The Air Commandos

March 1, 2005

In the Global War on Terror, the nation’s lethal and secretive special operations forces have been giving the Pentagon what it desperately wants and needs—the power to find, track, and destroy small units of bad guys, and even a lone terrorist, and do it without a ripple of publicity.

The war on terror, in fact, shapes up as a campaign for which the Air Force’s SOF commandos are “particularly valuable,” said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

As a result, AFSOC will soon see increases in manpower, responsibilities, and equipment.

SOF airmen work in unusual ways, performing missions that differ greatly from those of conventional military forces. Combat controllers work on the ground, sometimes with Army forces, to coordinate air attacks against small or mobile targets. AC-130 gunship crews can devastate enemy forces even if they are close to friendly units. Pararescue jumpers (PJs) recover troops trapped in enemy territory. SOF helicopter and airlift crews secretly insert commandos and supplies into hostile areas and extract them after they have done their work.

Wooley noted that these air commandos also have the ability to pinpoint and track individuals, capture them alive, and search for critical intelligence. These capabilities are of paramount importance in a murky war against small, elusive groups of enemies who move back and forth over undefended borders.

Because of its value to the war on terror—a conflict that is not expected to end anytime soon—AFSOC is expanding. From a Total Force end strength of 12,466 SOF airmen in 2002, the command will grow to 21,580 in Fiscal 2006. (The expansion includes the addition of the combat search and rescue mission in 2003.)

The air commandos are “Ph.D.s in the ability to manage chaos,” said Col. O.G. Mannon, commander of the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt. Details of SOF operations are almost always held secret. However, a few aggregate numbers suggest the pace of activity in the Air Force community.

Heavy Usage

From September 2001 through November 2004, an average of more than 8,500 of AFSOC’s 20,000 air commandos were deployed to operating locations around the world for the war on terror. In that same period, SOF aircrews flew more than 11,000 combat sorties, performed more than 200 paratroop drops, and destroyed well more than 100 buildings and 100 vehicles, most of which were high-value or fleeting targets.

Capt. Paul Pendleton, an MC-130 Combat Talon navigator, pointed out that SOF are valuable because they “take higher risks to accomplish higher gain.”

The war on terror has unfolded amid numerous political sensitivities. Some nations supporting the US must do so covertly because their populations oppose cooperation with Washington. In the case of AFSOC, however, the problem is not so large. AFSOC is capable of working with coalition partners clandestinely.

“Often our AFSOC folks are working, … and no one even knows we’re in the country,” Wooley said.

Teams of air commandos over the years have built up highly advantageous overseas relationships, a fact that paid off in a big way after 9/11. At the time of the New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., attacks, members of AFSOC’s 6th Special Operations Squadron were in Uzbekistan undergoing language training. Their presence in that nation, and familiarity with key military officials, helped pave the way for use of Uzbek facilities for Operation Enduring Freedom in nearby Afghanistan.

The existing relationship allowed the US to set up—in four weeks—basing and overflight agreements with Uzbekistan that otherwise would have taken six months to finalize. This return on investment prompted Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, US Special Operations Command chief, to ask AFSOC to look into increasing the size of the 6th SOS. Wooley said that move may pay “huge dividends.”

AFSOC has been unable to reach its authorized manpower levels in recent years. Some of the battlefield airman career fields suffer from severe shortages. In early 2005, for example, AFSOC lacked 36 of its 300 authorized combat controllers. The command had only 54 percent of its 241 allotted positions for pararescuemen.

High wash-out rates among prospective commandos kept staffing low because it is “hard to get the right people,” according to CMSgt. Howard J. Mowry, AFSOC’s command chief master sergeant.

The staffing equation is improving. Mowry noted that training regimes have been adjusted so fewer prospective commandos are eliminated “right out of the chute.” In a break from past “sink or swim” training, AFSOC is working to ensure qualified candidates get through at least the first phase.

Some high-demand fields are expanding. Officials cite a projected gain of 101 pararescue jumper positions by 2010, and, with the training improvements, AFSOC anticipates adding 40 PJs a year until full staffing is reached.

Standards Stay High

Mowry said it is critical that AFSOC keep its standards high and that it avoid any push to arbitrarily increase the size of the command. “I don’t want a huge squadron of pararescuemen,” he noted. Wooley echoed that view. “The standards are the standards,” he said. “We have not lowered anything” to meet manpower goals.

Most battlefield airman career groups don’t need more “seats,” said Capt. Bo Birdwell of the AFSOC Commander’s Action Group. They need full staffing, something that should happen soon—for the first time in at least 20 years—Birdwell said.

In a small, highly trained community, retention is critical. Several officials said the close-knit nature of the SOF community is a major reason so many airmen stay with the command.

Airmen with the 16th SOW tell the story best.

Capt. Eric Nimke of the 16th Equipment Maintenance Squadron said his unit “always” has several aircraft deployed, and the low-level, high-speed mission profiles are hard on the aircraft. One of Nimke’s crew chiefs, A1C Joseph Massey, noted that when the helicopters break, they must be fixed immediately. This leads to long, unpredictable hours.

