Air Commandos: USAF’s Contribution to Counterinsurgency

Dec. 20, 2011

“This is another type of war, new in its intensity, an­cient in its origin—war by guerrillas, subversives, in­surgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by coin-bat. . . . It requires . . . where we must counter it . . . if freedom is to be saved, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.

—PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY

WEST POINT, JUNE 6, 1962

Hurlburt Field, Fla.

If there is any question that the US Air Force will be given authority to expand its Air Commando forces to 5,000 men during fiscal year 1963, in accordance with President Kennedy’s determination to improve the nation’s guerrilla warfare capabilities, no such doubts are apparent here at headquarters of USAF’s Special Air Warfare Center.

The mission of SAWC and its Air Commandos, representing the Air Force’s contribution to the nation’s growing counterinsurgency forces, is to train themselves and our allies in employing aircraft to wage or oppose guerrilla warfare. In practice, this calls for the Air Commandos to work closely with elements of the Army, particularly the Army’s Special Forces (see “USAF Polishes Its New COIN,” June ’62 AIR FORCE).

Gen. Walter C. Sweeney, Commander of the Tactical Air Command of which SAWC is a part, and Brig. Gilbert L. Pritchard, SAWC Commander, have just returned from South Vietnam, where an Air Commando detachment has been training South Vietnamese since last November.

They have completed plans to accommodate a six-fold increase in SAWC strength here at Hurlburt Field, an auxiliary to Eglin Air Force Base. Hurlburt was transferred to TAC on July 1 from the Air Defense Command, which operates a Bomarc test facility here.

The Air Force has placed before the Department of Defense its proposal to spend $65 million for the expansion, along with aircraft, communications gear, and other equipment.

DoD is considering this proposal, together with those from the Army and Navy for their counterinsurgency operations.

As is customary when such decisions are pending, interservice arguments have appeared in the press. Marine Corps adherents are protesting that neither the Army nor the Air Force knows the counterinsurgency business; the Marines, they say, are prepared as always to handle the assignment.

Some Army sources insist counterinsurgency should be their exclusive province, citing their extensive experience originating with forest skirmishes against British redcoats in the Revolution.

But airpower has added a vital new dimension to unconventional warfare, as the Air Force demonstrated in World War II. It conceived and operated highly successful Air Commando units supporting Wingate in Burma and MacArthur in the Pacific.

An Army faction, centered on Fort Rucker, Ala., the Army’s Aviation school, is campaigning for the Army Special Forces to acquire their own aircraft. It has been hinted that an Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, convened at Fort Bragg, N. C., in June under Lt. Gen. Hamilton H. Howze to develop new concepts in Army aviation, might go even further and recommend an end to the Army’s partnership with the Tactical Air Command in favor of providing its own air support.

It is unlikely that the board could arrive at such a recommendation for it would not be favorably received even by the Army staff. The marriage of joint air-ground combat operations achieved in the formation of the US Strike Command, under Army leadership, is already proving a happy success. And within this partnership, the Army’s Special Forces and the Air Com­mandos comprise a compatible subordinate team.

The eagerness of all services to tackle the problems of counterinsurgency should disturb Americans far less than the Communists who—stymied in more direct forms of aggression—are turning to this old-new form of conflict to sustain their dreams of world conquest. In turn, our allies who are, or may be, threatened with guerrilla war can take heart that out of these initial exchanges among the services will grow the teamwork to overcome insurgency without diluting our existing deterrent to global or limited war.

Under General Pritchard’s command are the 1st Air Commando Group, led by Col. Chester A. Jack, and the Combat Applications Group, headed by Col. Ben­jamin H. King. On July 1 the Center added Hurlburt’s support personnel from ADC, now the 4420th Combat Support Group with 900 men under Col. Oscar G. Johnson. Total strength of the Center now stands at about 1,800 men, of whom 800 are in the Group.

The Group includes the 6th Fighter Squadron, com­manded by Maj. William W. McDannel, 319th Troop Carrier Squadron, under Lt. Col. Richard N. Broughton, and 1st Air Materiel Squadron (Commando), led by Maj. Homa B. Stillwell. The Group flies North Amer­ican’s three-bladed Navy-configured T-28, the Helio L-28, the Douglas B-26, and Curtiss C-46 and Doug­las C-47 transports.

The Group expects to add another transport squad­ron of Fairchild C-123s during the year and go to a strength of about 1,400 men. Presumably, the proposed increase in the Center’s strength and equipment will enable General Pritchard to organize another Com­mando Group, plus beefing up other elements of his command.

Air Commando training embraces such tactics as night and day airdrops, strange field and sod strip operations, low-level navigation, and weapons delivery —napalm, rocketry, skip bombing, and strafing. The key objective is rapid reaction.

