A Combat Systems Officer (CSO) is an aeronautically rated officer in the United States Air Force (USAF), having been previously known by the title Navigator. CSOs are responsible for in-flight air operations and aircraft mission/weapon systems, and is the new rated designation for Navigators, Electronic Warfare Officers, and Weapon Systems Officers who complete Undergraduate Combat Systems Officer Training (UCSOT) with the Air Education and Training Command's 479th Flying Training Group (479 FTG) at Naval Air Station Pensacola (NAS Pensacola), Florida.
Often the Mission Commander in USAF aircraft, the CSO manages the mission and integrates with the Aircraft Commander to collectively achieve and maintain situational awareness and mission effectiveness. CSOs are trained in navigation, the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, and weapon system employment. Aircrew responsibilities include mission planning, mission timing, weapons targeting and employment, threat reactions, aircraft communications, and hazard avoidance.
CSO training merges three previous USAF navigator training tracks formerly known as the Navigator (NAV) track, the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) track and the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) track into one coherent training cycle in order to produce an aeronautically rated officer who is more versatile. Parallel navigator and WSO training tracks ended in 2009.
In 2009, most Navigators still in an operational flying status, or due to rotate back to an operational flying assignment, transitioned to CSO. Under AFI 36-402, rated navigators who do not transition (those not CSOs) are not eligible for advanced CSO ratings.
The separation between CSO candidates previously attending Undergraduate Navigator Training with the 12th Flying Training Wing (12 FTW) at Randolph AFB until 2009, and those who attended a joint program with the U.S. Navy's Training Air Wing SIX (TRAWING 6) at NAS Pensacola, was in the type of operational USAF aircraft the candidates would later fly:
- Navigators that graduated from Randolph AFB were eventually assigned to C-130 airlift; KC-135 aerial refueling; AC-130 and MC-130 special operations; HC-130P combat search and rescue; WC-130J weather reconnaissance; OC-135/WC-135/RC-135 reconnaissance; EC-130H Compass Call, EC-130J Commando Solo, E-3 AWACS or E-8 J-STARS electronic warfare; or B-52 Stratofortress bomber duties. Navigators trained via this track were also assigned to fly the E-4, the VC-25, and until its 2001 retirement, the VC-137. However, these latter three aircraft were not direct entry positions for recent flight school gradautes and were/are crewed only by highly experienced navigators previously qualified in another aircraft.
- Navigators-cum-CSOs graduating from NAS Pensacola were assigned as Weapons Systems Officers in either the F-15E Strike Eagle strike fighter or B-1B Lancer bomber after follow-on EWO training at Randolph AFB.
With the establishment of the 479 FTG and UCSOT, the integrated training program with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps at TRAWING 6 was discontinued. However, despite the divergence of USAF CSO training from Student Naval Flight Officer (NFO) training, all CSOs for all USAF aircraft model design series (MDS) now receive their training at NAS Pensacola. While some extant USAF Model Design Series (MDS) aircraft, such as the pure airlift variant of the C-130E are being retired, and other MDS such as the KC-135R/T modified under the Pacer CRAG program and the pure airlift version C-130J have eliminated the Navigator/CSO position, all the other aforementioned extant MDS aircraft, as well as the HC-130J, MC-130J and WC-130J currently entering the inventory, continue to retain requirements for CSOs, thus ensuring the continued viability of the CSO career path.
Until its inactivation and closure in September 1993 due to Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) action, all USAF Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT) took place with the former 323rd Flying Training Wing at the former Mather AFB, California, utilizing the Boeing T-43A Bobcat aircraft. In October 1993, training then shifted to the 12th Flying Training Wing at Randolph AFB, Texas, continuing at that location through 2009.
Prior to its disestablishment at Randolph AFB, the 562d Flying Training Squadron of the 12th Flying Training Wing (12 FTW) was responsible for training inflight navigation with the Raytheon T-1A Jayhawk and Boeing T-43A Bobcat aircraft, while the 563d Flying Training Squadron taught electronic warfare in an academic and simulator environment. The 563d Flying Training Squadron also incorporated the T-43A Bobcat and the T-1A Jayhawk in advanced CSO training. The T-43A has since been retired and all T-1A CSO training aircraft transferred to the 479 FTG at NAS Pensacola.
From 1994 until late 2009, a portion of USAF undergraduate navigator training took place at NAS Pensacola, integrated with the US Navy's Student Naval Flight Officer program under the aegis of the colocated Training Air Wing SIX (TRAWING SIX). US Navy Training Squadron 4 (VT-4) and Training Squadron 10 (VT-10) conducted basic and intermediate flight training, initially the Raytheon T-34C Turbomentor until it was replaced by the T-6 Texan II, followed by training in the Raytheon T-1A Jayhawk and Rockwell T-39 Sabreliner. Training Squadron 86 (VT-86) then conducted advanced training in the T-39 and the Boeing T-45 Goshawk for Student Naval Flight Officers of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and numerous NATO/Allied and Coalition partner nations in addition to advanced USAF undergraduate navigator students destined for assignment as weapons systems officers (WSOs) in tactical aircraft. Prior to 2010, these USAF students destined for the F-15E Strike Eagle and the B-1B Lancer, as well as several USAF Navigator flight instructors, were also fully integrated into these squadrons, with command of one squadron, VT-10, rotating between a USN Commander who was a Naval Flight Officer and a USAF Lieutenant Colonel who was a Senior Navigator or Master Navigator.
Starting in the summer of 2010, all Air Force CSO students began attending training at NAS Pensacola as the training squadrons at Randolph AFB closed down in accordance with the 2005 BRAC Committee findings. CSO Students now fall under the 479th Flying Training Group with two training squadrons (451 FTS and 455 FTS) and one operations support squadron (479 OSS). Like the previous Navigator training squadrons at Randolph AFB, the 479 FTG and its subordinate squadrons also fall under the claimancy of the 12th Flying Training Wing (12 FTW) at Randolph AFB, albeit as a geographically separated unit (GSU) of the 12 FTW. The first CSO class (11-01) under the new syllabus started 5 May 2010, and graduated on 15 April 2011.
Upon completion of training, USAF CSOs receive basic Navigator/CSO wings. At seven years of aeronautically rated service, they become eligible for Senior CSO rating and at fifteen years Master CSO rating, although an effort is underway to rename the Master designation to Command CSO, standardizing same with their USAF Command Pilot counterparts. The rationale for this change is that USAF Navigators/CSOs now serve as aircraft mission commanders, and command operational combat flying squadrons, operational flying groups and operational flying wings in the same manner as their USAF Pilot counterparts. USAF Navigators-cum-Combat Systems Officers at the general officer level have also begun serving in positions of increasing responsibility at the major command and combatant command level.
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