Cognition and Curiosity: A Conversation with Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson
War on the Rocks threw a party for almost 200 people on the sidelines of I/ITSEC, the premier modeling and simulations conference held every year in Orlando. At this party, we had a special guest for a live podcast recording: Lt. Gen. Brian “Smokey” Robinson, the commander of Air Education and Training Command. In a chat with Ryan, he laid out his objectives, the future of education and immersive training for airmen, and the centrality of data. Robinson emphasized this is not just about pilots — as pilot training is only 10 percent of what his command does — but all airmen. In forging ahead, he echoed former Assistant Secretary James Geurts, saying “We have to demand curiosity.” The two also chatted about his career, why he joined the Air Force, and why squadron command was his favorite job. They also took some questions from the audience on professional military education, the T-7A program, his tentative 2023 pilot training goal, and his favorite superhero.
I’m very proud to introduce, especially for this group of people, someone who needs no introduction, Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, the commander of AETC. So thank you for joining us.
Brian Robinson: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Ryan Evans: So I’d love to start, just tell us a bit about yourself and your career. Why did you join the Air Force?
Brian Robinson: A bit about me. So my background, I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, most of my young life. Five years bracketed in New York City, Long Island, and then back to Philadelphia. Part of my allure to joining the Air Force was I always enjoyed flying as a passenger on commercial aircraft, we didn’t do it much as in my family because we didn’t have the means to do that. Certainly no access to flying privately at all. But about three doors down, there was an older friend of ours who was probably four years my senior that had gotten into the Air Force Academy. And so when he would come home on summer break, Benny and I would talk, and through his journey, he got a pilot slot in UPT and went off to fly at 15.
So I got to be exposed to the Air Force in that way. My background academically is Computer Science, Software Engineering degree is what I got from undergrad. I actually wanted to go to the Air Force Academy but was fortunate enough in the city of Philadelphia to become part of a magnet school that I got a year’s worth of college credit in my senior year of high school. The Air Force Academy said, “Hey, you still have to do four years here.” I had time on my mind at that age, and I said, “Eh, no thanks.” But it turns out I couldn’t shake it. So in my junior year in college I re-approached the Air Force and decided that I was going to join, one way or the other, and my initial opportunity to enter was through Officer Training School, through an Officer Training recruiter in the center city of Philadelphia.
And my first opportunity to enter the Air Force was going to be computer crimes, OSI agents, whatever that meant in 1987. I’m sure it’s nothing like it is today. But as luck would have it, those were internally filled. And so the blessing that came out of that was the next board had 120 some odd rated officer opportunities to meet the board for. So I said, “I’m in for that.” And so the Lord smiled on me and I was selected for pilot training and to enter Officer Training School. Largely, the reason I came in, beyond that for the love of trying to go after something I just had a dream to do, was the attributes were there, the benefits were there of defraying my school loan costs, because I paid to put myself through college. So I had to some student debt there so I could defray the interest accrues. And so that the financial benefit there, I expected to be in the Air Force honestly for about one tour, which back then for pilot training was six years. But I still am here 35 years later. So that’s my background. That’s why I’ve joined. I’ve been having fun ever since.
Ryan Evans: So where do you come to AETC from? You’ve been in the job, what, six months now?
Brian Robinson: Right, about six months. Prior to coming here I was the Deputy Commander for Air Mobility Command. I was there for about two years. And prior to that I was the Director of Operations at United States Transportation Command. So I directed all the global air mobility operations in that space. So I would say I came from Air Mobility Command is, what I would call, a customer of AETC, or Air Education Training Command. We produce airmen for them in the different specialties that they need so that they can take them and put them on mission, as I say, on task in their real world, the Operational Air Force as opposed to the training side.
Ryan Evans: So you’ve had enough time to understand the organization deeply, see what’s going well, maybe see what can be improved. How would you describe your intent as commander of AETC?