“Guerrillas must concentrate to attack,” General Pritchard explained. “If we can hit them whenever they concentrate, and deliver reinforcements to cut off their escape, it becomes unprofitable for them to con­centrate, and their efforts are dissipated.”

The ultimate objective of counterinsurgency forces, paralleling that of all our armed forces, is to deter guerrilla warfare. This they hope to achieve by training allied military forces in the techniques of counter­insurgency.

Men of the 1st Air Commando Group have already seen service on three continents, though the Group has been in existence barely more than a year. Since November they have flown as instructors in the same cockpits with South Vietnamese airmen opposing Viet Cong guerrillas. The detachment there is currently commanded by Lt. Col. Gene Mueller. Last September, a detachment under Capt. Thomas C. McEwen, Jr., flew two C-47s from Eglin to the Republic of Mali (formerly French West Africa), via Newfoundland and the Azores, to join with Army experts in training Mali paratroopers. A third detachment, led by Lt. Col. Bob Gleason, is now in Panama preparing to teach Air Com­mando tactics to Latin Americans.

To those accustomed to thinking of the Air Force in big numbers—in planes, men, and money—the Air Com­mandos are a distinct change. Captain McEwen’s Mali task group, for example, numbered only seventeen men. There are some 140 Air Commandos in South Vietnam, flying fewer planes than you’ll find in a normal fighter squadron. The Latin American contingent departed with sixty men and ten planes, but is expected to grow to 600 men and forty planes in the next year.

The Commando Group carries on the history and spirit of the Air Force’s 1st Air Commando Group of World War II. That unit was conceived by General Hap Arnold, wartime commander of the Army Air Forces, to work with Brigadier Orde C. Wingate and his Burma raiders in 1944. The group was commanded by Col. Phil Cochran (cartoonist Milt Caniff’s “Flip Corkin”), with Col. John R. Alison as his deputy.

Alison, a Reserve major general, President of the Air Force Association in 1954-55, and now a member of AFA’s Board of Directors, visited the Commando Group at Hurlburt in June.

“It was General Arnold’s idea that Wingate could be supported entirely by air, freeing him from restric­tive supply lines,” Alison recalled. “He told us, ‘I don’t want Wingate’s men to walk,’ and left us to work out tactics. We flew them where they wanted to go, re­supplied them by air, picked them up when they called for us, and helped keep the Japanese off their backs with bomber and fighter strikes. We were also the first to use helicopters in combat. With this kind of mobility, Wingate’s 12,000 men were able to frustrate the objec­tive of a substantially larger Japanese force.”

The mission of today’s Air Commandos is closely re­lated to that of their World War II predecessors. But General Alison pointed out one major difference. “In Burma,” he said, “we were the guerrillas, always on the offensive. Today’s emphasis, as in Vietnam, is on counterguerrilla warfare. In that respect, the job today is much tougher.”

General Pritchard and his staff work closely with Maj. Gen. William R. Yarborough, who commands the Army Special Forces from Fort Bragg, N. C.

“My job is to make sure General Yarborough’s men have everything they need in the way of air support,” General Pritchard said.

The two groups perform frequent joint exercises, developing and refining guerrilla and counterguerrilla tactics. This month they are teaming up in Swift Strike II, the year’s biggest air-ground maneuvers, to harass both sides in the exercise.

They are also closely allied in South Vietnam. But, while South Vietnam presents a classic example of a particularly dirty guerrilla and counterguerrilla war, it does not represent a true indication of US counterinsurgency capabilities, in the air or on the ground.

US forces are there to train and advise, not to fight. While Americans sometimes get shot at and shoot back, it is the South Vietnamese who pick the targets and order the strikes.

The South Vietnamese Air Force, under Vietnamese Army control, is equipped with T-28s and AD-6s and C-47 transport planes. Corps commanders of South Vietnamese ground forces in the field may each draw a specified number of fighter planes for use as he sees fit. The remaining fighters are available to a Joint Operations Center, in contact with each corps headquarters and Vietnamese air bases.

While corps commanders have authority to direct air strikes in their areas of responsibility, the JOC cannot call for strikes without specific approval in each instance from the South Vietnamese general staff. This precaution makes sense in the fluid South Vietnamese situation where it is often impossible from the air to distinguish friend from foe, and one mistake in picking the right target could seriously set back the government’s effort. This double-check becomes particularly frustrating when the average guerrilla firefight may last no more than fifteen to thirty minutes. Often before the strike is approved and planes can reach the area, the guerrillas have faded back into the landscape.

Numerous ways have been suggested to overcome this dilemma, most of them dependent on swift and accurate communications. Unfortunately, such commu­nications have been lacking, although improvements are being made.

One way to lick this kind of problem might be to outfit a C-47 as an airborne command post, with all kinds of communications—even loud speakers. Put the JOC team in the plane, with fighters on air alert. When an attack report comes in, the JOC heads for the area, verifies the situation, and directs the fighters to the target.

