The mission of the Air Force is to defend the United States through control and exploitation of air and space. The Air Force flies and maintains aircraft, such as long-range bombers, supersonic fighters, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, and many others, whenever and wherever necessary, to protect the interests of America and American allies. Almost 350,000 highly trained officers and airmen make up today's Air Force. Some pilot aircraft — everything from helicopters to the Space Shuttle. Many others do the jobs that support the Air Force's flying mission; they may work as firefighters, aircraft mechanics, security police, or air traffic controllers, or in many other Air Force career fields. The Air Force currently recruits about 30,000 to 35,000 men and women each year to fill openings in hundreds of challenging Air Force careers.
Applicants for enlistment in the Air Force must be in good health, possess good moral character, and make the minimum scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) required for Air Force enlistment. They must also be at least 18 years of age. (Individuals who are 17 years of age may enlist if they are married, have parental consent to enlist, or have been emancipated by the courts.)
Prior to taking the oath of enlistment, qualified applicants may be guaranteed either to receive training in a specific skill or to be assigned within a selected aptitude area. The Guaranteed Training Enlistment Program guarantees training and initial assignment in a specific job skill. The Aptitude Area Program guarantees classification into one of four aptitude areas (mechanical, administrative, general, or electronic); specific skills within these aptitude areas are selected during basic training.
After choosing one of these programs, applicants will enter the Delayed Entry Program (DEP). DEP enlistees become members of the Air Force Inactive Reserve with a delayed date for active-duty enlistment. They do not participate in any military activities or earn pay or benefits while in the DEP. The individual agrees to enter active duty on a certain date, and the Air Force agrees to accept him or her (if still qualified) and provide training and initial assignment in the aptitude area or job specified.
The Air Force provides two kinds of training to all enlistees: basic training and job training. Select candidates can also pursue a Management Training program explained below.
All Air Force Basic Military Training (BMT) is conducted at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas. BMT teaches enlistees how to adjust to military life, both physically and mentally, and promotes pride in being a member of the Air Force. It lasts approximately seven weeks and consists of academic instruction, confidence courses, physical conditioning, and marksmanship training. Trainees who enlist with an aptitude-area guarantee receive orientation and individual counseling to help choose a job specialty compatible with Air Force needs and with their aptitudes, education, civilian experience, and desires. After graduation from BMT, recruits receive job training in their assigned specialty.
All BMT graduates go directly to one of the Technical Training Centers (DoD or another Service) for formal, in-residence training. In-residence job training is conducted at Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi; Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas; Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, Texas; Goodfellow AFB, San Angelo, Texas; and several other locations nationwide. In formal classes and practice sessions, airmen learn the basic skills needed for the first assignment in their specialty.
Air Force training does not end with graduation from basic training and technical training school. After three months at their first permanent duty station, airmen begin on-the-job training (OJT). OJT is a two-part program consisting of self-study and supervised job performance. Airmen enroll in skill-related correspondence courses to gain broad knowledge of their Air Force job, and they study technical orders and directives to learn specific tasks they must perform. They also work daily with their trainers and supervisors who coach them during hands-on task performance. Through OJT, they develop the job skills needed to progress from apprentice airmen to skilled noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Airmen also complete advanced training and supplemental formal courses throughout their careers to increase their skills in using specific equipment or techniques.
In addition to becoming skilled in their specialties, Air Force airmen and NCOs are also leaders and supervisors. Schools in the professional military education (PME) system teach airmen and NCOs to be more effective in the operation of the Air Force. PME is a progressive system consisting of leadership schools for airmen, NCO academies for intermediate NCOs, and the Senior NCO Academy for selected Master Sergeants and Senior Master Sergeants. Through PME, airmen and NCOs develop management abilities that are valuable in any chosen career, military or civilian.
Typically, Airman Basic (pay grade E-1) is the initial enlisted grade. However, there are several programs available that may qualify individuals for enlistment at a higher initial grade. These programs include: successful completion of a Civil Air Patrol program and receipt of the Billy Mitchell, Amelia Earhart, or Carl Spaatz Award; successful completion of at least three years of a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program (any service); receipt of a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, or Girl Scout Gold Award; or completion of certain levels of course work at accredited colleges or universities.
