Health and safety precautions during the pandemic have led the Air Force to eliminate parts of basic training. But some military observers question whether the changes are leaving airmen unprepared for duty.
Some elements of basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland are the same as they've always been. New airmen wake up at the crack of dawn for physical training, eat silently in the chow hall, wend their way through challenge courses, and stare ahead stony-faced as drill sergeants scream orders.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Air Force has had to modify or remove some of its usual training events. Basic training was shortened by a week, and elements like drill, hand-to-hand combat, casualty care, and survival skills were cut back.
"We always say, 'Flexibility is the key to airpower.' That's really been a true statement," said Tech Sgt. Alexandra Springman, a military training instructor. "We have definitely had to adjust."
Social distancing requirements have also forced changes to BEAST, or basic expeditionary airman skills training. Under normal circumstances, recruits spend nearly a week in a simulated warzone environment, setting up camp and reviewing combat lessons and procedures they've learned.
As part of that, trainees normally are exposed to tear gas, and they practice putting on protective equipment. But because the gas masks can't be properly sanitized between uses, that activity is now off-limits.
Training sticks and boxing gear are also difficult to clean, and hand-to-hand combat techniques bring trainees into close proximity. So trainees don't get to practice striking techniques and grappling with one another.
Combat casualty care has changed, too. Trainees now have to use dummies to practice applying tourniquets and bandages, which used to do with one another.
"That does not provide even close to that real world application," Springman said. "While it's pretty easy to apply a tourniquet on a dummy, you can't know if you're actually putting the tourniquet on tight enough and cutting off that circulation, cutting off that blood supply."
Though Springman and other military training instructors understand the need to keep airmen safe, they still wish they could teach them more.
"We do feel kind of robbed in the sense of not being able to complete all those additional training objectives that enhanced training, because sometimes those are the things that the trainees remember," Springman said.
With new health and safety guidelines coming down all the time, both trainees and instructors have had to roll with the punches.
"You just got to go into it with the attitude of 'I'm not here to know exactly what's going to be happening, I'm here to be trained,'" said linguist Zachary Maples, who finished basic military training in November. "Having that mindset kept the stress of change kind of to a minimum."
Air Force leaders say the upheaval in basic training won't affect readiness. Col. Rockie Wilson, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland, said basic training is supposed to work as an orientation to the military, not a final lesson.
He said there'll be other opportunities down the road, like during an airman's vocational training or before combat deployments.
"They get all that…when they get to their home station anyway," Wilson said. "Especially if they're going to deploy into contingency."
But critics argue that curtailing basic training is a problem. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center For Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, DC, said traditional military training helps teach airmen about hardship and teamwork. Without that, they might not be mentally prepared for what's next, he said.
"The kinds of things that they've had to cut out...are the military skills, the warrior skills that let people know that they are now in a very different kind of environment," Cancian said. "It makes it a little harder for someone arriving at a unit to accept the sacrifices that might be entailed in service in the field."
Though he doesn't necessarily see a national security threat associated with the change, he said it may create some lag.
"I would say that it makes the force a bit more fragile, and there is a bit more risk as it takes time for these new airmen to get acculturated."
At Lackland, Col. Wilson said he and other basic military training administrators are trying to teach recruits more about the Air Force's history and values. But he admits the pandemic has been a valuable lesson in and of itself.
"This has been a wonderful readiness training, and it's not an exercise. It's real," Wilson said. "So if we can beat COVID, then we can beat any competitor around the world. We know that."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.