Mission Ready Airmen: Hold my Flight Helmet While I Load These Pallets!

By COL JOHN B. KELLEY, AMC DIRECTOR OF SAFETY

One summer day in 1997, young Cadet Kelley, while visiting Ramstein Air Base, Germany, stood in the cargo yard looking at his newly issued U.S. Air Force Motor Vehicle Operator Identification Card. He had just earned his first qualification on U.S. Air Force equipment, a 10K Hyster powered industrial truck (forklift). Fast-forward eighteen years, Lt Col Kelley was standing in the Ground Transportation office jokingly attempting to check out a 10K with the same ID card. The wise Staff Sergeant behind the desk proceeded to raise one eyebrow and rightfully declared, “Not a chance, Sir!”

Why do I tell you this story? Because it illustrates some of the opportunities, and risks, inherent in the Mission Ready Airmen (MRA) concept (formerly Multi-Capable Airmen).

Let’s start with a description of MRA from Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Allvin’s The Case for Change: Mission Ready Airmen are “empowered members of small teams tasked with anticipating and solving complex, undefined problems under contested conditions.”1 In other words, Airmen are trained in skills outside their primary skillset to concentrate the team needed to generate combat power in austere and high threat areas. Many wings across Air Mobility Command have embraced the MRA concept, establishing initial training programs for skills in mission generation, command and control, and base operating support.

While the benefits are clear, there are new risks introduced with the concept. In a recent Rand study on MRA, the researchers noted the primary risk from the MRA concept was maintaining proficiency in secondary skills and tracking those qualifications across time and between units.2 Just as I would have needed refresher training before operating a forklift after eighteen years, Airmen with essential mission generation secondary skills must have regular recurrency training. Understanding how to balance training resources between primary and secondary skillsets is an essential element of MRA success for wings.

The second significant risk is one fundamental to human nature: we are terrible at estimating our own performance when we do not know much about the skill we are performing. In their very-readable paper on estimating one’s own performance, renowned social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrate how people invariably overestimate their abilities when they have a low skill level in an area.3 This means Airmen at the beginning of their secondary skill training will struggle to recognize their mistakes without the supervision of someone more skilled. While this may seem obvious to instructors and 7-levels, it is a risk we must mitigate as we begin to exercise small MRA teams in the field.

I can hear you say, “This is fascinating, but how does this help me make better decisions on and off duty as you promised in your first article?” First, when you start a new hobby or skills training, practice the activity frequently with a friend or mentor who is more skilled than you. They can point out mistakes you cannot see yet and speed your learning. Second, if you are revisiting an activity you haven’t practiced in a while, get some recurrency training. For example, take a refresher class before you hop on your motorcycle after a long break in riding. These techniques will help you identify and mitigate risks at home and on the job. Now excuse me, I have some forklift training to attend. Let’s go!

  1. Department of the Air Force, The Case for Change, Optimizing the Air Force for Great Power Competition, 11 February 2024. ↩︎
  2. Shawn Cochran et al., The Forces We Need: Building Multi-Capable Airmen to Enable Agile Combat Employment. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2023. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1746-1.html. ↩︎
  3. David Dunning, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 44 (2011), pp. 247–296. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6 ↩︎