In every elite organization, there is the person who we all refer to as “that guy” or “that girl.” They are the ones with the answers — even to questions we’ve not yet formulated, or the ones we’re afraid to ask for fear of looking like ignorant fools in front of our peers. The thing that makes that guy different from a pompous, know-it-all jackass loathed by his colleagues is the willingness to share information, impart wisdom, or provide the extra push needed to get over the hump of whatever challenge is at hand. They are the superstars, and if they were athletes in professional leagues, they would be the ones whose names are on display at the Hall of Fame. They elevate the game of everyone around them and inspire greatness in the individuals and organizations they serve.
In the United States Air Force, the person who is most often referred to as that guy is the squadron weapons officer. Known as a “Patch” or “Patch wearer,” a weapons officer not only bears a heavy responsibility but possesses the uncanny ability to rise to the top of the heap, despite any adversity standing in his path. He serves as an advisor to military leaders at all levels, to both those actually in uniform and those in elected or nominated government positions.
These officers are the ones who teach the Air Force’s teachers — the corps of instructors — providing that service’s deep reservoir of tactical expertise and operational understanding. It is a guild of dependable problem-solvers and tacticians that enable the Air Force to integrate its prowess seamlessly alongside that of other military services.
The graduate patch of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, worn on the left sleeve for the rest of a weapons officer’s career, isn’t something handed out to just anyone who walks through the doors. As a point of perspective, the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, better known as the famed Topgun, is a nine-week program. The United States Air Force Weapons School is five and a half months. It’s held twice a year at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas. It’s grueling, demanding, and very unforgiving. If in the Air Force there was ever a case where the phrase “only the strong survive” would be appropriate, Weapons School fits the bill.
When I first received an invitation to visit the school back in June of 2011, I was very intrigued. At that time, Colonel Robert “Shark” Garland, a career F-15C and F-22A pilot, held the position of the school’s commandant. “Welcome to the Weapons School,” he said to me as an introduction. His southern drawl isn’t particularly deep, but certainly noticeable — smooth with a bit of an imposing edge. A firm grip and a strong handshake, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from a Texan. “C’mon in. I was hoping you might be able to help me.”
My journey into the heart of the Air Force’s crown jewel began with Colonel Garland’s statement echoing in my head. How can I help him? He began to explain that, without any doubt, the Department of Defense is facing a tremendous budget crisis. The fear is, if not appropriately managed, there will be catastrophic repercussions for our national security. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before his departure from service, repeatedly warned of a “hollowing out” of our military capabilities if proposed budget cuts are enacted.
His sentiments have been echoed by senior leadership in the military, and that grave concern is trickling downhill to the men and women on the front lines of our national defense. “It’s really simple,” Garland explained. “The writing is on the wall. Folks need to know why we’re here and why it’s important. If they don’t, even a Priority Zero asset like the Weapons School faces significant cuts that could have catastrophic effects on our national defense.”
The reality, both then and now, is that our military forces are already facing significant, even debilitating fiscal challenges. The Air Force, for example, has been sustaining combat operations for the past 23 years; the wear and tear on its equipment and capabilities is undeniable. Most importantly, the military service is hemorrhaging talent at an alarming rate, because its personnel and their families are weary of an operations tempo that is disintegrating the glue holding them together. The service, since its inception, has never been in a predicament quite like this, which has many general officers lying awake at night with worry.
Even in the face of such challenges, the Weapons School is undeterred in its mission. The School’s commandant has a responsibility far beyond what any fact sheet could convey of the institution itself. The effects of the choices that he makes, and the quality of the graduates that the school produces, will determine the direction, sustainability, and combat effectiveness of the United States Air Force well into the future.
The Weapons School provides a booster shot to our force every six months: it refreshes our knowledge of the best tactics, techniques, and procedures across all of our air, space, and cyberspace capabilities in order to deal with the current threat in today’s battlespace. Without the Weapons School running at full capacity, over time the knowledge and skill level of our Air Force as a whole will atrophy, and the associated risks will grow.
Stay tuned! Part Two continues with a closer look at the history of the United States Air Force Weapons School.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Scott Wolff, a freelance photojournalist. Wolff holds a private pilot certificate and draws on his experience as a flight operations director in the airshow industry, as well as 14 years spent in public service generating military and government-related content. Scott has received military altitude chamber training, emergency egress training, and has logged time in a variety of civilian and military aircraft.
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