A First

Thursday marked an Air Force first; a female captain completed the three-month special tactics officer (STO) apprentice course, aka Combat Control School, and earned her scarlet beret. Unfortunately, SOFREP is not releasing the officer’s name due to operational security concerns. We can, however, note that her background is in cyber operations.

Combat control trainees cool off in the Gulf of Mexico during their physical training session. Candidates prepare for the demands of the remainder of their training while earning an air traffic control certification in 15 weeks. Image Credit: Kemberly Groue/Air Force

Not Without Controversy

Not surprisingly, to me anyway, was the fact that there has been a good deal of controversy over the past several months about whether or not the rigid rules and guidelines for such special operations training had been bent in favor of the candidate.

This was the second attempt of the captain to complete Combat Control School. The program is held at Pope Army Airfield (formerly Pope Air Force base) within spitting distance of Fort Bragg. The 90-day program incorporates military parachuting, land navigation, and assault zone reconnaissance skills.

As a candidate, the captain quit during a solo land navigation course. However, she was allowed to attempt the course a second time this year. Air Force Times has obtained and published instructor comments relating to the candidate; they reported, “On [April 12], you exhibited a failure to train by falling out of the land navigation formation ruck,” noting that she “failed to maintain an 18:30-minute-per-mile average pace.”

Not to criticize, but as a point of reference, the Army standard is a 15:00 minute per mile pace for a 12-mile ruck march. That pace, however, will put you at the back of the pack, and no one wants to be pointed out as a straggler. If you have short legs like me, these things become half jogging/half range-walking events.

The comments on her performance said that the evaluation believed the candidate lacked proper motivation after lagging behind the leading group. In her defense, she addressed these concerns, “I do not believe this is a drive issue, but do concur this is a physical fitness issue, (and it) can be mitigated by strength. Don’t believe this is an aerobic capacity issue.”

Air Force Special Tactical Operators assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing help establish a forward area refueling point. Image Credit: Airman Edward Coddington/US Air Force

Back in January, an anonymous letter from a member of the special tactics community was posted on a social media site criticizing the performance and supposed preferential treatment of the female candidate. This post drew a lot of attention, even prompting an official Air Force Inspector General investigation. The finalized report of the investigation (all 46 pages) can be read here. I’ve read the entire document, and it boils down to this:

“The preponderance of the evidence does not support Air Force Special Warfare standards were lowered for women. Witness testimony and documentary evidence show standards have changed over time for many reasons, including integrating women, creating operationally relevant and scientifically-based physical standards, responding to organizational structure changes, and adapting for the future fight.”

Not Done Yet

She has her beret, but the captain is not yet finished with her training. According to an Air Force spokesperson, “she has about 9-12 months of STO-specific training left to go.” During that time, she will head to advanced skills courses involving advanced military parachuting techniques, dive school, and training to coordinate airstrikes utilizing fixed and rotary winged aircraft.

There are currently four other Air Force females in the special warfare pipeline. Two are special tactics officer candidates, one is an enlisted special reconnaissance candidate, and the other is an enlisted tactical air control party candidate.