2015-02-08 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake
The first day of our visit to the USAF Warfare Center was defined by the arrival of the first F-35 specifically for the Weapons School.
The arrival of the Block 3 aircraft is the first of several which allow the Weapons School to stand up its F-35 Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) by 2018.
Because the head of the weapons school was part of the process of introducing the F-22 into the fleet, we were able to look back at the integration of the F-22 and to look forward to the coming integration of the F-35 into the combat air force.
We were fortunate to have a roundtable with the Colonel in charge of the weapons school and two key players in shaping the standup of the F-35 WIC.
The Weapons School plays a very special role within the USAF Warfare Center.
According to the USAF fact sheet with regard to the Weapons School, the institution is central to shaping the advanced tactics for shaping the complicated and evolving choreography for USAF operations over time.
The USAF Weapons School trains tactical experts and leaders of Airmen skilled in the art of integrated battle-space dominance across the land, air, maritime, space and cyber domains.
Every five months, the school graduates approximately 100 Weapons Officers and enlisted specialists who are tactical system experts, weapons instructors and leaders of Airmen.
Weapons Officers serve as advisors to military leaders at all levels, both those in uniform or civilian government positions. Weapons Officers are the instructors of the Air Force’s instructors and the service’s institutional reservoir of tactical and operational knowledge. Taking the mantra, “humble, approachable and credible” as their creed, they form a fraternity of trusted advisors and problem-solvers that leads the force and enables it to integrate its combat power seamlessly alongside those of other military services.
In addition, the Weapons School provides academic and advisory support to numerous units, enhancing air combat training for thousands of Airmen from the Air Force, DOD and U.S. allied services each year.
The Weapons School cadre also authors tactical doctrine, and conducts tactics validation. Actively collecting tactical knowledge and lessons learned from deployed units, evaluating solutions in exercises, and formally preparing them for application across the force, the Weapons School provides a controlled learning environment and knowledge trust for best practices in air, space and cyber combat techniques.
Members of the Weapons School cadre have served as advisors to the other U.S. and allied military services around the world. The school also authors the Weapons Review, the Air Force’s premier professional tactics publication.
Colonel Adrian “Elmo” Spain, Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, was the main discussant in the round table held during our visit to Nellis AFB.
According to Col. Spain’s official USAF biography, he is eminently qualified to head the Weapons School.
Colonel Adrian L. Spain is the Commandant of the USAF Weapons School, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
As Commandant, he commands 18 squadrons with over 250 assigned instructors to provide “graduate-level” advanced flying, tactics and cross-domain integration training for hand selected officers across a variety of career fields, including fighter (F-22A, F-15C, F-15E, F-16CM, A-10C), bomber (B-1, B-2, B-52), command and control (utilizing E-3, E-8, RC-135, CRC, and EC-130H), space, cyber, ICBM, intelligence (utilizing U-2, RC-135 and RQ-4), air mobility (C-17, C-130, KC-135), special operations (MC-130, U-28, AC-130), combat search and rescue (HH-60) and remotely piloted aircraft (MQ-1, MQ-9).
Colonel Spain entered the Air Force after graduating from Villanova University and receiving his commission through the ROTC program in 1994. He attended Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Reese AFB TX, and F-15C initial training at Tyndall AFB FL.
Colonel Spain’s operational assignments include the 44th Fighter Squadron at Kadena AB, Japan, multiple squadrons at Langley AFB VA, the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin AFB FL, and the 433d Weapons Squadron, United States Air Force Weapons School, Nellis AFB NV.
He was Chief of Weapons and Tactics for the 58th Fighter Squadron when they deployed to Southwest Asia for the opening phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003, leading the first escort missions under wartime ROE.
Colonel Spain transitioned to the F-22A in 2007 as the Wing Weapons Officer, 1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB VA, garnering an “Outstanding” as Mission Planning Cell lead in the first F-15C/F-22A Operational Readiness Inspection.
From there he served as both the Director of Operations and Commander of the 94th Fighter Squadron, also at Langley AFB. During his tenure, the “Spads” were the 1 FW Raytheon Trophy Nominee in 2008 and he led the first 94 FS AEF deployment of F-22s t Kadena AB JA, taking the F-22 to Tokyo, JA and the Korean peninsula for the first time.
Prior to his position as Commandant, Colonel Spain was Chief of the Joint Exercise Division, Alaskan Command and Joint Task Force-Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
Colonel Spain is a Command Pilot with over 1,800 fighter hours in the F-15 and F-22A, including 129 combat hours in the F15.
There were two other members of the round table, namely Captain “Sword” Golden whom we interviewed the day after his flight in with the Block 3 F-35A and Lt. Col. David Epperson.
Captain Golden is one of the two pilots spearheading the effort to standup the first F-35 WIC at Nellis by 2018.
He is currently an instructor in the 16th Weapons Squadron.
