Gen. Edward Rice, commander of the Air Force Air Education and Training Command, says that fifth generation fighters could incorporate train-at-your-own-pace learning. (Air Force)
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As the Air Force adapts to the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and flat defense budgets, the commander of the Air Education and Training Command is looking to revolutionize the way the service approaches training.
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., who is responsible for the training of nearly 300,000 students per year, wants to rethink the way airmen train, create a culture of cost consciousness and use airmen's time effectively. Rice spoke from his headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
Q: You've talked about how the Air Force is "transforming the way it delivers training." How do you envision that?
A: There are opportunities now for us to think differently about how we deliver education and training. A lot of that has to do with delivering training to the individual versus having the individual come to the training location. It's less dependent on a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom to deliver the training.
It's more aligned to deliver the training and the education based on the pace of learning of the individual. It's more designed to be a learner-centric environment versus a teaching-centric environment. By that, we mean teaching, in many cases, is a push process, where you have a teacher or an instructor who is pushing information to the student. In a learning-centric environment, it's much more a student pulling information from instructors and other sources as they are ready to receive it.
It is blended learning where we combine the best of classroom education and delivery of information via various forms of technology.
Q: There has been talk of moving students in and out of schoolhouses to learn different skills as the need arises. Is the Air Force is looking at that?
A: The model that we are looking at is what I would call more of a three-phase approach. It's to deliver a set of information that the student would largely absorb on their own. Follow that with more of a facilitated learning process where they would have access to instructors via some sort of electronic medium, whether it's the Internet, video teleconference, or seminars if they are home-based. Then, when we bring them to a location, it's to do only those things that you can't do on your own. It's operational field exercise, classroom discussion, those types of things that require you to be at a specific location in order to get that level of learning.
Q: You've mentioned training at your own pace. What kind of training is that best suited for, and how do you see that working into the training regimen?
A: I actually think it's suited for almost every type of training that we do, from flying training to technical training. The idea is that we can put tools in the hands of individuals that allow them to learn in ways that they couldn't learn before. And by using those tools they are learning faster, learning better in terms of comprehension of the material, and can do a lot of it in locations that they couldn't do it before. They can take it with them. While they're sitting in the mall waiting for their friends to come out of the store, they can be using their device and learning on the weekends.
Q: Could train-at-your-own-pace learning be used for something like the fifth-generation fighters?
A: Absolutely. As I look to the future, I think that we can develop a syllabus that, upfront especially, has students doing a lot more self-learning. When they get to a point where they need help, they have an ability to reach out to an instructor via email, or the next day they could go to a learning center where there would be instructors available for individual help. Then they could come back to their own learning environment and continue to learn at their own pace. We are trying to maximize the time of the individual and the instructor to provide as much focused learning as possible.
Q: When you have people using this mobile and blended technology for learning, how do you deal with issues of security?
A: Security requirements change over time. It's not something that you ever solve. It's something we're certainly cognizant of. Most of what we train, quite frankly, is open-source materials right now. It's not something you have to have behind a very hard firewall.
But for those things that are classified, we'll take the normal security precautions with that. It will obviously, in some cases, require us to take people to a place where they can deal with classified and secure information, but that's, again, a very small part of our operation, and I don't see, at this point, security as being a significant deterrent or detractor to move forward.
Q: Does the Air Force have an equivalent to the Army App Store, which hasn't gotten very far due to security issues, or are you thinking about one?
A: We do have some applications that are available right now on PDAs. Many of the ones I'm thinking of are used in the recruiting environment to help prepare and provide them with knowledge to come into the Air Force. But we've got another one that deals more with safety and how you can access different elements of our system to provide you with assistance should you need it.
I think this challenge of security is one that we have to deal with anyway as a military, and specifically as an Air Force. It's one that we're chipping away at, and we have to solve, since we are doing so much in cyberspace today. That will progress at its own pace, and I think it will progress at a pace that's satisfactory.
Q: How do you see simulation's role changing in the next five years?