Brian Robinson: So my intent is to essentially help, do what we can, where we have the greatest touchpoint is our education training man to advance Secretary Kendall and Chief Brown’s goals, which is accelerate change or lose. But you also hear him talk a lot about empowering airmen. Our airmen are the decisive advantage, which makes Air Education and Training Command all that more exciting for me. It is a phenomenal command because everything the Air Force does comes through Air Education and Training Command. There’s a reason why we call AETC the first command. No matter how you come into the Air Force, you start in AETC, enlisted or officer. That’s how that happens. And so that’s phenomenal. And we’re in the business of producing airmen. So my vision, my intent is for us to produce credible, confident, and empowered airmen who have the ability and the skills to think critically, assess risk, and make decisions at their level because they are empowered. You won’t find outside of Western-like militaries and mind like-minded militaries like ours, where they empower their non-commission officer corps and their junior officers to make decisions and they’re trusted, empowered, organized, trained, and equipped to be successful in operations in the moment of execution. And that’s exciting for me.
Ryan Evans: I understand you have six lines of effort. Would you like to lay some of those out?
Brian Robinson: Yeah, sure. Thank you for the opportunity to do that. So first and foremost, for those who’ve been paying attention to Air Education and Training Command before, there’s not a lot of new here, but there’s, I would say, new emphasis or new prioritization in what we’re looking at. But really what we’re talking about — first and foremost foundational across what we do — is environments of excellence in the way we train, develop, educate, and empower our airmen. So it’s facilities, it’s infrastructure, it’s housing, it’s mission systems, things of that nature. That’s the underpinning piece. But first and foremost, I think our most strategic risk is recruiting. So it’s modernized and involved recruiting, make it more interoperable and get it into the digital age approach there. That’s number one. Number two, we’ve had a tremendous amount of work done over the last four years, since 2018, with regard to transitioning or transforming pilot training.
You’ve heard of pilot training, next pilot training to UPT 2.5. It is now time to take the lessons we’ve learned, the approaches we’ve learned from that, and pivot that towards tech training. But the reality is, by volume, pilot training is about 10% of what we do. Now if you want to slice it in a cost per however you want to slice that out, it’s probably the most expensive. But the other 90 percent of the Air Education and Training Command does is training all the rest of the Air Force’s other specialties, some 190, some odd plus specialties. So it’s time to take those approaches, how you start with the competencies that you want in those airmen to be successful in great power competition. Start working your way back on how you’re going to train them, design the syllabi that’s needed to deliver that and the methods, the approaches, and how we’re going to train them. So that’s why we’re doing that. Along with that underpinning that is transforming AETC into the digital age environment in terms of IT architecture and approaches there, one thing that’s key is data strategy. So we have to make sure, one, we truly wring all the value out of data that we should be doing, but also that we’re aligned with the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force’s data strategy and standards.
Ryan Evans: So I’d like to jump in there. So you have a reputation, in and beyond the Air Force, as someone that’s very much focused on data, very well-regarded on that issue. What is actually, we saw Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, her data directives. How much has that actually changed things? What more needs to happen, and is the culture of DOD lagging behind directives on data?
Brian Robinson: I can’t speak for the entire DOD, but I can speak from my experience at Air Mobility Command and certainly with Air Education and Training Command. There’s no lack of intent to get after the things we have to get after, I think, in terms of the technology evolutions and improvement. But what we have happening is there is a lack of understanding of what the standards need to be. And I think the Department of Defense has realized there’s got to be some standardization, not necessarily in format, but in the ways that we can exchange and transport data. And so we have to make sure we’re aligned with that because, I think, if we’re not aligned with that, we don’t have as much of a probability of success in achieving and delivering, and employing the systems that we want. So that’s why that’s critical and that’s important, but that’s huge and it’s key to the interoperability.
So for example, I think a concrete example is, I think it’s reasonable that I, as an airman, from my very first experience, in my case, Officer Training School and all the experiences I’ve been afforded in the ways that the Air Force trains. And by the way, AETC doesn’t do all the training for the Air Force. It is a collaborative, cooperative environment. We do the basics, we do fundamentals, but people come back to us for advanced skills training. They come back for us for professional military education. All those experiences with data in the ways we deliver them through pilot training, civil engineer training, you’re a Squadron Officer School, Noncommissioned Officer Academy, et cetera, et cetera. All those competencies and performances demonstrated, skills or competencies, should be captured. And part of a digital portfolio that says Airman Robinson has the following experiences, the following capabilities, competencies, and therefore informs talent management in the case of what my next job should be.
