With the help of a new recruiting squadron, the U.S. Air Force is getting a better sense of what type of airmen are needed for the next dynamic conflict.
The service established its first Special Operations Recruiting Squadron last year to find next-generation combat airmen. Recruiters and mentors train the airmen in a step-by-step, streamlined program, explained Maj. Heath Kerns, commander of the 330th Recruiting Squadron, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
"We needed a different answer to the runaway attrition," Kerns said in an interview with Military.com last week.
While each of the Air Force specialty code varies, the average attrition rate in the special operations community hovered around 80 percent throughout initial selection and training just a few years ago.
"This was a decision to go with a different model to focus on quality, so it's the first step of what is now a comprehensive change from initial ascensions all the way to training … and operations as well," he said.
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The Air Force had already identified recruiters in 2017 to focus on special operations and combat support recruiting. The 330th Recruiting Squadron was stood up June 29, 2018, according to Air Education and Training Command (AETC).
The squadron has 120 airmen and and 12 flight chiefs spread across the U.S., all focused on bringing special warfare and combat support recruits into the ranks. Previously, an airman would be assessed by a traditional recruiter, head to Basic Military Training (BMT) and go on to the indoctrination course from there.
But airmen now get a firsthand glimpse of what their duties will be like, with recruiters and mentors by their side a few times a month.
"Our recruiters find them, and then work with them [and] with our developers," Kerns said.
Developers are airmen who previously served in one of the six specialties -- combat controllers; pararescuemen; special operations weather technicians; tactical air control party; survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE); and explosive ordnance disposal airmen (EOD) -- and wanted to serve as coaches or mentors to candidates entering the unit.
SERE and EOD are considered combat support, while pararescue (PJ), combat controller, special operations weather technician (SOWT), and tactical air control party (TACP) are considered special operations, AETC said.
"They know what it takes to thrive in those jobs and then also just help [the recruits] so they understand what they're getting into and prepare them mentally and physically," Kerns said.
They stress working together as a team, he said. But also, "Can they lead? Can they endure difficult circumstances … and come back for more?"
AETC and Air Force Special Operations Command have brought in mental health and physical fitness coaches who are designing the recruit training, "to make them healthier, faster, better, stronger," AETC commander Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast said last year.
Special operations recruiters assess candidates for specialized training through the developers to hone their skills. The recruits then continue to BMT and the Special Warfare Preparatory Course.
According to AETC, the prep is a seven-week course designed to ensure candidates are prepared as much as possible for the two-year training pipeline of the various special operations careers. Once in that pipeline, airmen undergo some of the most grueling technical training in the U.S. military.
The Air Force hasn't deviated in what it's looking for: airmen who present an aptitude for the high-stress battlefield career, as well as those eager to maintain physical fitness and healthy lifestyles.
"We're just trying to be realistic with them from the very beginning," added Master Sgt. Michael Williams, a flight chief with the 330th. "Our candidates, whenever we bring them into our program … we can usually have them ready, passing the physical fitness standards, depending on their mental capacity … and resiliency, in about three to four months."
It's also about "focusing more on what we have in common than the specialties that make us separate," Kerns said.
The squadron shipped out roughly 1,000 special operator candidates to BMT in 2018, he said, adding that it's too early to tell if the unit has had an effect on the overall attrition rate in those career fields.
But he said there have been production increases, including a 20 to 24 percent increase in the number of candidates moving into the combat controller and special operations weather technician initial production rate and course.
Kerns said the focus is more on quality than quantity of recruits.
The 330th has also helped women with an interest in special operations.
The 330th has had 12 female candidates since Oct. 1, 2017 -- six SERE, four EOD, 1 TACP, and one SOWT, according to AETC spokeswoman Jennifer Gonzalez.
Five of those women -- three EOD and two SERE -- were recently recruited and have moved on this fiscal year.
"We cannot say with certainty if these females are currently in the training pipeline, as some may have self-eliminated or gotten injured," Gonzalez said.
There are currently 17 female applicants in development and working with their recruiter, she said.
"We want to build a better candidate at the end of the day," said Master Sgt. Daniel Jones of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Specialist Screening Course at the 66th Training Squadron, Detachment 3, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Jones helps oversee the initial entry for SERE courses a candidate would take after his or her time at the 330th.
"And what we've seen is a higher success rate in the initial physical standards test" since the 330th's inception, he said. "They're in better overall physical shape."
Physical conditioning aside, the goal is to give new airmen the proper idea of what it takes to be in a high-intensity career field.
"It's the airman that's making it happen," Kerns said, referring to combat skills on the ground.
"Being ground operators in the Air Force -- we find ourselves at the center of all activity -- you bring the might of [the Air Force] to the joint battle," he said. "You're connecting all the dots. Since we're always in the center, always in the chaos and having to be the calm through that storm … it's the [airmen] that are going to start making things happen."