A: I think we will see it increase at the pace at which we incorporate simulation into our operations. Simulation becomes more realistic every day. When I look at the change in simulation and the difference between F-22 and F-35, my expectation is I will be able to do more in the F-35 in a simulator than I would be able to do in a very advanced simulated environment in the F-22. That change in the capability of simulation — and concurrent increase in the ability for us to make use of it — will continue. And we have to do that. As we look at the resources that we think we're going to have available, anything that we can download from a more expensive training platform (the aircraft, for example) and bring that into a simulator (or a less advanced aircraft) will pay for itself very quickly.
Q: Sequestration aside, let's say you have to cut funds more generally. Does training or simulation suffer from that, or do you turn to it more as a cheaper alternative?
A: I think that there are two answers to that. One answer is: When you look at our long-range planning, we will tend to rely on simulation more, because it is cheaper. So we'll look for ways to take advantage of the resource savings that we can get from simulation. But when you're in the more near-term environment where you have to meet specific dollar figures or resource constraints, then everything gets put on the table. So it becomes incumbent upon me, specifically, and others who are in the training business, to make the case to the larger enterprise of the value of training as opposed to other things that we might spend our money on.
Q: What is the Air Force doing to foster interoperability?
A: One of the areas that all of the services are thinking through right now is — as we continue to bring forces home from the Middle East — our airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have been used to working together and have a lot of joint experience. As we come back into our own service environment, how do we continue that joint training experience such that we continue to develop warriors who are joint-experienced? And it's not something that will just happen. It's something that we're going to have to think about doing in ways that I don't know that we've developed at this point. I think it's one of those areas that all of the services are trying to think through, because we have this tremendous experience that will rapidly atrophy unless we have some intentional way of reinforcing that jointness in a peacetime environment.
Q: Another theme that has been talked about lately is the renewed focus on the Pacific. How do you envision training changing as the forces make that switch?
A: It's much more of an air and maritime environment than some of the more land-centric environments that we have recent fighting experience in. So we develop training based on the demand signal that the operators give to us. As we make this pivot, I would expect that we are going to think about the concept of air-sea battle, and that will have its own set of requirements for training as a result. I don't know that we're at a place right now where we've got specifics that we can talk about. As we make this pivot, I would expect that we'll get more in terms of what that's going to look like, and then we'll adapt our training program, which we do every year.
Q: You've also spoken about using airmen's time efficiently. How does this relate to proper use of time in training?
A: Right now, our airmen have a full-time job to go out and do whatever it is that we have trained them to do, whether it is fly airplanes, fix airplanes, buy airplanes, do financial management, you name it. They've got a full-time job. Technology is enabling us to allow them to do more for themselves that they would traditionally have had to go someplace else and have someone else do it for them.
Whether it's planning their own travel or executing professional military education — much more of that can be done at home station. That will certainly shrink the amount of time that our airmen have to spend with their families or on themselves or doing other things that they would like to do. While there certainly is going to be some professional obligation to do things outside the normal duty day, unless we are intentional about understanding the demands we are placing on an airman's time, our view is we will expect them to do too much outside a normal duty day. So we want to understand what the demands on airmen's time are, and we want to provide enough time within the professional time to do professional things. Airmen can do what we've asked them to do and have a reasonable opportunity for quality of life outside of their professional obligations.
Q: What are some of the solutions to make that work? There are only so many hours in a day.
A: What we are doing is not looking at this in the average. We're breaking it down to each individual job and functional area, and looking at the time associated with those functions. And then we're determining what we are asking airmen to do outside their "normal" job and looking at how we provide time during the day in order to do those things.
So if you have an eight-hour shift, we might decide that three hours a week we are going to take you off your shift and provide you time to do your ancillary training, your professional military education, to do your additional duty in the squadron. We're still working out a way to do that.
We're going to place increasing demands on that airman's time. It's important that we have a process to manage that time such that we don't put excess demand on it.
Q: Is there anything that you would like the training or simulation industry to know, focus on or be aware of a demand for, in order to help you make your training more efficient?
A: My comment would be that cost will be a factor in everything that we do, much more so now and in the future than it has been in the past. I think it's important that industry really understands that and makes it a central part of everything that they do in terms of looking to provide a capability for us as they develop. It might be a very exquisite solution to a challenge that we face, but if we can't afford it, it's really a nonstarter.