But it also informs: Is he or she the right person to put on a specific mission or task? And I can do that with data. Informed, I can figure out who are the best people to look for and make sure they’re ready to go do those tasks. That’s what I’d say is the most concrete example. So we’re pressing to down select to what we think the strongest candidates are that are most likely for delivering us, getting us towards success in our efforts. I think it’s key that the alignment with the data strategy has got to be there.
So just a couple more, again, modernizing the infrastructure. So you’ve probably heard the term “dormitories as a weapon system.” We have a wider range of dormitories. You have basic military training dorms, tech training dorms, permanent party dorms from that perspective. But basic military training and particularly tech training dorms, they are part of the ecosystem of learning and education.
Those airmen, while they’re in that stage of training, spend well over half their time in that building, in that infrastructure, which is where they do a vast amount of their learning and based military training, particularly the classrooms are part of the dorm, are part of what we would call the dormitory. They will study on their own, on demand, we call it, or on command in their portable device. They will download or access the content of the lessons that they should be learning for their objectives in their bed. If they have spare time, if they have a free moment, they will pull that up from there. So that’s key that we get that infrastructure upgraded to be in that space.
Ryan Evans: So when you’re talking about that kind of infrastructure, this on demand, on command learning, micro certificates, learning ecosystems, all this stuff that our friends at ADL [Advanced Distributed Learning] and have pioneered and helped map out, how do you distinguish between how training should take place in that infrastructure versus education? Or do you see a sort of firm line between training and education?
Brian Robinson: So from a layperson’s perspective in that space, and maybe that’s over oversimplifying it, but I think there’s a blurred line there. There’s no clear black and white space. Learning is education, education is training, et cetera. But I think what we have to acknowledge is airmen come into the force today, in this generation, where they’ve come in through digital delivery of learning content through high school and formal education in the ways that they do today. And then we, presently, we’re making changes here now and I can talk to that briefly, but until recently we sort of stepped them backwards in time. We go back to the three ring binders, the chalkboard, the whiteboard, and they can only get it with if the instructor’s there able to teach them through it, but maybe they feel uncomfortable with the content. And if they had a spare 10 minutes right after the formal day is done, if they had an extra 10 minutes, they would pull out their iPad device.
And let me just find this section of the lesson that I just want to brush up on one more time. In fact I do it before I go fly, I don’t get to fly every day. So sometimes I feel a little bit rusty. We call them electronic flight bags, and you better be sure that about the day before I’m going to go fly because I want to look like I know what I’m doing when I get behind, and probably says the rest of the crew prefer that, I can just get out my iPad and go through the content that’s in there with the tech orders, the flight manuals, and the things that I just need to reference real quick to figure out to just top off on the procedures, the pictures, the visualization, what is there and then I’m good to go. I feel confident stepping into the jet the next day.
And then I already talked about it, the competencies, again, we have to rapidly codify the competencies. We’ve done great work, I think, in what we call the foundational competencies. So those are competencies that every airman should have demonstrated proficiency or skill levels at. We’re working now on the occupational competencies, which is each of the specialties defined, what are the skill sets, attributes or competencies inside of those. But we’ve got to codify those quicker. Time is of the essence, there’s a sense of urgency, we’ve got to get that done. So that is going to be part and parcel of the data that flows across our learning management system, and the ecosystem by which it will exchange data that way.
Ryan Evans: So I’d love to talk about, especially given the audience, we have of course, modernizing simulations, gamification. You’ve had a chance to interact with industry a lot while you’ve been here. What are you seeing? What are you learning? What are you thinking? What do you wish industry understood, or was maybe more attuned to, or what do you wish you learned, understood more about where industry was heading?