The men mainly responsible for developing such new techniques for USAF Air Commandos are Colonel King and his Combat Applications Group.

Colonel King was the first officer named to organize Air Force counterinsurgency operations when Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, USAF Chief of Staff, set up the “Jungle Jim” project early in 1961. King headed the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron—predecessor to the 1st Air Commando Group, with Colonel Jack as his deputy. Last October, Colonel King made a quick visit to South Vietnam, returned to put together a detachm­ent, and led it back to Vietnam in November. After his return, in April he was appointed Commander of the Combat Applications Group.

His group performs two major functions—developing and testing operational techniques, and directing a “quick and dirty” development program. Their main concern right now is to overcome deficiencies uncov­ered in South Vietnam—mainly in reconnaissance, com­munications, armament, and aircraft performance.

Reconnaissance is a particularly knotty problem. The jungle is covered with a dense canopy that effec­tively screens anything going on below. Anticamoufiage and infrared photography are of little value, because the Viet Cong seldom uses anything but hand weapons and travels mainly on foot. Its few supply concentra­tions are hidden in underground tunnels or caves.

Capt. Robert L. Block, who recently returned to Hurlburt from a South Vietnam tour as an instructor in photo interpretation, said one procedure the South Vietnamese employed was to prepare photo mosaics of an entire area, then reshoot sections periodically to see what changes might have occurred.

“This kind of interpretation is best done by men familiar with the region,” he said. “Knowing the coun­try and the people, they can often find significant de­tails we might overlook.”

Road reconnaissance offers some clues to guerrilla actions. Sometimes, when the guerrillas plan a raid, they gouge huge holes in road surfaces to slow up South Vietnamese reinforcements. The holes are a clear tipoff. Sometimes the South Vietnamese can respond in time.

General Pritchard pointed out that many of the problems in South Vietnam are typical of those Air Com­mandos might face in other regions.

“We’re looking for ideas, and any kind of hardware that might help us. If someone came along with an oil drill rig he thought might help, we’d give it a try.”

The Combat Applications Group sets one key limita­tion on its development function—any hardware that looks promising must be adaptable to the Commando mission within ninety clays.

“If it will take longer than three months to make it work,” General Pritchard remarked, “it’s a job for the Systems Command. We don’t have the experts to handle a long-term development program.”

One discovery the Air Commandos made in South Vietnam is that, unlike helicopters, fighter and recon­naissance planes seldom encounter ground fire, and have met with no air opposition.

“Guerrillas don’t fire because it would give away their position,” General Pritchard explained. “Accord­ingly, we expect to operate in a permissive air environ­ment. When counterair shows up, we’ll call in TAC’s fighters, for it has turned into another kind of war.”

The main objective of the Air Commandos, General Pritchard emphasized, is the same as that of all our armed forces—to doter war rather than to fight.

“We are learning a lot in South Vietnam. And, in time, the South Vietnamese will defeat the Viet Cong. But our operation in Panama gives us a fresh start in developing our real mission.

“By helping to train Latin American forces in coun­terinsurgency—along with our other government efforts there, like the Alliance for Progress—we can wipe out conditions that make guerrilla warfare possible.”

What does it take to be an Air Commando

Captain McEwen, who led the Mali detachment, went into Air Force pilot training after graduating from the Naval Academy in 1952. While flying RB-47 missions from Japan, he practiced judo with such con­centration and skill that he was awarded an expert’s black belt in less than two years.

In Mali, which recently gained independence from France, McEwen and his men regarded themselves as unofficial ambassadors for America and democracy, and mixed with the local population at every opportunity. The detachment played volleyball and basketball with Malians. McEwen joined the judo club in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and found himself its ranking expert. Although he had no previous jump training, he made two jumps with his Mali students.

Now back at Hurlburt, McEwen spends an hour be­fore each work day teaching judo to other Air Com­mandos. He will go to Fort Benning for jump training in August, and on to South Vietnam early this fall.

SSgt. Richard N. Darco, 30, is an intelligence spe­cialist in Air Commando Group headquarters. A de­scendent of Chippewa Indians, Darco quit high school after two years and worked in a variety of jobs, includ­ing longshoreman, welder, and cabinetmaker. When he trimmed off the ends of two fingers in a power-saw mishap, he decided to join the Air Force. Now in his third enlistment, Darco was a photo lab technician in a tactical reconnaissance squadron in Japan when he applied for Air Commando training. Meanwhile, he applied himself in off-duty classes to gain a diploma and now is working toward a degree through USAFI and on-base courses. In his spare time he helps run the Group’s recreational program. Like Captain McEwen, he is preparing for jump school.

