Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the career fields affected by the proposed change to the combat dive requirement.
Air Force Special Operations Command is taking a closer look at how it trains airmen to join each of its career fields, as the service’s elite corps prepares for a new era in combat.
The wide-ranging review, led by AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, will prompt changes to the initial qualification and advanced training phases that airmen move through on their way to their first operational units, command spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse said in an Aug. 11 email.
It’s a bid to move the organization forward after decades at war in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and revamp it for a faster-paced, more collaborative way of doing business — particularly as the Air Force shrinks and pivots toward competing with China rather than warding off terror groups.
With the U.S. out of Afghanistan and largely withdrawn from its wars in Iraq and Syria, officials see the lull in operations as an opportunity to ensure that airmen have training that is relevant to the combat environments they’ll see in the future.
That means cutting skills that airmen don’t often use, or that may no longer have a place in a future fight. Those shifts will also affect how airmen are picked to continue on in the most grueling pipelines.
First on the chopping block: combat dive training for three special warfare fields.
In a June 21 memo to the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations, Bauernfeind asked Lt. Gen. Jim Slife — who led AFSOC before moving to the Pentagon in December — to cut the combat dive qualification course from the initial training pipeline for special tactics officers and enlisted combat control and special reconnaissance airmen.
The document was leaked on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Aug. 3. The Air Force has confirmed its authenticity.
The five-week combat dive qualification course prepares Air Force ground troops to infiltrate areas by water so they can conduct underwater searches and call in airstrikes, among other missions, from otherwise inaccessible places.
Without that course, airmen would still complete water confidence training at the four-week pre-dive course that is a prerequisite for the longer combat dive training, Bauernfeind suggested in the memo.
The pre-dive course is known as one of the more arduous parts of training to become part of the “special tactics” ground forces that accompany AFSOC units in the field. There, they are introduced to drownproofing and tasks like underwater knot tying that can come in handy on missions with maritime elements.
The proposed change indicates that the Air Force believes those skills aren’t must-haves for many special warfare officers, even as the U.S. military lists the Pacific as its top-priority theater in the coming years.
Instead, AFSOC may make combat diving a special qualification, Bauernfeind wrote. That would mean airmen could earn their combat dive badge, or “scuba bubble,” later on in their career if needed.
Bauernfeind said his command would figure out what taking that route would require of students by the end of September.
He asked Slife to quickly incorporate the change into training requirements for special tactics, combat control and special reconnaissance — a process done in collaboration with Air Education and Training Command. Before it takes effect, he wrote, airmen should be allowed to continue on in those pipelines without having completed the combat dive course.
But because an airman’s performance in the combat dive course is a key consideration in whether they should move forward in special tactics training, it’s unclear how removing it from the pipeline would affect that grading.
Asked how AFSOC might adapt the selection process, Heyse said those details are still under analysis.
Eliminating combat dive is the only request Bauernfeind has made to update training so far, she said.
The expertise needed
The top-level review is one piece of a broader reckoning within AFSOC over the expertise its members should bring to the battlefield and how its units should be organized.
For instance, airmen vying to join special warfare — the most elite subset of special operations — now face a fitness test that is broadly more challenging than in the past. But the test was also revised to make it easier to succeed in events, such as the long jump, that officials believe are less valuable to tomorrow’s commandos.
The Air Force codified multiple changes to special warfare training after allegations surfaced last year that it had allowed an unqualified female candidate to progress through the pipeline. An internal investigation found that conflicting fitness standards within the enterprise contributed to an appearance of foul play.
Slife, then the top officer at AFSOC, pushed back on claims that the organization is growing soft.
“We do make changes in how we train airmen in order to improve the effectiveness of our training, but we do not lower our standards,” he wrote in January 2022. “Period.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.