Brian Robinson: My foundational answer to that, and I’ll get into a specific example, is Smokey’s personal opinion. I started out as an instructor. Early on, I had to find six different ways to describe how to do the Cuban 8, depended on how the student in the front seat the T-38 was learning and receiving information and instruction. So imagine, okay, this based on this kind of learning. But I would find a different way to describe it. All that to say is one thing I think is key is we undervalue the role that cognition plays in learning and development. So particularly if we think it’s a very touch, labor-centric skill, we tend to dismiss the cognitive aspect of it. But the more often that you see it—
Ryan Evans: Can you give us an example on that?
Brian Robinson: Sure, absolutely. I was at Laughlin Air Force Base back in August and so we have these immersive training devices, many of you’ve probably seen or heard of that came from pilot training. It is a simulator if you will, for lack of a better term, but not a full motion sim. Not the $30 million version, but the students can get in it lessons per the syllabus are defined for there. But if it’s available for free time, they can also jump in and practice whatever it is they want to practice. In this case, I actually happened to overhear a student pilot, we were in the flight room, talking to one of his buddies who just came back from a flight, and this is what he said. He goes, “Man, I got to tell you. I was upside down on the Cuban 8.” I guess let me step back for context here.
Part of what you have to do in what we call the contact phase and flying training, is you have to stay within your geographically bounded airspace. So you have to understand where the landmarks are on the ground to figure out if you’re close to the edge in the center space or out of the space. That’s context. But here’s what he said. He goes, “I’m doing the Cuban 8,” which is a very precise set of parameters for how to fly this acrobatic maneuver, but you have to make sure you’re in the right space. He goes, “And I’m upside down, I look out of the top of the cockpit and the ground reference is exactly like it looked in the immersive training device.” He wasn’t worried about that because he looked up, he goes, “That’s the picture I’m looking for. I’m in the center of the area.” And he completes the rest of the maneuver in accordance with the specifications that he’s supposed to complete it. Most pilots will tell you a Cuban 8 is all about manual. You got to pull to the right G levels, roll at the right time, maintain the right air speed, power positions. Those are all true. But the mental task load was reduced with regard to maintaining the position in the airspace because the picture looked right. That’s one example.
Ryan Evans: That’s great. And in terms of working relationships with industries and setting requirements and evolving requirements, how do you view that?
Brian Robinson: I think what I found very helpful in my time is there’s a collaborative, iterative partnership that has in dialogue that has to occur with industry. A lot of the military members don’t know what’s in the art of possible, don’t know what’s in the realm of possible with where technology is. And we won’t know that unless we go out and have conversations with industry. And through that conversation you can help us get to a capability that we’re interested in, as opposed to a solution that we think we’re trying to find, because we’ll try to describe it with the right technical terms. But I will tell you the same technical word will have a different meaning depending on where you are in that production acquisition role there. So if you’re a developer, software developer, hardware engineer, or the end user, the same technical term has a different meaning.
And so we will oftentimes, as end users, use a term that gets taken, I would say, literally as the requirement when it actually isn’t the requirement. So those conversations will help us get past the concept to the true capability and then we would actually lean on you for what are the ways in which that could possibly be delivered, instead of coming to industry with “This is the solution we’re looking for.” I think oftentimes we’re guilty of going out with a solution because we think it’s going to get traction quicker inside the acquisition system so we’ll start with that. But I think my challenge to our team is go out with an open aperture, describe the problem you’re trying to solve, the capability you’re trying to achieve, and then you’ll get to the right language eventually in how you’re going to articulate the actual requirement and what you’re looking for.
Ryan Evans: So I have a few more questions for the general, but I want to remind you if you have any questions that you want to ask, go to Carolyn, write them down on note cards, and we’ll have those taken up. So back to your career a little bit, why did you decide to stay in and were there any points where you doubted it?
Brian Robinson: So for me, like everyone, you come to these forks in the road in your life, professional career or personal life. And it’s not uncommon, particularly for pilots because the airline industry, they pay pretty good salaries, but all of us come to it—
Ryan Evans: By the way, I hit Premier 1K on United after my next flight, which I’m very excited about.
