Weapons Patch. A distinction earned only after graduating from the U.S. Air Force’s Weapons School, one of the most academically rigorous schoolhouses in the world teaching graduate-level courses in weapons and tactics employment.
Tech. Sgt. Ryan Colon, a 114th Space Control Squadron weapons instructor or “Patch,” not only earned the esteemed title of weapons patch but also became the first enlisted Airman in the Air National Guard to graduate from the Space Warfighter Advanced Instructor Course.
The challenging, highly competitive course is open to only the highest performing enlisted and officer candidates across all components of the U.S. Air and Space Forces.
Interested candidates must attain unit and wing commander endorsement and attend a week-long trial period to get a feel for the rigorous academic schedule. During that time, candidates learn traditional space core knowledge and test daily. They receive a report card recommending what to study and when to apply for the course. With only two courses per year, students must compete for very few seats.
Colon applied three times before he was accepted for the first course of 2022. He attended a month-long preparatory course at Peterson Space Force Base, Colo., followed by five months at the U.S. Space Force 328th Weapons Squadron in the USAF’s Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
There, he shuffled into a demanding cycle of testing, studying, mission planning, debriefing and writing graduate-level papers. For students, a typical day begins at 5 a.m. studying for the morning exam, eight to nine hours of classroom academics, and more studying at night for the next morning’s exam. The academic demands left minimal time for leisure.
“It was one of the most stressful periods of my life, to be honest,” said Colon. “No one is ever truly prepared for Weapons School, and I think that’s kind of the point. It’s challenging for everyone, even the best of the best. Resiliency is key to making it through that course and getting to the final stage of being a humble, credible, approachable weapons officer.”
The weapons officer’s motto is to be humble, credible and approachable. Students face a mountain of hurdles to achieve those virtues, he said.
According to Colon, if students don’t score at least 80% after two tests, they must endure a 90-minute question-and-answer session with the commander of the Weapons School for all material covered up until the point of failure.
“It’s a real test of your knowledge and willpower to remain in the course,” he said.
After struggling with some of the academics, Colon found his stride during the missions portions of the course, where he studied some of the toughest real-world problems faced by the Department of Defense. He earned the Missions Award as the student who excelled the most on mission planning, problem-solving and debriefing.
“We were able to run through a road to war, which is kind like an intel brief,” he said. “We were given a list of capabilities to use to solve a problem and had to determine how to win that fight with just the information we knew from intel. The most rewarding part was finding out whether that plan worked.”
Now, as a graduate of the Weapons School, Colon dons the distinct Weapons Patch on his uniform, designed with a red arrow pointed to a bull’s-eye. Graduates bear the mark of a master tactician and return to the field as one of the few who have the brass to orchestrate solutions for the air and space domain’s most challenging problems.
“When senior officers or key leaders see that patch, they know that’s someone they can go to for their toughest problems,” said Colon.
At the 114th SPCS, Colon acts as the unit’s chief instructor – an instructor of instructors – building, teaching and leading the future generation of space warfighters. He also serves as the commander’s expert problem-solver.
He’s developing advanced training programs and exercises to test Airmen’s ability to attack near-peer adversaries and respond to adversaries in a contested, degraded environment.
“Our squadron has a warfighting mission with a real demand for expert instructors who can form mission-ready electromagnetic warfare officers into expert tacticians,” said Lt. Col. Scott McGuire, 114th SPCS commander. “Ryan is an electromagnetic warfare expert and can speak in depth about every Space Force capability. We have a need for humble and credible leaders who will ensure our squadron can adapt and learn faster than any adversary. Ryan was the right person to fill that need.”
Colon’s responsibilities will extend beyond his unit with the expectation to lead and set the example for electromagnetic warfare operators across the Air and Space Force continuum, said McGuire.
“He is expected to integrate and establish close relationships with the other space units in the Air National Guard and active-duty,” said McGuire. “He should also inspire our team to expand the performance envelope of our system with mission enhancements and game-changing tactics.”
Beyond his academic achievements, Colon brings a progressive mindset to preparing Airmen for the war fight in space, said McGuire.
“Ryan is comfortable challenging the status quo, legacy thinking, and old-school processes,” said McGuire. “He knows that we can’t fight our system like we have in the past. Now that he is back from the AIC course, he is going to make us a more lethal force and credible threat.”