The U.S. Air Force Weapons School traces its origins back to the Aircraft Gunnery School, which was established at what was then Las Vegas Air Force Base in 1949. The initial cadre of instructors was composed of seasoned pilots, all combat veterans of World War II. These men, who dedicated their efforts to training the next generation, taught from a curriculum written in the blood of aviators lost in the skies over Europe and the Pacific Rim. In 1954, when the order of the day was training fighter instructors, the institution changed its title to the “USAF Fighter Weapons School.” War was upon the United States again at the time, and graduates plunged headlong into the fray over the Korean Peninsula.

As the roles of fighter aircraft expanded in the 1960s, the Fighter Weapons School started to have greater influence across the entire spectrum of the Air Force, with many innovations in both air-to-ground and air-to-air operations traced back to the efforts of its instructors. The early 1970s saw the establishment of the Aggressors, tasked with improving air-to-air combat skills by providing accurate threat replication and dissimilar air combat training, adding expertise in potential threat systems and aircraft.

The 1980s ushered in a time of significant change; the Aggressors moved under a different command umbrella, and the school expanded its courses beyond the traditional fighter aircrew. A course added to train weapons controllers evolved into the Command and Control Operations (CCO) Division later in the decade. The school also gained a Fighter Intelligence Officers Course, which became the Intelligence Division in 1990.

A Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) flies during an exercise at Nellis AFB, NV.
A Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) flies during an exercise at Nellis AFB, NV.

With the activation of Air Combat Command in 1992, the school embarked on a dramatic shift from its exclusive focus on fighter aviation, dropping the “fighter” from its title and becoming the “United States Air Force Weapons School.” It had been forty-three years, and a lot had been learned, so the change was much more than symbolic, and it ruffled more than a few feathers in the fighter community. Bomber divisions also activated that very same year, cementing the shift in paradigm. Rescue assets were integrated not long after, as well as Electronic Warfare platforms added into the CCO Division stable. To increase the Air Force’s understanding of space and air integration, the school also added a Space Division.

A Boeing RC-135 "Rivet Joint" reconnaissance aircraft sits on the ramp at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
A Boeing RC-135 “Rivet Joint” reconnaissance aircraft sits on the ramp at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

With a mounting need for incorporating all aspects of land, air, space and cyber warfare, the Weapons School has continued to revolutionize the way the Air Force conducts its business. The turn of the century saw the addition of Air Force Special Operations Command instituting some of its assets. Stealth technology joined the school as well, with instructor courses for low-observable platforms like the B-2A and F-117A.In 2003, all Weapons School divisions were re-designated as squadrons and the Intelligence Sensor course was added to provide additional expertise in advances of sensory technology for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) applications. Transports and refueling assets were also added to the curriculum, as without mobility support, fighters, bombers, and other aircraft are unable to deploy. Eventually, courses for Remotely Piloted Aircraft and ICBMs were developed, and most recently, one for cyber warfare.

A Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit prepares to launch for an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) mission during U.S. Air Force Weapons School class 13-A.
A Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit prepares to launch for an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) mission during U.S. Air Force Weapons School class 13-A.

Today’s Weapons School encompasses 18 squadrons, teaching 24 Weapons Instructor Courses and 30 combat specialties at nine different locations around the country. The goal is to train students to become an absolute authority in their particular aircraft—known in Air Force parlance as a Mission Design Series—or other type of combat specialty in the case of the non-flyers.  They develop and hone the skills set to conceptualize, design, and then execute such an overwhelming mismatch, in any domain of conflict, that our enemies have no option but to capitulate…or be annihilated. The approach is entirely integrated, so Weapons School graduates are extensively familiar not just with their own MDS or combat specialty, but also in how all Air Force and other Department of Defense assets can be employed in concert to achieve the goal of battlespace dominance.

As Commandant, Colonel Adrian “Elmo” Spain seeks to inspire his staff and ultimately the students attending, with the goal being for the United States Air Force to continue to be the most respected and most feared opponent any nation with combat airpower could ever face.

Colonel Adrian Spain, U.S. Air Force Weapons School Commandant, shakes hands with his Dedicated Crew Chief before doing dissimilar air combat training in the F-22A Raptor. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jarrod Chavana)
Colonel Adrian Spain, U.S. Air Force Weapons School Commandant, shakes hands with his Dedicated Crew Chief before doing dissimilar air combat training in the F-22A Raptor. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jarrod Chavana)

Active Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve officers are currently the only ones who may apply for admission to Weapons School, and that’s only after they’ve been identified by their unit leadership as a potential candidate. In order to be considered for acceptance, candidates must be fully qualified instructors in their particular MDS or specialty, and submit a nomination package. The package consists of an applicant data sheet and a one-page nomination letter from candidate’s Wing Commander or another officer in an equivalent position. Candidates are then chosen by a central selection board. The job of the school at that point is to give them what is, in essence, a PhD-level top-off in training as instructors, so that they can turn around and become instructors of the instructors out in the Air Force as a whole.

“This school teaches and exposes our Airmen to what the actual threat is going to look like and what they can do to counter it in their weapons system and in an integrated joint fight on a contested, degraded and operationally limited battlespace,” Colonel Spain explains. “It’s the only place in the Department of Defense that trains to this level and it is certainly the envy of every other Air Force on the planet.  Our graduates take that knowledge back with them to their units to help them prepare, as much as they can, for current and future adversaries.”

In the next installment, we take a look at what makes a Weapons Officer tick, and why their collective charge is so important to the defense of our nation.

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