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Back to Basics

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Kathleen McCool
  • Second Air Force

As we begin 2023, our Second Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Michele Edmondson, charged us to get “Back to Basics” in our development of the Airmen the Air Force needs.

This may seem to contradict the Chief of Staff’s imperative that we “Accelerate Change or Lose”.  Although these two concepts may appear in opposition, meaningful change does not require complete abandonment of all that came before. While changing we must retain continuity in some aspects of military custom, tradition, and culture. Included in that is drill.

The absolute first thing an Airman learns is the position of Attention.  Airmen master this first military drill movement then use it every day as a demonstration of discipline, whether honoring our flag at retreat or preparing for the commander’s entrance into a room. Drill and ceremonies are one of the most basic skills we learn on our journey to becoming an Airman. This teaches us to be part of a team and standardizes our responses to orders and outside stimuli.

As our Air Force modernizes and adapts to fight future wars, our training must change and evolve to deliver effective warfighters to the force. I have been asked many times if drill still matters. Is something introduced to the American military during the late 1700’s still relevant to our modern 21st century American military? 

It’s a question worth pondering as we determine training priorities and develop foundational competencies for our Airmen.  Agile Combat Employment, Multi-Capable Airmen, and advanced technology are driving the Air Force to change. Is drill simply leftover from a time that no longer exists? It’s helpful to understand where drill originated and why it was created.

According to “The Prussian Nobleman Who Helped Save the American Revolution,” drill and ceremonies were introduced at Valley Forge in 1778 when Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer was appointed by General Washington to help instill discipline in the Continental Army. 

Von Steuben was shocked by what he discovered, an undisciplined military without uniformity.  Regiment sizes were not regulated, and each officer taught drill differently, creating confusion amongst the troops. Von Steuben noted in a letter to a fellow Prussian officer comparing European soldiers, “who do what you say, when you say it,” to American soldiers, who want to know “why.”  Von Steuben saw drill as an opportunity to teach American soldiers how to respond to commands without hesitation while developing pride and discipline among the company.

Those watching the improved Continental Army execute drill commands were also impressed with the display of military precision. The following year, Von Steuben wrote the U.S. Army’s first field manual, The Regulation for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. This field manual remained unchanged for several decades and many of the same movements are being taught to military members today.

I recall my first days as a new Military Training Instructor at BMT, learning how to give commands instead of just following them.  I struggled distinguishing my left foot from my right.  It was frustrating but it was a challenge I had to overcome.  I made it my mission to not only learn, but excel at, individual and transitory drill. In the beginning I stumbled a lot, but as I honed this skill my pride and self-confidence increased. 

I gained something greater than the ability to effectively execute drill, I gained the knowledge that, with practice and dedication one can accomplish something that seemed impossible. Beyond having to learn the skills myself, I had to teach them to future Airmen who needed to move in unison, become a team, and develop military discipline.

Teaching individual drill movements to new trainees was hard.  Teaching transitory drill and moving 60 trainees in unison from one point to another was harder.  In my three years of leading flights, not a single flight arrived with the innate ability to collectively execute drill movements.

 As I taught drill and tailored my instruction to meet the flight’s deficiencies, I watched their pride and self-confidence grow. The trainees visibly began to show pride in themselves and their unit and saw it as a demonstration of their abilities. Every flight strove for excellence at retreat and parade.  They wanted to demonstrate their precision to family and friends, and, more importantly, we wanted to demonstrate to our nation and our world that we were a disciplined, elite fighting-force.

Drill is not simply about learning to execute customs and courtesies nor is it just about moving from point-A to point-B. As we introduce Agile Combat Employment and Multi-Capable Airmen concepts, we do so with the understanding certain Air Force specialties will use those concepts to a greater extent. Drill, however, can transcend all specialties, and while challenging, has been honed over centuries to develop to a level of difficulty that can still be mastered sufficiently by basic trainees.  Drill and ceremonies are used to instill discipline and is a teaching mechanism that resonates across the spectrum of Air Force specialties.  The Air Force mission and the mission of each operational skillset requires elements of standardization, discipline, and teamwork.  These concepts are introduced in Basic Military Training and although many methods are used to teach and evaluate them, only drill provides the necessary element of unity. 

In drill, Airmen are required to perform with precision and in unison.  Any deviation from this has immediate and transparent effects on the unit. This creates a unique teaching moment. When a command is given and not precisely executed in unison with the team’s objective or mission, the consequences are immediate and visible. In operational terms, failure to execute direct commands can have catastrophic consequences.

We are the most powerful Air Force and Space Force in the world.  We are preparing to engage enemies who wish us harm and we are respected around the world for our enlisted corps. Part of this earned respect, and our ability to retain an all-volunteer military, is the foundation of a sharp, disciplined force. Drill has formed this foundation since Baron Von Steuben introduced it to our forebears in 1778. Prioritizing this skill is part of getting “Back to Basics”.

Smithsonian Magazine: “The Prussian Nobleman Who Helped Save the American Revolution, Erick Trickey, April 26, 2017