On an unseasonably cool May morning over the Nevada Test and Training Range, fighter jets screamed across the blue Mojave sky, sweeping away hostile aircraft as their brethren eliminated surface-to-air missile threats and pounded enemy armor and infantry units. Roaring in a thousand feet off the desert floor, huge four-engined C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft carried elements of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including its commander, Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. and his command staff, who were preparing to parachute into the hot drop zone and bring maximum aggression to an overwhelmed enemy airfield. Meanwhile, back on the Nellis Air Force Base flight line, Red Horse Airborne Engineers duck-walked into the gaping cargo bay of a waiting C-130. Within an hour of jumping, these engineers would be unpacking their heavy equipment and preparing the captured airfield for operation.
This was the Joint Forcible Entry Exercise, part of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School syllabus and a key assessment for the school’s C-17 and C-130 students. It was also the last of its kind for at least another year, another victim of a fiscal drought that threatens military readiness in a way that is not obvious to most civilians. As a former airman, I had been around flight lines like the one that morning for 30 years—and it was hard to imagine a well-prepared military without such exercises.
The Weapons School is often referred to as a “Ph.D.-level of training,” a 5 1/2-month course that pushes about 130 students in 30 specialties—pilots, weapons controllers, intelligence analysts, space operators and cyber-warfare specialists—to their limits. This course makes them better at their jobs, but more importantly, it makes them the sharpest field instructors and leadership advisers the Air Force can produce. Graduates are informally called “patch-wearers,” a reference to the distinctive patch they receive upon graduation and wear for the rest of their careers. It is a badge of credibility and responsibility recognized across the Air Force and within its sister services.
“The men and women who graduate this course are the tactical experts, skilled in the art of battle-space dominance,” says former Weapons School Commandant Col. Robert “Shark” Garland, who retired shortly after the exercise. “There is one place in the entire world, not just America, that we train at this high level of tactical expertise and integration.”
On the morning after the exercise, I walked with Garland as the recently graduated airmen of Class 13A grinned and jostled past us in the halls, their patches still shiny. They had recovered from graduation festivities and were enjoying their first day of rest in more than five months.
Class 13B should have started by July 1. But since the last aircraft landed on that final day in May, the hum of the air conditioner has been the only sound in the school’s empty classrooms.
The Weapons School traces its lineage back to 1949 and is partly responsible for the saying, “As goes Nellis, so goes the Air Force.” It has suspended operations only twice in its 64-year history, and never at this magnitude. “Once, in 1954, we stood down for several weeks coming down out of Korea and again in 1972 as we drew down from Vietnam,” Garland says. The impact of those interruptions was minimal since the Weapons School was small and focused around a few fighter aircraft, much like Top Gun is today. This year’s shutdown “could take as many as two to four years to recoup the expertise lost in some areas and as much as a decade in others, just as a result of the cancellation of this one course.”
But Garland understands that in the face of fiscal limitations, tough decisions are inevitable. “Given the hard choice between funding the Weapons School and supplying and training those getting ready to fight in combat operations, the answer is obvious.”
On the other hand, Weapons School graduates are a rare commodity and have always been stretched thin. They are in constant demand in garrison and in theaters of war, at joint U.S. and combined international commands and at all levels of planning for current and potential future conflicts. The loss of Class 13B tightens the tap. And although Class 14A is optimistically scheduled to start in January, its fate rests on disbursement decisions for the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.
“I can’t double Class 14A, so there is no way to recover those 127 students,” Garland says. “Those who just graduated have to hold the line, because there is nobody directly behind them. If we are making decisions to cut things, we need to recognize that as a result we’ve accepted a significant level of risk. So do we need to fix that? All day and twice on Sunday.”