Lt. Col. Epperson is the head of the 16th Weapons Squadron where the F-35 will “belong” until its own Weapons Squadron is established in 2019.
According to his official USAF biography:
Colonel Epperson is Commander of the 16th Weapons Squadron. Colonel Epperson took command of the 16th Weapons Squadron in June 2013.
He leads 26 Instructor Pilots in the execution of the F-16 Weapons Instructor Course Syllabus and is currently building the F-35 Weapons Instructor Course.
We had a chance to discuss the integration of the F-22 into the combat air force and the standup of the weapons instruction course of the F-22 in 2009, which presages the standup of the weapons instruction course for the F-35 by 2018 with Col. Spain who has been deeply involved in both processes.
Col. Spain provided several insights with regard to his past experience with the F-22 and highlighted the process of standing up the F-35 looking forward.
Col. Spain: My background is originally in F-15Cs, I went through the weapons school as an F-15C student.
I came back to teach at the weapons school as an F-15C instructor in the 433rd weapons squadron.
And then transitioned to the F-22 in 2007.
I was a wing weapons officer when we brought the F-22 into the operational fleet.
General Corley was then the ACC Commander at Langley, when I was there involved in the process of introducing the F-22 to the force.
I was here in the weapons school as an instructor when they started the operational tests of the F-22.
I saw firsthand some of the great things about the F-22 when it started, I also saw some of the growing pains it went through.
The F-22 system represented a total paradigm shift in how you build the systems, not just the avionic systems, but also things like the fuel, the oil, the hydraulic systems.
We were shifting from an analog to a digital maintenance structure to make it easier to do maintenance.
But eventually, like everything that’s on the drawing board and becomes your first prototype, it doesn’t work exactly as you had designed, and anticipated, so that’s what the test process is for.
You work on all those things you can fix before we field them, so that at least the initial generation of fielded aircraft are stable enough to execute your missions.
We were also dealing with a small quantity of Raptors, which affects the cost of upgrading the airplane, because cost is driven in large part by numbers.
As you shift from developmental testing – designed to make sure that the basic airplane works – it transitions to operational testing which is focused on how we will use the aircraft and integrate it with the force.
The transition is not a science; it is a decision to move forward as well as the shift from operational testing to declaring initial operational capability or IOC for an aircraft.
These are judgments made on the experience in the process, one which the Warfare Center is deeply involved with.
Question: What is the role of the Weapons School in this process?
Col. Spain: Operational F-22s were out in the field for several years before we had a WIC, which was stood up in 2009.
The WIC comes along at a time when the Air Force is ready to now test to the highest level of the TTPs that are established.
For example, with regard to the F-35, the arrival of the F-35 into the 57th wing in the weapons school, this begins our ability to prepare for the first classes that are going to build your innovative expert instructors in the F-35.
The 53rd wing is going to build the initial TTPs for the F-35 with our pilots until the point that they get a baseline, and then they’re going to export those tactics to the first operational units at Hill, and the process will be highly interactive between the evolving TTPs and the operational squadrons
In the spring of 2018, we’ll have our first F-35 WIC.
That is nine years after having stood up the first WIC for the F-22.
And that’ll be about two years after the planned IOC decision at Hill, and then the F-35 capability will continue to grow, as we have weapons officers with F-35 experience.
Hill will help establish a standard based on the tactics that the 53rd wing, the test organization is going to build.
Question: What is your perspective, Lt. Col. Epperson, on the process and what is your role in that process?
Lt. Col. “Fuge” Epperson: I am the Commander of the 16th weapons squadron.
I’ve been helping with the standup of the F-35 here at the weapons school similar to how we’ve done the Raptor.
We’re initially bringing F-35 under the 16th umbrella to help stand it up.
As we add F-35 in numbers, we will split it off into its own squadron at the weapons school.
Question: When we visited MAWTS, the Marines were drawing on your F-16 TTPs in shaping their initial F-35 manuals. What has been your working relationship with the Marines?
Lt. Col. Epperson: We are working effectively with them.
In the past year, MAWTS came to us for advice on shaping their air-to-air tactics with the F-18 as a lead-in into making common F-35 tactics.
And the Commander of MAWTS when he was here said that he wanted the Marines to be on the same path as the USAF with regard to those tactics.
Question: What is your perspective, Captain Golden, on the process and what is your role in that process?
Captain Golden: As we stand up the WIC for the F-35, we are going to be focused on wringing out the aircraft and what it can do.
We are going to focus on determining what the single, two, four, eight aircraft formations can do and as it gets introduced into the Weapons School before Red and Green Flags, the focus will be upon leveraging what the aircraft can deliver and how to make the rest of the fleet more survivable and lethal.
Clearly, a major focus of attention will be upon the aircraft and its operational capability to hold a wide variety of targets at risk. In terms of what kind of actual specific shape that takes, I think it’s very difficult to predict that right now.