Brian Robinson: Awesome, congratulations.
But for me, I was at that point 10, 11 years in, I had only agreed to do six. I didn’t think assignments were working out the way I wanted to, and things of that nature. I won’t give you all the details, but I was frustrated at that point. At the tactical level in the squadron looking up. I didn’t really know why. By the way the assignment system played out, I basically got a job at the MAJCOM staff that I took, and it was early in the C17s major weapon system history. Got that job. And when I got there, on the staff and able to talk to the Director of Operations for Mobility Command and represent the issues of the captains flying the line at Charleston Air Force Base, I suddenly felt more fulfillment. And what I realized what was happening was, as a captain at the squadron on the line, like most of us, you have a very wide array of concerns.
But my sphere of concerns was well outside my sphere of influence. The captain on the line isn’t going to do much for policy decisions at the major commander above level. The blessing of the assignment that I got, that I actually didn’t want some months prior, was I now got to be the Action Officer on the staff representing the interest of this squadron, putting decisions before the Director of Operations for consideration on what to do with policy tactics or procedures for the C17. Thus my sphere of concern and influence became more aligned, and I was actually able to represent and help the men and women on the line, and bring their issues forward and advocate for them. And so my sense of self-fulfillment grew from that. And I’ve always looked back from heretofore, from then to now. It’s always about making the mission of the men and women on the line — and I don’t mean flight line, I mean anyone at the tactical level — making them their jobs more effective and or more efficient in how they execute their mission.
Ryan Evans: And what did you say that was your favorite job in the Air Force that you’ve had so far?
Brian Robinson: No, my favorite job would’ve been a squadron commander because that is a position where you get to know a group of people very closely and you’re able to help them out, and enable things and help them realize their potential. You’re the head coach of the team, if you will, from that perspective. And you can be that voice of the squadron to the last story I just told, right? Because people will give credence to what the squadron commander has to say. So you dial in and you can help lift them up from that perspective. So that was I think my most enjoyable assignment.
Ryan Evans: That’s a good story. Where was that squadron based?
Brian Robinson: That squadron was at now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 10th Airlift Squadron Pathfinders. They’re out there somewhere.
Ryan Evans: Anyone from there? So I should say this podcast is actually not sponsored by United, although if they give me global services, it could be sponsored by United. So if any of you are out there and have any friends…
Brian Robinson: You got to try, got to try.
Ryan Evans: Always got to work it. Back to the simulation stuff. Who knows the name, aside from Jenny who’s here somewhere, who knows the name “Barry McArdle”? So Barry McArdle wrote a command and control simulation, I think in the ’80s, called AWSIM — and his daughter, who’s an amazing professional in her own right, Jenny McArdle, is here as well and is one of my closest friends — that I understand is still being used by the Air Force for command and control simulations, at least in some contexts. And there’s other examples of these simulations programs that have been around for generations, which isn’t to say because they’re old they must be retired. But I’m walking around on the convention floor today and I’m seeing all these amazing technologies, mind-blowing stuff that when I was a kid and I’m not even that old or, at least I hope I’m not, I couldn’t have even imagined. And what’s stopping the Air Force from just modernizing all of this simulation infrastructure? What’s the problem? What are the pain points? What’s the hold up?
Brian Robinson: I think there’s many. Number one, I think we have this perspective, this is my opinion, so I’m an operator, I don’t do acquisition, never have, I’ve never been an 8 [staff function for contracting]. We tend to still look at things as we get to a finite state and it’s the firm fixed asset, and it’s the asset we’re going to hang onto for a long time. For a long time, that even worked with platforms, K loaders, trucks, refuelers aircraft, I might say R11 Refuelers, you pick the platform. But particularly in the aviation space of it, and as we’ve seen technology change the way it has, there are subsystems on those aircraft that are software driven these days, tech driven, that will become obsolete in the Moore’s law cycle, if you will. And in the digital age, we have to get out of the mindset that there’s a firm fixed finite, we’re done with it.