“We look for versatility in all our people,” said Darco’s boss, Maj. Charles Dewees, the Group intelligence officer. “But Darco carries it to the extreme. We haven’t found anything he can’t do. If there were, he wouldn’t admit it. He’d go out and learn how.”

To meet the planned expansion to 5,000 men this year, Air Force has issued a call for more Commando volunteers. A change to AFM 35-11 distributed to all commands lists preferred qualifications, but anyone who is genuinely interested and in good physical condition is urged to apply. The Air Force’s 5BX training program is the criterion for physical stamina.

Let’s assume you are applying for Commando training. Your first screening is at your present base, for your unit commander must agree you appear fit and qualified for the training to follow. If you’re accepted, you are ordered to Hurlburt.

There you are given written and oral psychological tests to evaluate your character, stability, initiative, and drive. If you get by this screening, you go to Stead AFB, Nev., for a three-week course where, besides being subjected to the type of physical and mental pressures you might face if you were captured, you learn to spend a week in mountainous country, living on whatever edibles you can hunt, fish, or dig up.

By the time you finish the Stead course and return to Hurlburt, nearly half of those who volunteered with you will have been weeded out.

There is no “normal” Commando tour, but, because the duty is strenuous and may be hazardous, an individual may “de-volunteer” at any time.

“There are various reasons why a man might choose to leave the Group,” Colonel Jack said. “His physical condition might change, or his family situation might affect his readiness to go overseas on short notice. In such cases we ask TAC to assign him elsewhere in the command, without prejudice. He’s still a better man for the training he’s received.”

To keep in shape, Air Commandos report an before the workday begins for PT and a mile run. Concurrently you may take instruction in judo and karate. During your workday you will be cross-trained in other military specialties so you can fill in for other members of your team. The ultimate objective of Air Commando training is to build up your strength, resourcefulness, and confidence to overcome any obstacle.

What’s the result

“We’ve got the highest morale I’ve ever seen in any Air Force outfit,” said Lt. Col. Miles M. Doyle, Deputy Group Commander. “It takes something of an egotist to apply for this group. When you add to that the confidence and stamina acquired by making the grade, you’ve got a group of men who are ready for anything.

“It proves once again that Americans welcome hard, challenging work when they know they’re doing something worthwhile.”

ALERT TO THE DANGER

“. . . The whole government, under the personal leader­ship of the President, has turned with extraordinary vigor to the problem of learning how to prevent or to deal with the techniques of subversion and guerrilla warfare, on which the international Communist movement places such high hopes for the 1960s. This problem—long given rela­tively low priority—is now being attacked by the best military and civilian minds in the government.

“In Vietnam we are working with the South Viet­namese to help them defeat the guerrilla war which has been imposed by the North, and to get the North Viet­namese elements back where they belong—north of the seventeenth parallel. Here we have made progress. A sit­uation of the greatest and most immediate danger has been converted into one which is much more hopeful than it was even six months ago, but the road ahead may be long and hard….

“The danger of Cuban intervention in Latin America has been diminished by our own actions and the actions we have taken through the Organization of American States at the Punta del Este conference last January. The hemisphere is now alert to the danger of subversion and guerrilla warfare, and it is in a position to move together if the threat should become real.”

—Walt W. Rostow, Counsellor to the Dept. of State and Chairman of its Policy Planning Council.

COLLEGE-LEVEL COUNTERINSURGENCY

The Special Air Warfare Center represents only one measure of USAF’s growing attention to counterinsurgency warfare. In July, the Air University conducted the first of a proposed series of two-week courses on the subject for 250 senior Air Force officers worldwide.

Col. Jack Barry of the Air University, who with a four-man staff developed the curriculum in less than three months, explained its purpose:

“Because it’s apparent that the US and our allies will be faced with potential insurgency situations in many parts of the world,” he said, “Air Force people should recognize the conditions that breed insurgency and the resources we can employ to prevent or overcome it.”

Lecturers for the July course came from the top drawer of government, the Air Force, and the education world. They included:

William P. Bundy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of De­fense for International Security Affairs; George K. Tanham, Assistant to the President of RAND Corporation and author of Communist Revolutionary Warfare: The Vietminh in Indochina; Gen. Emmett O’Donnell, PACAF Commander; U. Alexis Johnson, Deputy Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs; Maj. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, USMC, Special Assistant to the Director, Joint Staff, for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities; Maj. Gen. William B. Rosson, Special Assistant to the Army Chief of Staff for Special Warfare; Dr. Jan. Karski of George­town University, veteran of the Polish underground in World War II; John Morrison, Chief of CIA’s School of International Communism; Brig. Gen. Jamie Gough, USAF’s Deputy Director of Operations; Brig. Gen. Adriel N. Williams, Deputy Director for Policy to DCS/Plans, Hq. USAF, and Col. Ben King of the Special Air War­fare Center.