Capt. Kurt Dittrich, an AFSOC flight surgeon, has deployed seven times since 9/11. In a “bad year,” that added up to 225 days deployed. And Capt. Chris Goodyear, MH-53 pilot, was deployed 12 of the first 18 months he was based at Hurlburt.

Yet none of the operators interviewed expressed misgivings about the optempo. They say it is what they signed up for.

The 6th SOS, a combat aviation advisory unit, was recently in Colombia, training that nation’s air force in search and rescue and gunship operations. The squadron may soon head to Iraq to assist the nascent Iraqi Air Force.

Squadron members fly foreign nation aircraft, including the Soviet-built Mi-8 helicopter and older US aircraft such as the C-47 transport still in use by some countries. Until recently, even an An-2 Colt biplane was kept at Hurlburt, noted Capt. Thomas Knowles, squadron spokesman.

Mowry said AFSOC has “a different breed” of people, who are able to maintain a high level of morale even if deployed eight months a year. However, the Air Force has undertaken to smooth out SOF deployment schedules. The concern was that morale—and the force—would eventually “break” if a sustainable rhythm was not established.

Now a Warfighting Command

Special operations forces now sometimes take the lead in organizing, planning, and executing a combat operation, venturing far from its traditional role in support of the main force.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2002 decreed that US Special Operations Command would at times become a warfighting command. The shift means SOF units are no longer always “supporting” other commands.

In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, some conventional forces operating in the north of Iraq were put under the command of SOF units, said Col. O.G. Mannon, commander of the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Mannon, who served as the deputy commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s joint special operations force, said an airborne unit and other “conventional” troops worked “for SOF on the SOF campaign plan.”

The Special Forces-led “economy of force” action in the north tied down 13 Iraqi divisions, preventing those units from heading south to battle the primary coalition force.

Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, USSOCOM commander, has asked Air Force Special Operations Command to prepare to lead more missions in the future. The AFSOC commander must be ready to lead a joint task force, Wooley explained. He added that, in the future, an AFSOC commander may even be called on to be a joint force air component commander, or “air boss.”

Battle Rhythm

Mannon said the 16th “jumped from target to target to target” for three years after Sept. 11, 2001. The command worked to create focused training and a battle rhythm of rotations.

One aspect of AFSOC training provides an “outstanding” basis for what the commandos will encounter overseas, said Goodyear, the MH-53 pilot. AFSOC introduces stress. Stress can be generated, for example, by preparing for a mission and having it changed at the last minute. About the only thing that can’t be simulated at Hurlburt, he said, is the “brownout” visibility conditions that occur when a helicopter lands in Middle Eastern sand.

Because the air commandos are generally exempt from the standard Air and Space Expeditionary Force rotations, predictability has been a challenge. However, in 2004, new training and rotational policies finally kicked in and created a deployment rhythm that could be sustained.

Wooley said relief also has come by finding larger pools of special operations forces to perform some missions. One example involves the MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft being used in Afghanistan. Wooley said other aircraft and crews have begun to take on some of the infiltration and refueling tasks previously handled by MC-130s. That permits some of the SOF aircraft to return home.

Strengthening the corps of battlefield airmen—those who operate on the ground and fight alongside land forces—is an Air Force priority. The war in Afghanistan led directly to AFSOC’s battlefield airman initiatives.

First is the need to lighten the combat load the SOF airmen take into battle. Commandos supporting Operation Anaconda in March 2002 took 143 pounds of gear with them to altitudes above 10,000 feet, said TSgt. James Hotaling, a combat controller.

Speaking at the Air Force Association National Convention in September 2002, Hotaling called the load “completely unacceptable.” Battlefield airmen frequently carry more than 160 pounds of gear, with heavy batteries adding the most weight.

This problem is hard to solve. Wooley said AFSOC has “stated corporately” that it must cut in half the weight battlefield airmen take into combat—and double the capability of that gear.

AFSOC seeks lighter weights, longer-lasting power, and interchangeable batteries to reduce “distinct components” with unique power requirements. Battery technology is “a huge limiting factor,” said Wooley, but AFSOC is confident it can field a kit that meets the weight requirement.

For the battlefield airmen, “the human is the platform,” said Col. Tracey Goetz, AFSOC requirements director. In addition to cutting weight, a new Battlefield Airman Operations Kit is being developed to increase capabilities. It includes a laptop computer able to quickly communicate with distant forces, receive intelligence, and coordinate attacks.

On the upside, Hotaling praised the work of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle in Afghanistan. “The Predator was actually my point man” during Anaconda, he said.

AFSOC is now the lead agency for developing small UAVs (defined as anything smaller than the Predator). Last year, about 150 small surveillance UAVs were in service, and the goal is to eventually get a tactical UAV to every battlefield airman. Wooley noted the miniature UAVs now used by combat controllers provide intelligence up to three miles ahead. That allows targets to be tracked or targeted “before a firefight has the opportunity to break out.”

Building Rescue and Recovery

During Operation Allied Force, the NATO air war in the Balkans, two USAF fighters were shot down. Their pilots were rescued not by dedicated combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces, but by special operations forces that performed rescues as a side mission. Primary rescue responsibility shifted from Air Combat Command to Air Force Special Operations Command in October 2003. (See “CSAR, Under New Management,” August 2003, p. 84.)

