It’s time to embrace the suck.

Imagine that you’re a Weapons Undergrad, going through the most important and difficult training course of your Air Force career, knee-deep in the Core I phase of instruction and nearing the next phase where you’ll start integrating with other disciplines. You’re married, have four kids, and have just relocated to Nellis Air Force Base.

Perhaps your family is here with you, and one day your wife or husband asks you to watch two of the kids while she takes the other two to the infirmary because they’re sick. How do you balance it? How do you answer the question in a way that meets your spouse’s relationship needs, yet takes into account your professional education and career path?

Four F-22A Raptor pilots - U.S. Air Force Weapons School
Four F-22A Raptor pilots step to their aircraft in preparation for a U.S. Air Force Weapons School sortie.

Daycare is out of the question, simply because it is cost-prohibitive for the number of hours the children would need support and supervision. To make things really interesting, now imagine your spouse is also in the Air Force, and has a very demanding mission set — perhaps flying Remotely Piloted Aircraft over in the current theater, which requires insanely long days. Then enter the loving in-laws, whom you can only tolerate in short visits, who mercifully move in to help shoulder some of the domestic load.

Sounds like a Camelbak full of caffeinated awesome, doesn’t it?!

Such a scenario may be what it takes in order to get through Weapons School with all of the different facets of your life intact. It’s time to face the facts: fighter jets and stealth bombers are ridiculously cool. The latest advances in weapons technology are mind-boggling in their effectiveness and lethality. A Predator pilot sitting in the United States can fly a surveillance mission on the other side of the planet and be home for dinner. Exploiting weaknesses in an enemy computer network is sneaky and badass. No denying it.

Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit stealth bomber - U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
A Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit stealth bomber sits on the ramp at Nellis Air Force Base, NV while preparing to launch for a night training mission for the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.

However, gentle reader, allow me to remind you of something. Without the know-how, drive, and heart of the people running those systems, all of the widgets and gadgets and über-cool technology are pointless. Meaningless. As a Weapons Officer in the U.S. Air Force, not only do you need to be built up to be technically savvy and able to execute at the highest level imaginable, but you need to teach other people how to perform those same missions, and lead them into battle when and if necessary.

The pursuit of the much sought-after graduate patch of the United States Air Force Weapons School is not for the thin-skinned, faint of heart, procrastination-prone or otherwise uncommitted. It’s all or nothing. Go big or go home. Sissies need not apply.

Do whatever it takes to manage your personal life, professional life, and spiritual life, or it will all come crashing down around your ears. Period.

“This is a very dynamic environment we live in and work in. If you have any imbalance in your personal life, this job will immediately identify those areas and force you to improve,” Colonel Robert Garland, Commandant of the Weapons School from 2011-2013 offers. “It is the most difficult tactical training experience we can imagine, and we make it that way for a reason.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ronald "Fangs" Gilbert, F-22A Raptor Instructor Pilot - U.S. Air Force Weapons School
Lieutenant Colonel Ronald “Fangs” Gilbert, F-22A Raptor Instructor Pilot at the 433rd Weapons Squadron, shakes hands with his Dedicated Crew Chief prior to launch for a U.S. Air Force Weapons School training sortie.

For example, the second Weapons School class of 2011 began with one hundred seven WUGs, but only ninety walked across the stage to receive their graduation certificates. Attrition in Weapons School hovers around fifteen percent, due largely to the breadth and depth of the training when the transition was made from Fighter Weapons School to the current curriculum and all the different specialties after 1992.

Over time, the number of academic hours required of the students in their learning environments, just to develop familiarity, proficiency, and ultimately expertise in all of the different disciplines, has increased dramatically. The program currently in place demands over 420 hours of academics. That does not take into account the syllabi hours, which includes mission planning, execution, and other specialty-related training.

Sometimes if a WUG fails an evolution, if a fighter student, for example, “hooks” or fails a ride, they are given the opportunity to do it again and sometimes even again, in order to progress in the course. Opportunities for additional learning, as they are referred to, are certainly not sought-after, but a pretty common occurrence based on the demands of the course.

By graduation, the new Weapons Officer is expected to know darn near everything that applies to the Air Force’s cross-domain warfighting capabilities, and possess the ability to solve any problem, under any conditions, with little to no advanced warning. Just ask the four B-1 Weapons Officers who were told to put together Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya…and were only given four hours to do so before they had to brief the National Command Authority with their plan. No big deal, right?!

The flagship B-1B Lancer - Weapons School
The flagship B-1B Lancer from the 77 WPS takes off during a Weapons School sortie.

So, how is a U.S. Air Force Weapons School candidate chosen? What kind of person winds up on the career path placing them at Nellis Air Force Base for six months?

U.S. Air Force Weapons School: Build. Teach. Lead.

Read Next: U.S. Air Force Weapons School: Build. Teach. Lead.

From a tactical perspective, a person needs to be a specialist in their particular discipline, regardless of what it is—F-15, C-17, ICBM, Air Battle Manager, or whatever the case may be. Not only that, but a person needs to be a seasoned instructor in their discipline in order to even be considered a candidate for Weapons School.

Determining if they possess the traits of a Weapons Officer weighs heavily into the equation, too. For example, how do they carry themselves? Do they mentor others within their unit? Are they driven to succeed and relentless in their pursuit of excellence? Are they dependable? What is their motivation? Are they truly driven to make the next generation better, or do they simply want to fill the square for a careerist agenda?

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In the next part of this ongoing series about the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, we take a look at the perspective of the experience from students and instructors alike as they addressing their motivations, frustrations, and triumphs. Stay tuned!

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