Recruits have been training with the M16A2 rifle for years, but will be switching completely to the M4.
Officials are getting the range at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, ready for the first flight to train on the shorter, lighter variant of the M16A2, Air Education and Training Command officials told Military.com in an interview Tuesday.
A new weapons course, based on the M4 carbine, will be part of the newly expanded, eight-and-a-half-week Basic Military Training curriculum, which forces recruits into a greater focus on leadership, collaboration and fitness, among other features.
"What we've continued to do since [the fall] is understand that … we had the opportunity … [and] the license to continue to fine-tune the program as we went," said Col. Jason Corrothers, 737th Training Group and BMT commander.
The "new BMT," which took effect Sept. 4, has fundamentally been "focused on readiness and lethality," he said during a phone interview.
The range, scheduled to be ready June 24, has been under construction the last few months for previously scheduled refurbishment. It had previously been configured for the M16, Corrothers said.
"We need to go through and make sure that everything is tight, [so] the goal will be a full course of fire completed in the summer, and that will become the standard for Basic Military Training," he said, adding that they are aiming to begin training on the M4 sometime in July.
Combat-arms training takes place during the seventh week of the curriculum, according to AETC.
The M16 gave airmen the ability "to get comfortable with a weapon" since many trainees have never handled a weapon before, he said.
But going forward, it's not the weapon of choice in a downrange scenario. The M4, used by the Army and the Marine Corps, is equipped with a collapsible stock and a 14.5-inch barrel, compared to the M16's 20-inch barrel.
"With a focus on readiness and lethality, [we've looked] for an opportunity to do it better," Corrothers said. "That will come to culmination in the summer, [and] we will transition from the M16 rifle to the M4 rifle for a full course of fire -- meaning, a weapons-qualified airman when they leave Basic Military Training. The M4s are ready and so, as soon as the range comes back up, we've got the blessings to be able to move out and forward."
Roughly 800 trainees participate in the weapons qualification each week, said Chief Master Sgt. Lee E. Hoover, superintendent of the 737th Training Group.
Recruits are still using the M16 until the range is ready. They've worked with the Air Force Security Forces Center on base to fire simulated rounds "to get as close to an authentic fire and experience as possible" as the range has been closed since last fall, Corrothers said.
AETC is also in the process of purchasing almost 9,000 new M-training rifles so that candidates can become accustomed to assembling and disassembling the weapon, he added.
"They know how to take it apart, they know how to put it together, and they go out there and fire on it," Hoover said.
For the qualification itself, officials will grade trainees on their number of scored hits, but also their precision and skill in handling the weapon.
Previously, if a recruit's weapon jammed, "we would just have them stop, raise their hand and someone would come help them," Hoover said. "In the future, that's not going to be the case. We're going to teach them how to go through those steps to unjam a weapon, clear it out and continue firing down range."
An observer will still stand by for safety purposes, he added.
"If that weapon were to jam downrange, it's implausible to believe that we can raise our hand and ask for help," Corrothers said. "We need to train like we fight."
In the past, "we'd have him shoot a couple rounds downrange and then call it good," Hoover said. "In the future, they're going to have a much more in-depth class, and they're going to have to shoot some … rounds downrange, and they're going to reset and actually qualify. You're gonna have to hit a certain number of targets based on how many rounds you fire."
But no one will face disqualification on the course for now, Corrothers added.
"When it comes to the qualification course at this front end, because we do not yet know what that fail rate will be or that pass rate will be, we will have every one of these trainees do the full weapons qualification course, but we will not make it a graduation requirement," he said.
"Let's say trainee [Smith] misses that qualification by three rounds; we're not going to hold him in place at BMT. We won't make that a barrier of entry into the service until we have more data to be able to understand what that will do to our attrition," Corrothers said. "And so, right now, we will simply offer that qualification course, [meaning everybody] will take that qualification course."
AETC has been working with the Air Force Security Forces Center and Headquarters Air Force to design the new course, the officials said.
"What we want to do is maximize the value for each additional round that they are firing," Corrothers explained.
Depending upon what career field an airman is going into, they may be required to do additional weapons qualification courses, the officials said.
"If they're going to be [security forces] defenders, for example, they're certainly going to go through additional weapons firing. If they're going to be special warfare … they're certainly going to go through additional courses of fire, depending on the weapon systems that they'll be handling," Corrothers said.
AETC estimates that 42,000 trainees will go through BMT in 2019.
"No matter what, the airman that will graduate ... will [be] more lethal and more ready because they will have been exposed to [a] weapons course of fire that we haven't done as an Air Force in easily over a decade," Corrothers said.