Every job in the Air Force has a defined career path leading to supervisory positions. Airman Basic enlistees are normally promoted to Airman (E-2) upon completion of six months of service and to Airman First Class (E-3) after 16 months of service. Promotion to Senior Airman (E-4) usually occurs at the three-year point of service. However, some airmen qualify for accelerated promotion. Local Air Force recruiters have all the details on qualifications for accelerated promotions and advanced enlistment grades.
Promotions to the higher enlisted grades of Staff Sergeant (E-5), Technical Sergeant (E-6), Master Sergeant (E-7), and Senior and Chief Master Sergeant (E-8 and E-9) are competitive. Eligible airmen compete with others worldwide in the same grade and skill, based on test scores, performance ratings, decorations, and time in service and grade. All airmen receive a promotion score that shows how they stand in relation to others in their specialty and where improvement may be needed. Additionally, E-8 and E-9 candidates are reviewed by an evaluation board.
Chief Master Sergeants occupy the top enlisted grade, and they have great responsibility and prestige in the Air Force. They have the management ability to head several enlisted specialties related to their own skill, or they may be the top enlisted expert in a highly technical field.
Normally, enlisted airmen and commissioned officers advance along separate career fields. However, the Air Force offers three programs through which airmen can receive commissions: the Air Force ROTC Scholarship Commissioning Program, the Airman Education and Commissioning Program, and the Air Force Academy. The Air Force ROTC Scholarship Commissioning Program allows airmen to complete their college degrees and earn officer commissions through Air Force ROTC scholarships. If selected for the program, the individual is transferred from active duty into the Air Force Reserve, then attends college (at the same time enrolling in the college's Air Force ROTC program) for completion of degree requirements. This highly competitive program pays tuition, fees, and a monthly allowance.
Airmen can also apply for a commission as an Air Force officer under the Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP) or by acceptance to the United States Air Force Academy. Under AECP, enlisted personnel attend school full time and draw full pay and allowances. Enlisted personnel who possess bachelor's degrees or who complete degree requirements under AECP in areas of critical need may be accepted into the Officer Training School. They are commissioned upon graduation.
Each year, airmen on active duty and airmen serving in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard receive appointments to the Air Force Academy. There are 85 appointments available for active duty airmen and another 85 for those in the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard. All candidates are considered for admission on a competitive basis. Examination results and previous performance determine selection. Graduates from the Air Force Academy receive Bachelor of Science degrees and are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the active duty Air Force.
The Air Force has many education programs to help men and women pursue their educational goals while serving in the Air Force. These programs are in addition to veterans' educational benefits set up by the Federal Government for members of all services. All Air Force bases have education service centers, where trained counselors help airmen decide on a program or combination of programs and help them enroll. Some of these programs are:
Community College of the Air Force
The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) offers education programs directly related to Air Force specialties; graduates are awarded an associate degree. The college works with Air Force training schools, regional accrediting agencies, and hundreds of cooperating civilian colleges and universities. Since the technical nature of most Air Force courses places them on a level with college study, airmen earn fully recognized college credits for most of what they learn in job training and on-the-job training. They can combine those credits with attendance at off-duty courses from civilian colleges to earn a two-year accredited associate degree in applied sciences from CCAF. The college offers more than 80 fields of study, ranging from police science to environmental services technology. Registration is free, and CCAF establishes a special study program for each student. Professional, industrial, and governmental organizations that issue licenses and certifications and set standards for civilian work recognize Air Force training and education through CCAF.
The College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
This program allows airmen to receive credit for selected college courses by examination. The program is free, and education services centers maintain a current list of college tests available.
The Extension Course Institute
The Extension Course Institute (ECI) is the Air Force's correspondence school. It offers, free of charge, nearly 400 courses to some 250,000 students who register for ECI each year. These courses include everything from fundamentals of solid state devices to apprentice carpentry. Air Force personnel may voluntarily enroll in courses such as auto mechanics, plumbing, carpentry, or electrical wiring simply for background knowledge.
The Air Force will pay up to 100 percent of the tuition costs of most college courses. College programs are offered on all Air Force bases, with local college professors coming to the base at most installations.