Cover: Training Success for U.S. Air Force Special Operations and Combat Support Specialties

Training Success for U.S. Air Force Special Operations and Combat Support Specialties

An Analysis of Recruiting, Screening, and Development Processes

Published May 15, 2018

by Maria C. Lytell, Sean Robson, David Schulker, Tracy C. Krueger, Miriam Matthews, Louis T. Mariano, Albert A. Robbert


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Research Questions

  1. What factors are associated with training attrition in select Air Force HDHA specialties?
  2. What, if any, are the gaps in recruiting and screening candidates to enter these select HDHA specialties?
  3. What methods should the Air Force consider using to recruit, screen, and develop candidates for these select HDHA specialties?

The U.S. Air Force's special operations and combat support specialties in the enlisted force are among the highest in demand by the service yet have persistently high rates of attrition in their initial skills training, which is called "technical training" in the Air Force. These high-demand, high-attrition (HDHA) specialties include Combat Control; Explosive Ordnance Disposal; Pararescue; Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape; Special Operations Weather Team; and Tactical Air Control Party. The Air Force has conducted or sponsored several efforts to address training attrition in these specialties over the past several years, yet training attrition remains high. The reasons for high training attrition are interrelated, with size and quality of the recruiting pool, utility of screening tools, and training environment factors all playing a role.

This report addresses the broader challenges for implementing new approaches to HDHA specialty recruiting, screening, and development of Air Force candidates, and takes a holistic approach to identifying methods and tools to fill gaps in current processes.

Key Findings


  • Statistical modeling of existing screening measures shows that fitness (i.e., Physical Ability and Stamina Test scores) and cognitive ability (i.e., Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery scores) meaningfully relate to training success for these Air Force specialties.
  • A new fitness course could be cost-effective if physical fitness gains identified in our specific model scenarios (regarding course attendance and course length) are met.


  • Recruiting gaps for HDHA specialties may include student awareness of specialty's mission and training requirements, recruiter knowledge and incentive to recruit high-quality candidates, unrealistic recruiting quotas, and structure of field developer concept.


  • Factors other than those available in existing administrative data (e.g., Basic Water Skills Test) could add to the prediction of training attrition.
  • We identified three screening methods for the Air Force to consider: biographical data (biodata) inventories (e.g., a set of questions about applicant's previous experiences and behaviors); structured interviews (e.g., interviews that involve application of predetermined rules for questions, observations, and evaluations); and assessment or selection course (e.g., standardized evaluation of behavior based on multiple techniques and trained observers to assess multiple knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics [KSAOs]). Each of these screening methods is promising because each one can measure multiple KSAOs (versatile), has been previously used in HDHA specialties outside the Air Force (relevant), and has been linked to job success (valid).



  • The battlefield airmen training group should consider hiring a researcher to integrate studies on BA recruiting, screening, and training, and coordinate future efforts at reform.


  • Consider strategies to improve physical readiness of HDHA-specialty candidates, such as developing a fitness course after basic military training (BMT), providing more physical training during BMT for HDHA-specialty candidates, and placing candidates into different classes based on their current fitness levels.


  • Balance marketing efforts to attract recruits with information that provides a realistic job preview. Providing additional information during the recruiting process that is not only designed to attract recruits but is also balanced with accurate information about the training demands may help raise awareness of the specialty or the training requirements.
  • Explore opportunities to expand in-service recruiting efforts.
  • Establish an incentive structure that rewards recruiters when HDHA-specialty candidates succeed in the initial course of entry.
  • Expand the battlefield airmen training group concept to include a recruitment element.


  • Consider two courses of action for HDHA specialty screening: (1) develop a biodata inventory and structured interview protocol to measure candidate motivation and (2) develop a 2–3-day selection course at the end of BMT for final screening.
  • Consider a training readiness index to rank order recruits for HDHA specialty training seats. Also examine the role of personality measures, upgrades to the PAST, and benefits of a water skills test for screening HDHA specialty candidates.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Vice Commander, Air Education and Training Command (AETC/CV) and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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