The Air Force is shaking up its Officer Training School as it looks to prepare a new generation of airmen for an era of increasingly complex, fast-paced military operations.
OTS aims to grow operationally skilled, emotionally intelligent officers under a curriculum that is more flexible and realistic than in the past, officials told Air Force Times in an interview Tuesday. Its new approach may also allow the Air Force to pump out more officers in a crisis.
The school welcomed its first class of trainees into the new program at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, on Tuesday.
“We can confidently say that this is the most historic transformation within OTS history since we’ve been around as an institution,” said Col. Keolani Bailey, the school’s commandant.
Since launching in its current form in 1959, OTS now trains around 3,000 new Air Force and Space Force officers each year. It’s one of three programs that prepares college graduates for military service, along with the Air Force Academy in Colorado and Reserve Officer Training Corps units at campuses around the country.
Shifts in the geopolitical landscape, changes to how the Air Force deploys around the globe and new insights into student learning have spurred the school’s leadership to rethink how it will shape the next generation of officers.
After decades at war with terror groups across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the United States is now changing its focus to vie with China and Russia for influence around the globe and bolster its allies on each continent. The Air Force, in turn, is enacting an ambitious slate of reforms to better respond to conflicts that flare up in the physical and digital realms.
“What we knew coming into ‘great power competition’ was, the way that we … train obviously had to be different,” OTS Vice Commandant Col. Derrick Iwanenko said.
The new program — known as “OTS Victory” — will give trainees more experience with mock deployments, in simulated operations centers and using new technology, to begin immersing them in the daily work of air and space operations at home and abroad.
Trainees will move from learning the basic building blocks of military life, like keeping a dorm clean and how to march with precision, to more advanced lessons in mission command, wargaming, artificial intelligence and more.
Each day will begin with a presentation on how those lessons apply to real-world situations, to better understand why they matter, Bailey said.
Then students will head to the classroom for more traditional instruction, before hands-on practice in what they’ve learned. Classes will end each day with time to reflect on what they’ve learned.
Trainees will tackle each lesson in a way that more closely reflects what they’ll do in an operational squadron, Iwanenko said.
Now students will have to plan briefings and set objectives for a day’s events, to more accurately understand what went well and what needs more work to achieve those goals, he said.
They’ll have access to more wargames and a multidomain operations lab, where software will prompt them to plan, brief and execute missions in response to simulated combat scenarios. And they’ll practice expeditionary combat skills in an imitation deployment.
Classes will also be tested on how well they react to 25 surprise situations over the course of the program, ranging from a security breach at a base to a force-on-force fight.
“No one else is doing that level of training when it comes to mission command,” Iwanenko said.
Instead of moving five classes of more than 500 trainees through the pipeline each year, OTS will now bring in a new class of around 150 students every two weeks.
Once a class arrives at Maxwell, they’ll progress through the 60-day OTS curriculum in five stages that each last about two weeks.
That offers the Air Force the flexibility to hold back struggling students until they’re ready for the next module. In the past, trainees were sent home if they couldn’t keep up.
The new approach can have benefits for instructors, too. Breaking the curriculum into five sections lets teachers specialize in one portion of the coursework, rather than covering the entire program, Iwanenko said.
That, as well as a 14-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, may curb burnout among OTS instructors, and ensure students are fully grasping the material, officials said.
Teachers will also get 10 weeks of non-instructional time each year for leave, professional development and class prep, the Air Force said.
Restructuring the schedule can make OTS more responsive to the Air Force’s needs if war breaks out. The school could bring in as many as 175 trainees per class, and up to 26 classes per year, to surge new officers to the field in an emergency, the service added.
“We’re the shortest commissioning source within the department,” Bailey said, noting that it takes new officers up to four years to graduate from USAFA and ROTC. “We have that ability, that responsibility, to be that shock absorber.”
Above all, the school will focus on cultivating good troops as well as good people, Bailey said.
It’s the first time that OTS will purposefully try to instill a slate of core Air Force values, from accountability to digital literacy, alongside its typical focus on test-taking and basic military skills. Airmen will be judged on how well they embody those traits in job performance reviews throughout their careers.
An OTS graduate should be a “warrior-minded” leader who “lives with honor, lifts others and elevates the performance of their teams,” Bailey said.
The commandant hopes the reforms will turn OTS into a premier leadership institution for the profession of arms.
“Our intent is to create such a transformative leadership development and an impactful experience that … they are beating down the door to try to get in,” Bailey said.
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.