The primary Air Force CSAR helicopter is the HH-60 Pave Hawk, rapidly nearing the end of its service life. Along with responsibility for the CSAR mission, AFSOC also inherited the means—the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody AFB, Ga., and the fleet of Pave Hawks and HC-130s used for CSAR refueling.

AFSOC chief Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley calls rescue a “perfect fit” for the command. In one example, ACC rescue forces worked with AFSOC in June 2002, when an MC-130 crashed in Afghanistan.

Two HH-60s headed out to rescue survivors. En route, “aircrews received reports of 30 to 40 Taliban … operating in the area,” Wooley recounted last year. At the crash site, an AC-130 “provided overhead cover while the two helicopters landed,” he said.

In brownout conditions, with “the flaming wreckage of the airplane” wreaking havoc on night vision goggles, the HH-60s set down and recovered the seven survivors. AFSOC’s TSgt. Sean M. Corlew and SSgt. Anissa A. Shero and Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Peter Tycz II died in the MC-130 crash.

While CSAR still belonged to ACC, an analysis determined the 105 HH-60s should be replaced by 132 larger helicopters, fielded around 2011.

AFSOC needs to field the next generation capability sooner, said Col. Tracey Goetz, the command’s requirements chief. There have been “enough significant changes” in strategy to justify another look at the requirement, he told Air Force Magazine.

Some of the HH-60s already surpass their 7,000-hour service lives.

Priority No. 1 is avoiding another service life extension for the HH-60s, which have “pretty significant capability shortfalls we need to fix,” Goetz said.

Wooley said AFSOC is “constantly looking for ways” to accelerate the next generation Personnel Recovery Vehicle program, to achieve initial operational capability as soon as 2009.

A system could be fielded quickly because, unlike the ground-up development of the CV-22, the new PRV will be an off-the-shelf purchase, modified for SOF use.

Scarce Systems

AFSOC owns a handful of each of its aircraft types. With such small numbers of aircraft, in numerous configurations, the Air Force special operators don’t have much equipment depth. The equipment is often essentially hand-built for a mission. For example, the primary helicopter for pickup and delivery of commandos is the MH-53. AFSOC owns only 32 of them.

The EC-130 Commando Solo operated by the Air National Guard to conduct psychological operations is heavily tasked every time a new operation kicks off. Eight aircraft will be in the inventory—once a conversion to new EC-130Js is complete.

The AC-130U, AFSOC’s advanced gunship, is a fearsome weapon based on converted Hercules transports. The command owns just 13 of them, though.

Since the high demand for SOF capabilities is not expected to let up, DOD plans call for an overall expansion. Modernization will replace many aging systems with larger numbers of advanced replacements.

The highest-profile acquisition is the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, replacing the Vietnam-era MH-53 for commando infiltration and pickup missions. Officials say that, though the Pave Lows are still effective, it is increasingly difficult to keep them ready for use.

Plans call for 32 MH-53s to be completely retired by 2012, replaced by CV-22s. AFSOC will retire its MH-53s faster than it can bring the CV-22s on line. That will create a rotorcraft shortage from 2011 through 2014—assuming the CV-22’s acquisition remains on schedule. That is a big “if.”

On the plus side, the CV-22 offers “a real cross [mission] capability,” Goetz said. The ability to take off and land like a helicopter but fly with the speed and range of a prop aircraft promises an entirely new set of operational concepts and will greatly increase the number of missions that can be performed in a single night.

The CV-22 may assume some missions now performed by both the MH-53 and MC-130 Combat Talon, Goetz said. AFSOC “looks to that to take some of the load off” the overburdened MC-130 fleet. Also in the works is an upgrade to AFSOC’s MC-130H aircraft, adding the aerial refueling capability available on other Combat Talon variants. Currently, USAF also has 10 additional MC-130Hs on order.

“We need more air refueling capability right now,” one official said.

Gunships are also getting some improvements. Walking around an AC-130U, one sees a collection of technology ranging from World War II-era guns to the modern video monitors for UAV feeds. The ability to receive live video feeds from Predator, however, has been an operational bonanza. The gunships continue to get rave reviews from ground forces for their ability to safely perform “danger-close CAS”—close air support against targets so close to friendlies that fratricide is a concern.

The command’s 21 existing gunships (both AC-130H and U models) will grow to 25 aircraft by Fiscal 2006. Four new AC-130Us will have an updated gun configuration. In addition to the massive 105 mm howitzer, they will feature twin 30 mm guns, instead of the 25 mm and 40 mm weapons currently employed. Obtaining parts for the ancient 40 mm Bofors cannon has simply become a logistical nightmare.

AFSOC also seeks a next generation gunship. The command is worried that a C-130-based platform cannot work forever. Gunships are slow and difficult to protect. Goetz noted that they primarily fly at night, at a set altitude, and attack with a series of left turns. Therefore, they are generally restricted to low-threat environments.

AFSOC would like a future system to be stealthy and armed with missiles or perhaps lasers. It could be 2030 before such a system is on the ramp.