Question: There was a challenge for folks understanding what an F-22 has brought to the force. What was your experience with regard to the challenge of Raptor? as the F-22 came into operation?
Col. Spain: There is a culture shift with the F-22. From the outset the operational test community understood that the F-22 is not simply a super F-15.
The pilots and maintainers who worked the aircraft understood that.
The leadership understood that.
But to your point, there were a lot of folks in between that did not.
Notably, the planners did not get it at first and did not rewrite their ops plans based on how the F-22 transformed the combat air force.
Question: How would you describe the shift from the F-15 to the F-22 in your experience?
Col. Spain: There was a huge shift in how we employed the airplane in terms of what you were able to do by yourself in a Raptor, as opposed to a two-ship formation in an F-15C seat.
One way to describe the shift from the Eagle to the Raptor is that many of the things I had to work hard to do in the Eagle, were simple in the Raptor.
I did not fuse the information; the plane did so. And oh, by the way, I’m not getting shot at while I am working my tactics.
With the Raptor, you were relieved from the burden of building your situational awareness, it was built for you.
The situational awareness was there.
Now it’s just a matter of what do I do with the information?
How do I prioritize it, and where do I place the formation to optimize effects?
And this experience is evident as well with regard to the F-35.
There is so much information organized for you in the cockpit, you can focus on prioritizing your tactics to achieve effects, determining what you will target and what other assets you might communicate with for them to target as well.
The F-22 has evolved over time, we have opened the aperture on air to ground missions as well with the addition of weapons and other capabilities for the airplane.
From an air-to-ground perspective, we’ve increased the capability on the Raptor over the last seven years pretty significantly.
We’re going to continue to find ways to improve air-to-ground capability in the Raptor without sacrificing the critical role it was built for in the first place, which is Air Superiority.
Question: A difference between the Raptor and the F-35 is clearly going to be numbers, not just in terms of aircraft but in terms of who is flying the aircraft. How will that affect the way ahead?
Col. Spain: The weapons school plays a forcing function for change.
We bring a small number of really good instructors here to teach and then they go back out to the force to make them better, and essentially, to standardize the force.
The F-22 really is a relatively small community.
With the F-35, it will be crucial to shape effective standardization early because the community will be so much larger.
We need to focus on an effective F-35 schoolhouse, because when the cats leave the house, they are not coming back.
And what gets proliferated gets proliferated.
That is why establishing a solid foundation from common TTPs for the F-35 community from the start is so important.
Question: The USAF is the only force with more than 30 years of OPERATIONAL experience with stealth.
And with the F-22 and F-35, is the only force flying TWO stealth aircraft with fusion cockpits.
This means that you can focus on how the two operate together but also on the F-35 global fleet flying against F-22 in future Red Flags.
This provides the USAF and its joint and coalition partners with a huge training and operational advantage doesn’t it?
Col. Spain: We are already working on the F-22 and F-35 working together piece, but you have raised an interesting prospect with regard to the aggressor role.
Clearly, the introduction of the F-35 builds upon the F-22 foundation laid down by the Raptor nation, lead by warriors like Col. Spain.
And the leveraging of what these aircraft bring to the evolution of the combat air force is a key task facing the WIC and the USAF Warfare Center more generally.
As the Commanding General for the USAF Warfare Center, Major General Silveria, put it in our interview, the purpose of all of this is a more lethal and survivable air combat force.
Integration is what we do here at the Warfare Center.
We are the only place you will find F-16s, F-15Es, B-1s, B-2s, RPAs, AWACS, and F-22s working together in common tactics and training being tested in real world Red Flag or Green Flag exercises.
But the term integration can be confusing because it really is about the evolving capabilities of the combat air force going forward and to shape the combat choreography of many moving parts to shape the effects you want to achieve with airpower.
And with the F-22 to date and with the F-35 entering the combat air force, it is about how legacy aircraft can adjust to the new capabilities and the combat team learn how to use both the legacy and the new aircraft more effectively together.
For example, with regard to the F-22, which is by now an aircraft well integrated into our combat choreography, we have learned that the situational awareness and information dominance, which it brings to combat, has made the legacy aircraft more lethal and survivable.
And we have seen with the F-22, that with its information dominance capabilities, there is a clear advantage of these aircraft providing information to enable legacy aircraft to fire their weapons much more effectively at core targets.
For example, the F15Cs now have learned what they get from the F22s.
And so now they are certain things they won’t try to do because they know they’re going to get that in from the F22.
We have to teach the fourth gen at the same time we’re learning about the capabilities from the fifth generation aircraft.
The F-35 will enter directly into that world; we will learn what the F-35 provides and how legacy aircraft can become more lethal and survivable.
For our other articles highlighting our visit to Nellis AFB in January 2015, see the following: