MS&T Editor Marty Kauchak attended the August 22, 2023 US Air Force virtual media roundtable featuring Maj. Gen. Michele C. Edmondson, Commander, Second Air Force (2AF). The two-star general spoke to technical training transformation occurring across her portfolio. In the quest to achieve an overarching sixth generation (6th Gen) learning environment, the command is building a learning ecosystem incorporating VR/AR, AI, ML and other technology enablers, and competency-based learning into its programs. Industry business development teams and others in the defense learning community should also be attentive to some of evolving terms and concepts in the commander’s remarks.    

An extract of the commander’s wide-ranging comments is provided.

2AF Learning Enterprise Snapshot

It’s vital to understand 2AF’s challenges and opportunities to advance its training and education through the lens of its portfolio’s size – comparable to a major university or corporate training enterprise. On any given day, 2AF has a student load of about 16,000 students across 265 Air Force specialties attending technical training. The force further has more than 3,000 instructors, staff, military training instructors and commanders spread across 74 training locations.          


Maj. Gen. Michele C. Edmondson, Commander, Second Air Force Source: US Air Force 

Edmondson initially provided a candid status of 2AF technical training noting, “It is no secret that much of our enterprise has until recently remained similar to the typical classrooms, learning modalities and even the obsolete, legacy weapons systems that our generation learned with.” At the learner level, the Air Force has been taking recruits who have been digital natives their whole lives, and placing them into a “one-size-fits-all, 1980s learning environment and expected them to perform as we did, ignoring the fact they are different,” in terms of learning and other attributes. 

To transform and meet these and other challenges, 2AF no longer assumes that the legacy-era, analogue approach to learning is tailored to the digital environment in which future Air Force and Space Force personnel will operate and exploit the battlespace, and maintain materiel. 

One service strategy for moving into the digital environment is by way of 6th Gen technical training – building the overarching learning ecosystem that includes XR, AI, adjacent technology enablers, and synthetic environments to allow instructors to tailor training to each trainee’s learning pace. Edmondson noted a second effort to achieve the advanced learning environment is through competency-based learning rather than wrote-memorization of procedures and systems. “This should encourage innovation and provide a more solid foundation in their chosen career field.” 

A Holistic Systems Approach to 6th Generation Learning

The Air Force has an expanding tool kit with which to boost digital era training and education.

But first, it’s necessary to understand a few new terms that help explain the command’s learning transformation journey. Second Air Force is striking the heretofore popular and accepted term “pipeline” from the enterprise. Edmondson explained that when we think pipeline, we think one- size-fits-all. “Everyone enters the pipeline and flows at one pace and exits collectively with the same grouping that it entered the pipeline with. We want to get rid of that idea that everyone has to come in together, learn at exactly the same pace and then exit together.” Borrowing terminology from the academic community, the commander offered alternatives to the pipeline construct – learning or academic pathways. “This connotates there are different ways that people may go through the experience and it is no longer a one-size-fits-all. We’re looking at how we adapt those learning modalities. How do we adapt the different options. Modularization of the learning pathways gives people options in some ways as they go through. and also gives people opportunities, so that they don’t need to spend six months in a learning pathway because they come in with other skills and prerequisites. We can off-ramp them, advance them through the learning pathway and get them onto their operational assignment sooner.” 

Second Air Force is significantly working through the appropriate mix of learning technologies for courses on its journey to a 6th Gen learning environment. Edmondson initially pointed to the insertion of AR and VR into maintenance courses at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. Providing an attention-getting observation, the general officer added, “Everybody doesn’t love AR/VR to be honest with you,” and continued, “So we have to be cognizant of that. If you went there today into a classroom, you would find students have options. They can sit and use their tablets – every student is issued one upon arrival at the training course. They are in a classroom at their seats in a collaborative-type learning environment. They can complete interactive learning on that tablet.” On any given day, about one-half of students at Sheppard may rely on VR HMD-enabled learning, with the other half using their tablets – with both groups exposed to the same content.

The command’s learning transformation activities are integrating enablers beyond AR/VR and their adjacent technologies. “There are pretty strong examples of where we are using AI in some of our classes. Goodfellow [AFB, Texas], in our language training, is probably our best example. And there’s a lot more we think we can do in the future – there’s a lot of growth space there.” ML is a technology that 2AF “has not really scratched the surface yet, on what that can bring to the classroom environment. This is the next focus, after AI, that we’ll start focusing on,” the commander emphasized.              

Capturing Air Force Lessons Learned

Second Air Force is not going it alone on its effort to achieve its 6th Gen learning construct. The command has gained important lessons learned from other forward-leaning S&T programs that are relevant to other military training transformation activities. 

“We’ve spent a lot of time with 19th Air Force, as they learned so much as they went through their Pilot Training Transformation journey If possible, we didn’t want to repeat mistakes that were avoidable because of the things they learned and we wanted to capitalize on those lessons learned.”

The two-star general provided an important, yet surprising, “number one” lesson learned from 19th AF – faculty development. Edmondson explained 19AF did not learn this lesson early enough, “and it probably caused them some unnecessary problems. What their message to us was, you must develop your faculty and give them the skills that they need in the classroom to start to flip the classroom, change the learning modality, and be comfortable with the new technology so that they can start the change at their level.” A second vital lesson learned for faculty engagement was to gain their buy-in for change early on.             

More Opportunities to Help Achieve 6th Generation Training   

Maj. Gen. Edmondson additionally said 2AF’s journey to a 6th learning environment requires “partnering – to find the right people that can help us create the right environment,” as her service does not all of that required expertise.

At the top of the general’s list of how the simulation and training industry can further support this journey, was helping to create and replicate a training environment that “looks just like the operational environment that they will be in during their first duty assignment.” Indeed, Edmundson asserted it “was important the community walk away from the notion that our people create training that is different than the operational Air Force,” and emphasized, “The operational Air Force starts the day the recruit gets off the bus at Lackland [AFB. Texas]. We shouldn’t do anything in the training enterprise that doesn’t look like what they will see in the operational Air Force.” The service expects another outcome from this strategy – to provide the same training capabilities in service training commands and in operational units.

And then there is scalability, specifically, to reflect 2AF’s vision of not having “mixed solutions” that may be only used in one small part of a learning pathway in one of the service’s 265 disciplines. “We need to find materiel that we can scale across the enterprise. There has to be enough out there that is being used in the commercial world that we can use and apply across many, many of those different learning pathways. We can’t make niche investments – it’s just too expensive. We don’t have the money and we can’t and sustain and support those types of investments,” the commander said. Beyond those requirements is the need to integrate new materiel with current systems, learning management systems and others. “How do we host it? How do we get access to it? How do we make certain someone in Alaska can tie-in to the same system that someone in the Florida panhandle can?” To meet the commander’s expectations, there is the necessity to also use government networks for 6th Gen capabilities. “This is really, really important, to make sure the materiel that comes to us can be hosted on our government networks so we’re not creating these one-of-a-kind, special off-line capabilities that we can’t tie into an Air Force network and sustain,” she concluded.   

The 2AF commander said of AI, "And there’s a lot more we think we can do in the future – there’s a lot of growth space there.”  

Source: US Air Force