The coronavirus and its quarantining requirements has prompted the Air Force to reorganize its survival, evasion, resistance and escape training — in ways that could last far beyond the current crisis.

Students arriving at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington to learn SERE tactics now have to quarantine for 14 days, to make sure they don’t unknowingly bring the coronavirus with them.

But to make better use of that time than just sitting around in the dorms, incoming students spend their time in isolation learning from study guides, workbooks and visual materials such as DVDs, said Col. Carlos Brown, commander of the 336th Training Group, in a Monday interview.

In the past, these academic studies — roughly 25 hours of study in all — would have been scattered throughout the 26-day SERE course, Brown said. But by getting academics out of the way early, Brown said, SERE students will be able to graduate after just 19 days.

The Air Force had been considering reorganizing SERE training for at least six months, but the COVID-19 crisis and Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s stop-movement order that went into effect March 13 provided the jolt needed to actually make these changes.

“Everybody talks about innovation ... [but] sometimes there’s forces that are resistant to that change,” Brown said. “The COVID situation really has forced us to figure out a [new] way to train.”

While Brown had to work a 14-day quarantine period into the SERE course, Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, commander of the 19th Air Force at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, also challenged him to get the course’s length down to less than three weeks. So the 336th converted its academics into a distance learning program.

Incoming students now study the material during their isolation period, and three times a week, dial in to instruction sessions with the command team and instructor cadre to share ideas and ask questions when something is unclear, Brown said.

The first class under this new structure — which now has 40 students instead of the usual 88 — began on April 13. Brown has asked the Air Force for permission to return to classes of 88 in early July, after the stop-movement order is expected to be lifted.

The Air Force hasn’t decided once and for all whether it will stick with this model, after the need to isolate to limit the spread of coronavirus has passed. But Brown said that in the future, SERE could finish their academics via distance learning at home, in the 30 days before they come to Fairchild for the accelerated SERE course. This could include distance learning platforms such as Blackboard, he said.

“Distance learning is going to be a key to saving time,” Brown said. “This is gonna be how we train in the future."

The rest of the highest level of SERE training contains the same elements — water training, where students learn how to survive if they parachute into water; urban training, where they learn how to escape restraints and avoid capture in a city environment; field training, where they learn to catch and cook food in the wild, create signals for friendly forces to find them, and avoid capture in the wild; and resistance training. However, Brown said the 336th has now moved resistance training to an earlier portion of the course.

Previously, resistance training — in which students are mock-captured and learn how to resist harsh interrogations — followed the field survival section. But, Brown said, students would be anxious and distracted during survival training in anticipation of the resistance portion.

Resistance “is not the funnest part of training,” Brown said. “It’s very realistic. It’s experiential. You hear that branch snap [in the field], you stop and freeze."

But when students get the resistance training done earlier, instructors noticed they’re able to better focus when they’re out in the field and learn more.

“One of those second-order benefits has been that people aren’t distracted by, ‘At what point in time are we going to get rolled up for the resistance piece?'" Brown said. "They’ve already been through it, and they realize, this is very important to know how to navigate and be able to evade, so in the real world situation, I never have to experience ... capture.”

The other elements of SERE training remain largely unchanged, Brown said.

Brown said the Air Force is also working on shorter, less-intensive courses for airmen who might not need the same level of SERE training as pilots or special operators. Those courses might last only five or 12 days, depending on how much instruction they need, and could go into effect in early July, he said.

Brown said his organization so far has had no positive cases of COVID-19. Before new students enter the training group’s facilities, he said, medical staff take their temperatures and they fill out questionnaires on where they have traveled from. He also said students’ temperatures will be taken daily, and they’ll be monitored for signs of symptoms. But in the field, he said, students are spread out, and the chances of transmitting the virus are greatly lessened.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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