News Branch Air Force

Air Force Combat Controllers might scrap dive school during training pipeline

Trainees will continue in the current pipeline, which includes dive training, while training officials review the impact of that change.
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air force combat controller combat diver training
A U.S. Air Force diving student approaches the surface while his instructors observe him during underwater training at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Fla., Aug. 3, 2017. Both pararescue and combat control Airmen get their dive training at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center. (Sr. Airman Cody R. Miller/U.S. Air Force).

Future Air Force Combat Controllers may soon be skipping a major portion of their traditional training pipeline, forgoing the chance to earn a combat diver “scuba bubble.”

Air Force Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind requested the “removal of Combat Dive” from the CCT training pipeline in a June memo to Air Force training officials. The cut in training would affect three Air Force jobs: enlisted Combat Control candidates, or CCTs; Special Tactics Officers, or STOs — a CCT position held by officers; and Special Reconnaissance troops, surveillance experts who train and operate with CCTs on Air Force Special Tactics teams.

AFSOC officials confirmed to Task & Purpose that the memo, which surfaced on social media as an apparent picture of a computer screen, was authentic and represented a possible shift in the pipeline for the Air Force’s highly-trained Special Tactics corps.

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Trainees will continue in the current pipeline, which includes dive training, while training officials review the impact of that change, according to Lt. Col. Rebecca L. Heyse, an AFSOC spokesperson.

“Today every CCT that shows up [at their first unit], they’ve gone to dive school,” Heyse told Task & Purpose. “We’re still in the analysis phase and we don’t know what’s changing yet. In the future, the CCT that shows up may not have gone to dive school.”

Impact on Combat Controllers

When deployed, CCTs and STOs are typically attached to special operations teams from other services, calling in airstrikes and handling other air-to-ground coordination. Special Reconnaissance troops provide advanced surveillance and preparation of an objective.

The memo asks the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, or AETC, which oversees all training schools across the Air Force, to revise its “initial qualification” requirements for all three jobs, and to make dive school a “post initial-qualification training.”

The Air Force breaks down all of its jobs, from special operators to mechanics and admin troops, into qualification levels: A “3-level” is a new graduate of a training pipeline ready for their first unit, while a “5-level” and “7-level” are experienced, fully qualified troops. Completing dive school is currently a requirement for 3-level qualification for Combat Controllers.

Bauernfeind’s memo did not say if combat dive school would be moved to a 5-level requirement — as it has been in the past for CCTs — or if it might become an option, following in line with the Army’s approach to combat divers. The Army maintains a Special Forces dive school in Key West, but it is not mandatory for most special operations soldiers.

“We are continuing analysis for requirements and training of Combat Dive as a special qualification,” Bauernfeind wrote in the memo.

Though Bauernfeind is the AFSOC commander, it would be up to AETC officials to officially change the training pipeline, a process that normally requires a consensus of senior training officials from around the career field.

It is not clear if that consensus exists.

The removal of dive school from the Combat Control pipeline would be the latest in a series of major changes to the training pipeline of the Air Force’s special operations troops in the last decade, as CCT officials adapted to the demands of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the mid-2010s, Air Force special operators have revised every element of its pipeline, from physical fitness requirements to the length and nature of initial selection courses.

But dive training has been a staple of Air Force special operations training for at least four decades, connecting generations of CCT, Pararescue, and other specialized troops that the Air Force now refers to as Special Warfare Airmen.

Officials at Air Combat Command, which oversees the training pipeline for Pararescue students, did not immediately return a question from Task & Purpose on whether dive training was on the chopping block for that job.

Combat diver qualification

Across all four services, combat diver training covers a wide range of underwater operations, including search dives underneath massive ships in a harbor, “locking” in and out of submarines, and infiltration swims in which a platoon-sized team swims together underwater for miles to sneak onto a beach. The training usually starts with a week or more of training in a pool, then moves on to open ocean diving. Earning a “scuba bubble,” as combat dive badges are known, is widely considered one of the toughest training curricula in the military.

In the current pipeline, Air Force Special Warfare candidates attend the Air Force Combat Dive Course in Panama City, Florida, which the Air Force opened in 2006. Prior to the Panama City course, CCTs and other Air Force special operations students picked up combat dive training at schools run by the Army or Marines or joined a Navy SEAL class for the dive-focused portion of their training.

Combat diver training holds an outsized spot in the psyche of Air Force special operations. The first step for both Combat Controllers and Pararescueman in training has long been intensive selection courses which have historically eliminated as much as 80% of recruits (though, like most special operations qualifying courses, that number has varied widely up and down over time). While selective positions in other services, like the Army’s Special Forces and the Navy’s SEALs, have similarly high drop-out rates in training, when Combat Controllers and Pararescue operators look back on their most formative and miserable training, they generally recall hours spent in dive-focused “water confidence” training.

In a grueling daily ritual, and under varying degrees of harassment from instructors, students swim underwater laps in a pool and perform complicated underwater drills that tax their lungs and, over time, mental strength.

Air Force officials have long maintained that the purpose of those drills was not sheer attrition but to prepare students to succeed at combat dive school. Over a decade ago, CCT trainers reduced the length of the initial selection course and added a specific Special Warfare Pre-Dive Course just before attending the Florida dive school.

In his memo asking to remove dive school from the training, Bauernfeind said students will continue to attend the pre-dive course.

While dive school might be a right of passage for Combat Controllers, the Army has long taken a different approach. Army special operators who attend the Combat Diver Qualification Course in Key West, Florida — mostly Special Forces and Rangers — usually do so as a mid-career pit stop, and only if they are already top performers. Completing the course might qualify a soldier for assignment to a dive team in their home unit, but many special operators never go.

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