Training for victory

Col. C.K. Hyde, 314th Airlift Wing commander

Col. C.K. Hyde, 314th Airlift Wing commander

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- For they had learned that true safety was to be found in long previous training, and not in eloquent exhortations uttered when they were going into action.

-- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, circa 404 BC

The premise that training is essential for success in battle is universally accepted, especially in the specialized application of air power, and the importance of formal training conducted at the C-130 "Center of Excellence" is demonstrated every day as our mission-ready graduates are assigned to operational units with little or no additional weapon system training required before employment in contingency or humanitarian operations. As an Air Force we do an excellent job of providing quality training and imparting the skills and ethos to execute our mission. Individual and unit training is valued, but training's contribution to victory also depends on the initial commitment to the training enterprise and effective organization.

Many nations have fielded highly trained air forces that were "best in class" at the start of a conflict only to fall victim to the rigors of a long war which exposed fatal flaws in their training strategy and left them unable to sustain combat capability due to a lack of qualified and experienced personnel. The problem was not highly skilled personnel or training expertise at the start of the conflict but a failure to build a training foundation that supported strategy and sustained operations. The desire to throw maximum weight behind operations and prevail on the battlefield can sow the seeds of defeat if it undermines long-term capability essential to success beyond the initial engagements.

In World War II, the United States adopted a long-term training strategy which was essential to ultimate success. Despite the passions aroused by Nazi aggression in Europe and Atlantic waters and the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor by Imperialist Japanese forces, the decision was made to build sustainable combat capability through an unprecedented training enterprise. Experienced pilots were retained as instructors to produce future waves of crew members at the expense of a forward operational posture. For months the news was bleak, as forward forces were pushed back and the enemy tide rolled seemingly unchecked, but the training investment ultimately produced 193,440 U.S. Army Air Force pilots with double and even triple the hours of their adversaries upon entering combat.

The Japanese rode the tide of early victory, cut back pilot production and adopted an "up front" strategy with their elite, but relatively few, highly trained aviators committed to operations. The Battle of Midway and other contests decimated aviation ranks, and a year into the conflict, Japanese air forces found themselves outnumbered. Training was pushed, but was unable to recover as experienced pilots and potential instructors were lost, reinforcing a cycle of inexperience and heavy combat losses. At the end of the war, Japanese air forces were reduced to Kamikaze attacks using youth, zeal and plentiful aircraft instead of trained forces. They abandoned air power and substituted the lives of almost 4,000 men.

The most notable difference between the Luftwaffe and the USAAF was the rotation of experienced pilots. The USAAF leading ace in the European theater was then Maj. Francis S. "Gabby" Gabreski with 28 aerial kills and in the Pacific, then Maj. Richard "Dick" Bong with 40. The leading German ace, Erich Hartmann, had 352 kills. American pilots rotated home after combat tours, sharing their experience and training hundreds of follow-on forces. German forces tended to stay in operations and run up huge victory totals until most succumbed to the law of averages, taking their victory totals and experience with them or leaving an imbalance between an elite few and the masses. In addition, Luftwaffe fighter training was not organized into a unified command until 1943, impacting training production. The result for the Luftwaffe was a decline in quality as they faced overwhelming numbers, and despite fielding the most advanced aircraft of the war, a force crippled by fuel shortages and a lack of trained pilots.

We are no different today--training is a key component of sustained operational success. Our commitment to training is a commitment to victory in the long wars of today and in future wars we can't predict. The rotation of our experienced Airmen into training assignments not only rejuvenates them, but also ensures their essential skills are transferred to future generations. The "Center of Excellence" remains the foundation of our nation's combat delivery capability.

We are also susceptible to the mistakes of the past. The pressures of continuous operations present many false choices between "up front" capability and sustainable forces for the future. C-130 training is at a crossroads as we retire our E-Model "war horses" and transition to J-Models and AMP aircraft. With fewer total combat delivery C-130s in the inventory, the training fleet must be lean and efficient, preserving the maximum number of aircraft for the combatant commanders. But as we have already seen with the J-Model, short-changing the training fleet for an initial increase in operational aircraft can create gaps in training capacity that impact force structure and operational effectiveness for years to come. Likewise, the organization of training forces will impact the quality, effectiveness and transparent presentation of our total force to joint force commanders. Remembering the lessons of the past will help us structure our training to best meet the needs of our Air Force and the joint force who depends on us for unmatched operational airlift.