because everyone in the Air Force should be a leader," Tompkins said.
Technical Sgt. Martina Camacho, a military training instructor who had led flight classes before the change, saw airmen collaborating more during the new 8.5-week course.
"Basic Military Training brings different age ranges, different cultures, people from all different types of walks of life and ... we're now giving them the tools so early in training that it's giving us more disciplined [airmen] and better, effective communication techniques with the trainees," she said.
Camacho said the course changes that teach skill sets in the very first days of BMT mean she has to intervene less often, allowing airmen to figure out problem sets on their own because they get those tools earlier in training.
It's not that airmen are less reliant on training instructors, "they're more empowered," she said.
The revamped training puts an emphasis on character development and being able to apply it in conversations and team-building exercises, Camacho said. Previously, an airman would learn something in a classroom and that was that.
Now, "there's time in their schedules to talk about what they learned" in a small-group setting, she said. "They're young adults, and when they go to the operational Air Force, they're going to be expected to work through real-life situations themselves."