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Research Questions

  1. How has the MCA initiative evolved, and what can the Air Force learn from MCA precedents?
  2. How do stakeholders perceive the MCA initiative?
  3. What are the key trends and lessons learned from wing-level MCA programs?
  4. How can new training technologies enhance MCA training?

Through the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) operational concept, the U.S. Air Force seeks to enhance the survivability and effectiveness of combat aircraft through a combination of dispersed basing, minimal footprint, and rapid and unpredictable movement. Under this concept, small teams of airmen are forward deployed to austere air bases to launch, recover, and maintain combat aircraft.

ACE presents two distinct labor problems. First, the concept hinges on a significant number of airmen operating from austere forward sites with little external support and under the near constant threat of enemy attack. Among airmen in most career fields, there is a shortage of the requisite advanced expeditionary skills for this mission. Second, the concept requires a small personnel footprint at dispersed locations to limit exposure to adversary attack, reduce logistical demand, and facilitate rapid movement. When adding up all the Air Force specialties needed to stand up, operate, and protect a forward site, team size quickly becomes unwieldy. The Air Force's nascent Multi-Capable Airmen (MCA) initiative represents a solution to both problems. 

This report documents the findings and recommendations from a study focused on helping the Air Force refine the MCA concept and identify next steps for developing an Air Force–wide approach. The report provides an overview of relevant policy and guidance around the MCA concept; presents stakeholder perspectives on MCA-related concepts, training, implementation, and deployment; presents case study analysis of lessons learned from five select MCA training efforts and related ACE exercises; and provides recommendations for next steps.

Key Findings

  • The value of MCA for ACE is derived from team employment, but the Air Force's current organizational construct for building and designating MCA centers on the individual.
  • There is tension between the idea of MCA as a broad shift in Air Force culture and the idea of a narrowly focused MCA for ACE operations.
  • Multi-skilling can degrade workforce effectiveness if overdone, and the benefits are contingent on the effective design and management of a multi-skilled team.
  • Stakeholders understand conceptually the links between MCA and ACE, but are unclear about what is new with the MCA initiative and are skeptical about its benefits.
  • Stakeholders have widely disparate views about how many airmen should be designated and trained as MCA and the level of proficiency that is needed.
  • Stakeholders see value in training MCA as teams and in deploying those teams from the same base or unit.
  • Wing-level MCA programs vary greatly. Across wings, there is no best MCA program, but different wings exhibit positive practices with potential for scaling.
  • Wings have solidified initial MCA training but conduct little sustainment training. Furthermore, they lack the means to evaluate and track MCA proficiency.
  • Wing-level MCA programs are constrained by a lack of resources and rely on the buy-in of local leadership.
  • Augmented reality is particularly well suited for training MCA; in contrast, computer-based training and virtual reality offer marginal benefit.
  • New technologies can aid the development of training content, assessment of proficiency, and performance of MCA tasks in day-to-day operations.


  • Establish a single office to lead and coordinate MCA efforts.
  • Build baseline workforce and funding requirements for wing-level MCA programs.
  • Continue to standardize MCA cross-utilization training tasks but also establish training standards and proficiency measures.
  • Formalize a team-based approach to the development and sustainment of MCA; award a Special Experience Identifier for training and experience on an MCA team.
  • Incorporate progressive goals for MCA within the Career Field Education and Training Plan; correspondingly, deemphasize MCA levels as an organizing construct.
  • Integrate lessons learned from wing-level MCA exercises into standard training plans.
  • Conduct cognitive task analysis of MCA skill sets and develop a model of skill set links.
  • Invest in AR training systems with dual use for performance support and prioritize training technologies that can measure and assess proficiency with a high degree of granularity.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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