Capstone: Accelerating the Decline of Air Force Basic Training

For the last seven years, the Air Force has engaged in a rolling series of experiments with Basic Military Training. The impact has been a sharp decline.
For the last seven years, the Air Force has engaged in a rolling series of experiments with Basic Military Training. The impact has been a sharp decline.

For sixty years, the Air Force had an imperfect but effective Basic Military Training (BMT) process. Disheveled and dissimilar groups of civilians were barked into rough-hewn lines by seemingly rabid Military Training Instructors (MTIs), arms tugged downward by luggage while chins lifted skyward in the bellowing mis-delivered repetitions of reporting statements and other nonsensical things. 

MTIs were the focal point of this transformational process. Sharp as razors. Credible. Intimidating. Immaculately and unquestionably professional. They were the best noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from across the Air Force, brought together at Lackland for the privilege of ensuring the service’s newest airmen emerged from indoctrination not as slipshod individuals, but as blue-bleeding teammates possessed of military bearing, attention to detail, and most importantly, the character to serve. The process took six weeks. It fortified the spine of airpower through five hot wars and a cold one.

Then, everything changed.

In 2008, the Air Force lengthened BMT by two weeks to make indoctrination more “martial.” The view at that time was that the service faced an increasingly expeditionary future, with airmen serving alongside fielded soldiers and Marines rather than working from a distance.

It was a weird idea given that the whole point of airpower is relative freedom from surface tethers and the advantage gained by not needing physical presence to win. But no one in a position to challenge the idea really questioned it. Just like that, a formula that worked for six decades was re-written.

The consequences have been grave.

When the Air Force lengthened BMT, it didn’t provide sufficient additional manpower to conduct the more robust course. Immediately, this stretched MTIs thin, making chronically arduous hours and professional fatigue the new norms. The service also cut back on the number of officers it assigned to BMT squadrons in an effort to free up manpower for competing priorities. The net effect of these changes was a new balance in the supervisory system that meant less direct surveillance of MTIs and their activities.

By 2011, just three years after the changes at BMT, Lackland was rocked by a pervasive sexual assault scandal implicating several MTIs. Some had exploited their increased autonomy to sexually victimize psychologically vulnerable trainees.

Now, to be clear, the criminality that occurred at Lackland is the responsibility of the criminal perpetrators, not vague entities such as “the system” or “manpower.” But it’s equally important to recognize that some environments are more conducive to criminality than others. The Air Force believes this, as evinced by efforts to “change the culture” of its organizations in an effort to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. An official investigation into the 2011 Lackland scandal found that the environment created by insufficient manning and supervision emboldened perpetrators and made it easier for them to offend.

In other words, there is the potential for criminality in any organization because we can never eradicate criminal intent from human nature. But whether would-be criminals act on their impulses or suppress them depends to some extent on how we design, man, and operate an organization. Context also matters, and it’s always been understood that a special context like BMT process places trainees at heightened risk of victimization because of the extreme power imbalance built into it.

But rather than embrace this reasoning and return BMT to the sustainable resource model that existed before 2008,  which would be akin to admitting contributory culpability for the scandal of 2011, the Air Force has continued careening down the path of experimentation, relying on draconian micromanagement to prevent criminality by brute force rather than achieve it through a proper organizational climate.

The most recent experiment is to once again shorten BMT, but to then chase it with a quasi-BMT “Capstone” week, which borrows its moniker from the mandatory charm school generals attend before pinning on their first stars.

The Air Force explains Capstone thusly:

During Capstone, trainees are instructed on wingmanship, resiliency, leadership and followership, sexual assault prevention and response, the warrior ethos, and how Airmen can balance their personal and professional lives.

Capstone Week’s purpose is to give the United States Air Force one more critical tool to further develop professional, resilient Airmen who are inspired by heritage, committed to its core values, and motivated to deliver airpower.”

A more inclusive collection of trendy buzzwords would be hard to find, and no one really knows what any of that means. But the true purpose of Capstone, it seems, is an attempt to micromanage character development.

Generals are perfectly willing to trust MTIs to teach airmen to fold socks, to teach them to march, and to lead them in physical training. But when it comes to indoctrinating the Air Force value system, the generals clearly do not trust their NCOs and are taking the task personally in-hand.

Under the legacy BMT model, airmen got a few extra minutes for breakfast during their final week of training and were allowed to talk. This let them team-build and exchange perspectives about the training experience with one another. Under the Capstone model, they play captive audience to senior officials while in receive mode.
Under the legacy BMT model, airmen got a few extra minutes for breakfast during their final week of training and were allowed to talk. This let them team-build and exchange perspectives about the training experience with one another. Under the Capstone model, they play captive audience to senior officials.

The initial iteration of Capstone, which just concluded, provides clear evidence of what it’s really about.

One of Lackland’s training squadrons was given responsibility for preparing and implementing the Capstone syllabus, but was relegated to the sidelines when the time came to put it into motion. The squadron commander wasn’t able to address trainees until late in the second day of training. Instead, they were treated to a parade of colonels and generals, including the four-star leader of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), General Robin Rand.