Is it still delivering the capability that we need? Can it continue to deliver the capability as we iterate through it? I personally think this is Smokey’s opinion, not the position of the Air Force, but we ought to have a way, I’ll use a C17 for example. We will fly to fail a component on the aircraft. We’re probably going to use that aircraft for 60 years or something like that. But there’s key components and subsystems on the aircraft, on any aircraft, that are either going to be made obsolete because of policy, improvements in airspace and control measures, or diminishing manufacturing sources, because there’s only one business line, there’s only one consumer for that. So we have to design into it, I think, ways that we will deliberately go after tech refresh and not have to be in a crisis mode, because we tend to wait for crises to force us to look for something new. And I know we’re smarter than that, we’re better than that. We have to get past that.
Ryan Evans: That’s a problem across anyone that’s trying to innovate. It’s a huge problem in terms of, without that emotional response usually brought along by a crisis is how do you provoke dramatic change? Has your perspective on that changed since you’ve become a senior leader?
Brian Robinson: No. Well, my perspective on it that’s a real thing is there. In the position I’m in now, I try to really coach the staff and as we’re working our way through the solutions, I demand that they bring that kind of critical thinking to us. And let’s not wait on the crisis. I’m the person now who has the fortunate opportunity to be the one, “Hey, I’m not waiting on the crisis.” And the ones along those lines of efforts, the things that matter, we’re going to put effort on to try to move those things forward and make the situation better. We won’t hit them all. So they’ll be unforeseen circumstances will that’ll drive us into crisis mode, or this system just failed because it’s not supportable anymore. Those kind of things. But the more we can move, the greater distance we can put between ourselves and that, I think the better off we’re going to be.
And then we can adapt the acquisition model that allows us to be more iterative, forward looking. To try to do that at the rate of Moore’s law cycle for government acquisition is probably not realistic. But my guess would be a window of small number of single digit years, three to five years for example, that we say, “Hey, we’re going to allocate some RDT&E kind of money or effort to that to go look and see what’s there.” We have to continue to visit industry and see what’s in the art of possible, and see what can deliver better for us in that space. And so we have to unshackle our hands that way and be curious. Mr. Secretary Geurts said this earlier today in one of the panels he was in, and actually I live this way. We have to demand curiosity. What’s in the realm of possible? And go out there and see it. And we, as members of the government, can’t be afraid to go sit down and talk with you all as members of industry about what’s there. We don’t have to commit to you, but we have to know, to make a cogent argument or request for what capability we’re looking for. We have to know what’s even in play. And without doing that, we don’t have an idea.
Ryan Evans: Last question, then I’m going to turn to some of your questions. So this is more of an exercise of imagination, but building on what you’re doing, building on what your predecessors are doing, building on what some of your successors might do, what is the vision that you have in your head for what modernized training and education looks like 10 years from now for airmen?
Brian Robinson: So I think 10 years from now, the way I see it, is we’re able to deliver content via mobile devices and train them wherever they want to access the information, either to the point of basic training or rehearsal for an actual mission. And it ought to be able to be done in the right security environment that aligns with that mission. And that builds, I think, confidence in the mind of the airmen as well as the competence that they’re going to be successful under mission, the tasks they’re assigned. And so for us, if we get into a conflict with one of our near-peer competitors, one of the things I’m concerned with is the higher quality, and it’s the rate of production, moving people through the training pipeline. And probably I need to just get away from calling it a pipeline, to be honest with you.
Here’s the training criteria, the competencies you need to demonstrate, and once you’ve demonstrated them, you’re onto the next piece. But that requires us to look at that as a system of systems, right? We can’t move them through without regard for can the other portion of the system accept the volume that’s coming their way. Culturally that’s a challenge. We’ve experienced some of this, I think, in as we looked at pilot training next, but for us where we think about a esprit de corps and unit camaraderie, and unit identification, it’s disruptive to that model. So I graduated UPT in class 8905 with the model I just talked about. There might not be a graduation from class 8905. I might have started in 8905. But we have to figure out are we good with that, and is the cost of slowing everybody down to wait for the whole unit to move, we want to get them onto their operational unit sooner, is really where that matters most as opposed to coming through the training system, if you will.
