Building and teaching is the standard for any institution of higher learning, and like any tactical course, there is a phenomenal amount of information to be assimilated through the hours of classroom learning, mission planning, briefs, and debriefs. But not to be underscored in the forging of a weapons officer are the installation of characteristics required of good leaders. There’s a quote by Helmuth von Multke that says, “No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy.” So when the plan comes apart, it falls on the shoulders of leadership to solve the problem and bring everyone home in the process.

“One of the things I didn’t realize until I got here is this experience, going through Weapons School, is actually a leadership course disguised as a tactical course,” offers Major Bill Wilkinson, an instructor at the 19th Weapons Squadron – the Intelligence Weapons Squadron. “So I came in wanting to become the expert, but what it really turned me into was a person others could rely on, as opposed to just being someone who knows everything.”

That is what Weapons School does: it puts a huge level of stress on you while it also helps you focus on how you can lead your team—and yourself—through a very difficult problem set. So it’s not necessarily about being the smartest person in the room, but having the ability to maintain your composure under stress, and having an exposure and understanding of all the different subject areas, and the ability to lead and inspire those around you to overcome whatever challenge lies ahead.

“I wanted to become the expert, but by the time I graduated, I found out leadership was more important most times than knowing everything about x, y, or z.”

The main thing setting Patch-wearers apart from their peers is the way they evaluate what’s happened. Imagine they were a professional football team, for example. They walk onto the field for the Superbowl, face their opponent with cold, determined professionalism and finely-honed skill, and absolutely annihilate them. Maybe the score is 72-0. Everyone is talking about what an amazing display of coordinated, blissful extermination it was. Maybe it’s the headline in every newspaper and the top story on the nightly news.

There are ticker-tape parades, trophies, and awards handed out. They get their spiffy, jewel-adorned ring. The performance goes down as one of the greatest in history, and all anyone ever remembers is the score. Yet to the team, down to the individual man or woman, from the quarterback to the third-string kicker, to the trainer, to the coach to the waterboy, they’re all looking at the hiccups that occurred, and ways they need to improve so those mistakes never…happen…again.

Kickoff of the Mission Employment phase for Class 12-A
The commanders of the various Weapons Squadrons meet with the Commandant prior to the kickoff of the Mission Employment phase for Class 12-A.

The feared hammer of sequestration fell hard on the Department of Defense. As a result, at the direction of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the Weapons School was forced to cancel Class 13-Bravo. Given the fact the institution is a “Priority Zero” asset in the Air Force, meaning it has priority over nearly every other training course, command, or mission set, it was a huge blow. To someone on the outside, the repercussions of not getting one hundred new weapons officers in a given year may be nebulous or inconsequential, but the most dire consequence associated with halted operations for the Weapons School is that it doesn’t produce graduates.

“The 100+ graduates that we did not produce last December will be a gap that we cannot replace, we will just have to deal with the effects for the next 7-10 years until the gap works its way through the system,” Colonel Adrian “Elmo” Spain, current Commandant of the Weapons School, elaborates.

A B-2A Spirit bomber in U.S. Air Force Weapons School
The pilots of a B-2A Spirit bomber conduct a “hot”crew-swap at Nellis Air Force Base during the Mission Employment phase of U.S. Air Force Weapons School in June of 2012. The aircraft’s systems are all powered up with the engines running at idle, but the cockpit is empty as the Weapons Undergraduate (WUG) and his Instructor Pilot (IP) conduct their preflight checks.

Patch-wearers are anywhere from one to five percent of the personnel in a given combat specialty in the Air Force. For a brand-new Weapons Officer returning to the Combat Air Forces, the goal is not to boast about how challenging or rewarding the course was, rather it is to go back to the squadron and train everyone, young or seasoned alike, to be just as good—if not better—than the teacher. So they go from a WUG having the best instructors in the world, using the best training range in the world, against the best aggressors in the world, to teaching their parent commands to be as good as they can possibly be when the call to go to war comes, despite the climate of fiscal austerity.

“The fiscal constraints we’re under make Weapons School more important than it is has ever been,” Arki states confidently. “That’s the bottom line. It’s one of the last places where we can dedicate the amount of time to force integration, multiplication, and executing major combat operations, in addition to planning for every time of conflict we can conceive of taking place.”

Out there in the real world, there is a resounding “So what?” perspective. Indeed. So what? Why should you or I give a rat’s you-know-what? Who gives a bleep about a fancy patch?

The dominant, overwhelming performance of the United States Air Force, in EVERY conflict it’s been engaged in since Korea, is not by accident. The battles are hard-won, and the lessons learned are written in blood. If we as a nation want to have an Air Force that continues to dominate in cross-domain conflict, wherever it is called to do so, money and assets need to continue to flow in the direction of Nellis Air Force Base. Even the Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, summed it up in his address to the Air Force Association last year.

“We canceled a class; we will never make that up. There will be that gap in PhD Warfighters for the rest of that year group’s career. We can’t continue to allow that to happen. Our job is to fight and win the nation’s wars. These are the PhDs in that business. We’ve got to train them.”

It’s why the Weapons School exists. It’s why it matters.


The next piece of this ongoing series about the Weapons School dives headlong into advanced integrated warfighting, stressing the importance of the institution’s vision Transforming and Inspiring Our Nation’s Combat Power. Coming soon!