While the squadron handed the task of making Capstone work has, by all accounts, done great work in slapping copious lipstick on an obvious pig, the idea is too flawed to survive on their good intentions and hard work. There are several reasons why this is so.

First of all, the idea of setting character lessons apart from BMT is fatally ill-conceived. This gives airmen the message that becoming airmen and developing character are two separate processes, which is another way of saying it’s possible to become an airman and only then learn about strong character. The two prospects are (or should be) one and the same, inexorably interwoven. From an organizational perspective, setting these ideas apart is an invitation for MTIs to splice apart character and military training under the premise that “Capstone will take care of it.”

Second, airmen should not be learning character lessons from colonels and generals. (In fact, they should only see these people from a distance until much later. The more generals visit themselves upon junior enlisted members, the less special such visits are, and the less presence a general can expect to have as a natural consequence of rank and implied power. This is a discussion for another time). Airmen should be learning character from the NCOs who will lead them in the near future. The NCOs they want (or should want) to become in the future. When airmen are learning their most central lessons from NCOs, the bonds of team are drawn tighter. We want airmen to seek out NCOs for counsel and mentorship when they arrive at their first duty stations. We don’t want them discounting the wisdom of NCOs because of the contrast effect of having gotten Capstone lessons from a veritable constellation of senior officials.

Finally, if Capstone’s real purpose is to provide another vehicle for hands-on micromanagement by senior officers, it will only harm BMT and reduce the quality of our newest airmen. As an incident, it will also continue the corrosion of trust between MTIs and senior leaders that has been rampant since the Air Force began its misguided series of experiments.

Airmen should be learning character lessons from NCOs, and should rarely if ever be getting their training from four-star generals.
Airmen should be learning character lessons from NCOs, and should rarely if ever be getting their training from four-star generals.

None of this is particularly revelatory to anyone with an ounce of military sense. Character isn’t a training module cobbled onto the top of BMT as a “cap stone.” It’s the bedrock upon which all of BMT must necessarily be built.

Most ardent in rejecting this latest fad are those charged with training America’s airmen: the MTIs themselves. Of course, in the comply-or-die environment that has gripped Lackland, they can’t speak out much within official channels and expect to keep their jobs. The curious case of Craig Perry proved that. But they can, contrary to the ramblings of aspiring fascists, speak their minds on social media.

Reacting to an email from the AETC Command Chief Master Sergeant entitled “Battle Stations: Capstone Starts in a Week,” a former MTI penned this message in a closed Facebook group:

“To my brother and sister MTI’s: Hold onto your campaign and bush hats boys and girls [referring to the especially foreboding “Smokey the Bear” hats worn by MTIs]. They are going to become very rare because I’m sure the Air Force will say they are to[o] “intimidating” and stop issuing them.

To the United States Air Force: Big Blue… WTH is going on with you? Just because a small amount of people abused their authority and violated the public trust does not mean you throw “the baby out with the bath water”! The madness needs to stop! I guess none of this should surprise anyone. I mean we, as a service, have been in a steady decline for 20+ years now. When I joined you back in ’94, you were at the top of your game! You had just proven Air Power was now the “King of Battle” during Desert Shield / Desert Storm. But then you started to lose your damn mind when you deactivated SAC/TAC/MAC; while simultaneously setting in motion the re-imaging of the enlisted force to make it more resemble the officer force.

The enlisted force used to be full of craftsm[e]n. Real craftsm[e]n! I’m not talking about someone who got “their 7-level”. I’m talking about enlisted people knowing their damn job! Those NCO’s and crusty ass SNCO’s knew their AFSC inside and out. Were they a little rough around the edges? Hell yeah! And the Air Force functioned beautifully because of them. What do we have now? We have an enlisted force that has lost its way and its identity. In your overzealous attempt at using the “whole person concept” in the enlisted ranks you have created a force that is more worried about “leading a fucking base clean up detail or a fucking squadron holiday party” than leading their Airm[e]n! Does education and volunteerism have its place? Yes. But not at the detriment of the mission. And someone’s job knowledge and performance should be 95+% of what is looked at when considering promotions and awards.

This all leads me back to BMT. Because, now we have a bunch of mediocre yes men/women who have made it to the top of the enlisted force; discipline and excellence has eroded to dangerously low levels and the new batch of Airman being “processed” at BMT will only add to the downward spiral that you are in Big Blue. My advice, just pack in this whole charade and become the Army Air Corps again. Please spare us all the embarrassment and disappointment that is surely to come if you, the once mighty Air Force, continue down this path you are on.

My hope and prayer is that you will look down at your compass, realize you are on the wrong heading and change course before it is to late. God Speed to you Big Blue. You are going to need it!”

That’s pretty scathing stuff, especially coming from someone who was “squared away” and “ate up” enough to spend his professional energies turning civilians into airmen for a living.

Will Capstone strengthen or weaken BMT? Almost certainly the latter. It’s another step down the road of destroying something in roughly ten percent of the time it took to build it. It’s an argument against change as a reflexive response to high-profile failure, and an even stronger argument against making such change without truly registering the inputs of expert stakeholders.

Air Force, for the love of all that is holy, take note. You’re losing the people you need the most.


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