Ryan Evans: So turning to audience questions. One challenge with moving to a data-centric organization is adjusting the organizational processes and mindset to make use of the data collected. Do you have some organizational initiatives to modernize AETC’s digital mindset?
Brian Robinson: I don’t know if I’d call them formal initiatives yet. I have some thoughts on how we do that. One is the alignment. I’m demanding data to come forward when the staff brings options on problems we’re trying to solve or challenges we’re trying to solve, or decisions we’re trying to pursue. I want data to be behind it, which then forces them to go pursue the data. And then I want them to question the data. Sometimes it’s very superficial and it’s not necessarily the right measure, or measures, that we ought to be getting after. So the demand that I’m placing that way, and that we’re actually looking at a governance structure for the innovation space for that.
The other effort I have is we’re developing … I think there’s a very positive return to the staff where if I can visualize the biometrics of the organization, so take the pulse of AETC from my level that’s appropriate, I’m not a deep dive into tactics. If I can have a sense of doing that without emailing Jim, Jack, and John with questions or having excessive numbers of meetings to find out what’s going on, that saves them time and gives them bandwidth to focus on the real task at hand. The trick is I have to make sure that the visualization that’s coming up is not just a bunch of PowerPoint that they’re spending hundreds of hours producing to make it look like it’s a dashboard, if that makes sense.
Ryan Evans: Absolutely. So how does the Air Force establish an environment of continuous learning across the force at all ranks and all jobs? And on all ranks thing I just want to know, I was down at Air University recently meeting with General Tullos, who I know you work closely with, and probably the coolest meeting I had down there was with the Barn Center doing enlisted education. I was very impressed with what they’re doing up there. But the question is, how does the Air Force do this?
Brian Robinson: So we do it in a variety of ways. At the tactical level, after every mission execution that you have, there is a debrief of the mission. What went right, what went wrong, where can we make improvements, what kind of lessons does that feed? At the operational level, very similar construct there, but we demand and expect learning. So we want people to pursue advanced degrees. We want people to pursue professional military education. It’s expected, in terms of your talent management, if you want to move on up in the ladder of leadership, either enlisted or officer, there’s certain professional military education experiences you are expected to have. So you’re expected to continue to learn. For the enlisted force, the career development, the CDC approach, they have to upgrade from a three to five to seven level, to nine level. And that has a bearing on, again, your promotability, the charge, the responsibility that you’ll be given.
So there’s lots of ways that we work that in. I think Air University, frankly, is at the center of mass for what we’re trying to achieve for Education and Training Command in terms of that cognition. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in gamification, and how we look at war gaming and how that technology can help us in that space move that forward. Because there, both at the Barn Center and Air University at the Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, we’re training airmen who are going to be parts of future staffs, battle staffs for joint force air component commanders, or component MAJCOM commanders, assessing the scenario and making recommendations rather for them to make decisions. So we need to foster those, give them those events where they’re forced to think critically in a time-compressed scenario. And those Air University is doing a lot of great work to push that forward.
Ryan Evans: That’s great. What are your key goals for non-pilot training in the next year? And this person has asked for examples.
Brian Robinson: Key goals for non-pilot training. So I’ve got a couple. So one, can we get airmen who are in training through training at a faster rate and, if we can, at a better quality. Two specific examples I’ve actually seen already, one, maintenance training activity. There’s a variety of those going on where we’ve seen in the field for skill-level upgrade training at the wings they’re assigned to, that VR, AR, and similar types of technologies have allowed them to upgrade in their skill levels, in one case as much as 66 percent faster. And they’ve done a comparison between what they would traditionally do is touch labor and found the right mix of that. So if that’s possible, we can get airmen through training much faster and not have them have to hang around in the training pipeline or that segment of training they’re in.
Another really creative example was air traffic control. Same thing, skill upgrade training at a particular base. And I mentioned the immersive training devices where the students are jumping in these simulators. Well, they will get in them on their own time and try to practice the procedures for the local area. Traffic pattern reporting navigation, and things of that nature, which is a symbiotic relationship with air traffic controllers. With air traffic controllers that are upgrading and training at a particular base, found a way to get into that network where actual students are practicing trying to do it right, but not always doing it right. The air traffic controllers that also trying to learn the local area, they are experiencing and symbiotically going through that experience. And they’re also shown the ability to upgrade to a higher skill level about 40 percent or so quicker.
Nobody told them to do that. They say, “Hey, that’s an opportunity we think is there,” as opposed to the 1960s era cathode ray tube, CRT radar scope that’s standing next to, while I’m getting this briefing. The odd thing is some of the more senior instructors there on the air traffic controller side said, “Hey, this is not safe. If there’s an accident, somebody’s going …” And we’re like, “Hey, you realize nobody’s actually in an airplane. They’re on the flight room floor in a …” So I mean it was real enough that they lost a bubble, the fact that it was … But now we can take that, what we’ve learned, and back that into the tech school, and get out of just doing it as just the skill level upgrade training at the assigned wing that they’re at.
Ryan Evans: Could you provide an update on the T7 program’s impact on planning for future training and how are delays affecting AETC?
Brian Robinson: There’s some delays that are there, there’s some challenges with that I won’t speak to with great degree. That’s the system program’s office, but we want to make sure it’s an environment. The aircraft itself, it’s a flyable aircraft. It’s very capable. There’s some concerns with some of the systems, I would say, that are safety compliance systems in terms of ejection seats. They’re trying to get that into the parameters that they can meet the spec that that’s there. It’s from that perspective. So we’re behind them. We’re looking for opportunities to help them in any way that we can from AETC’s perspective as they’re essentially the end user of that platform. But it matters to us for moving, transforming pilot training in terms of the right platform for today’s aircraft that we use, as opposed to the T38 was designed against the F100 series type aircraft — which the skills can translate, they just don’t translate as cleanly or as quickly as they otherwise would. So we’re partnering with the systems program office in the ways that we can to look for opportunities to push that forward. What we’re doing is identifying what’s required to keep pilot training on track, given the range of options with that particular platform. So we’re dialed in, we’re doing the risk assessment in terms of what the operational impact would be if it slips to the right or stays on time.
Ryan Evans: What’s your 2023 pilot training goal, and how do you plan to accomplish that?
Brian Robinson: So the goal is, don’t quote me on the number, but it’s about 1400, a little bit north of that, or is it south of that? Yeah, I was going to say 73. So 1470-ish right there. A little bit lower than what was the first round given to us. The challenges we’re having there is, like anything, there’s facts and assumptions in the programming variable that certain resourcing rates and levels are met. So we are doing the best we can with the resourcing levels that we have, in terms of manning weapon system sustainment, parts and supply, things of that nature. So that’s our goal. We’re going to achieve it the best we can, but I am a firm believer in understanding what it takes to get the yes. And so for example, if getting to yes with a certain level of resourcing requires six-day work weeks, I’m not a fan of that.
Now if we’re in a situation that’s urgent, so let’s say we’re in a fight with another peer where we have to produce pilots, that’s urgent. I’m on board with six, seven-day work weeks. We’re not there right now, so I don’t think we have that. So we’ll find that sweet spot that balances the quality of life for our airmen and their families and the quality of service for delivering the capability need for the nation. Now what I do there is, our job as a staff though is to articulate back to the people who make the decisions. Given these set of facts and assumptions and variables where they’re set, this is likely the outcome. And then we go from there. And that’s called risk to mission, risk to force, and risk to the strategy.
Ryan Evans: And this is my favorite question that was asked on one of these note cards, who is your hero, and why?
Brian Robinson: My hero, superhero or?
Ryan Evans: I just said “hero.” I think we meant to be a real-life person. No one from the Marvel universe.
Brian Robinson: Well, I’m going to go with Marvel anyway, but it’s Doctor Strange because I really like to work with the staff through a lot of coaching techniques. I like to be the guy that’s doing this and changing the dimension that we’re working in and then coming along.
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