Commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster gives his people three prime directives: to employ the force, to take care of AFSOC’s people, and to work on the future – to both recapitalize and modernize the AFSOC force structure. Wurster is known for keeping his focus and demands the same of his people: “I want you to work on the future for the command, not necessarily the things in your in-box. Most of the things in your in-box came from elsewhere and can often take up all of your time. Work most on the things AFSOC needs to get done. Put current warfighting, recapitalization, and transformation issues first; and work on moving those items into your out-box. Those things are our mission and our command’s future. Put most of your time into them and the things you need to do for others can have the time you have left over.”
AFSOC’s people have followed the commander’s intent throughout 2008. The clearest winner is the command’s future prospects for new aircraft and an eventual increase in capability to perform its missions around the world. While these advances foreshadow growth and greater versatility in special air support to special operations forces’ (SOF) missions, the constant demands of fighting the current wars have also gotten plenty of attention. AFSOC’s operations staff and AFSOC’s subordinate units have amassed a tremendous record of achievements in fighting the wars while winning noteworthy organizational and individual awards. AFSOC’s 2008 results make for a more visible, more robust, and real future while simultaneously achieving a very high-octane present.
REBUILDING THE FORCE
The year 2008 will long be remembered as a revolutionary paradigm shift, watershed, this-changes-everything year for Air Force SpecialOperations Command (AFSOC). The command’s efforts to recapitalize and modernize its aging and worn out fleet won approval and funding support from both the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) during this year. The unprecedented support of both parent commands has allowed AFSOC to move acquisition programs to earlier dates on the calendar. “Moving programs to the left [acceleration] instead of to the right [delays], has never happened before to AFSOC,” said AFSOC’s Deputy Director of Plans and Programs, or A5, Col. J.D. Clem.
Maj. Gen. Brad Heithold, the AFSOC A5 when interviewed and now commander, Air Force Intelligence, Survelliance and Reconnaissance Agency, credited first a strong sense of support of AFSOC’s missions and its needs for new aircraft by the command’s home service, the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force added more than $4 billion to AFSOC acquisition accounts over the next five years, completing most of the needed modernization and recapitalization of the command within that period. “The help we’re getting from the Air Force budget has made the difference in our re-scheduling of aircraft acquisitions. We have to give our parent service a lot of credit on this. SOCOM has also come through in helping get the light and medium-lift aircraft we need to support special operations where C-130 aircraft won’t fit, or create too much visibility of operations,” Heithold said.
On the schedule prior to 2008, it was going to take until 2020 for AFSOC to buy its 37 new MC-130Js to replace the more than 40-year-old fleet of MC-130E/Ps, old aircraft all produced in the Vietnam era. Now, those replacement and modernized C-130Js will be purchased by 2016 – thus providing capability four years earlier and allowing the older aircraft to be retired at approximately 50 years of age. Additionally, whereas the procurement of AFSOC’s 50 CV-22s was going to stretch out over 10 years, until 2017, now they will all be delivered by 2014. Most of those changes were done with USAF help. SOCOM has, on its side, budgeted to provide AFSOC, within five years, 35 of its planned non-standard aircraft – one- and two-engine aircraft better suited for remote and small airfield operations. With these new planes, AFSOC can expand its operational scope to many places in the world where C-130-sized aircraft are not suitable.
Perhaps the greatest support for modernizing the special operations air fleet came in the form of a programming shift by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, mandating that money be allocated from other budgets to buy up to 17 new fixed-wing gunships in AFSOC. As the current eight AC-130H and 17 AC-130U gunships are flying more than twice the expected wartime utilization rates, they are wearing down quickly and are in need of large-scale depot maintenance much earlier than programmed. AFSOC is working hard to ensure no loss in gunship coverage in the wars by procuring the new gunships. They are also determined to base the new ones on an aircraft type different from the C-130 – a move that would make gunships deployable and functional from a much larger set of airfields than is true today. Once selected for production, the new gunship is currently funded and scheduled to be combat capable in only two years, with all 17 being purchased and in some part of the delivery chain within the next four years – a rapid acquisition.
AFSOC staff members, quick to praise the “big Air Force” for its help on the acquisition schedule, also readily admit that the change originated with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ demands that the services emphasize irregular warfare (a rubric encompassing the core SOF missions of unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, stabilization operations, and combating terrorism), as much as conventional warfare. Gates’ order that the services provide equivalent emphasis in budgeting, doctrine, and education of irregular warfare-oriented forces as they do with preparing for future wars with peer nations has changed things the most. It was another strong argument for the Air Force to move money into AFSOC acquisition accounts (begun long before Gates relieved the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force for other reasons). All funds now in AFSOC’s acquisition programs count as Air Force support of irregular warfare forces. Taking advantage of the virtual windfall of help from the Air Force, SOCOM and AFSOC have cooperated to also provide the funds needed to add the SOF modifications for the new aircraft.
The additional aircraft and the expanded operating environments of global operations to counter terrorism and violent extremist groups mean that AFSOC will need more people who are trained and part of the special operations culture. While needs analysis indicates, according to the AFSOC A5, an increase of just 3,000 people, the Air Force and SOCOM have so far provided for about two-thirds of that, or just under 2,000 people. Also provided for is a new organization for indoctrination and training, the Air Force Special Operations Training Center (AFSOTC), headquartered at Hurlburt Field and conducting classroom and training events at all AFSOC units around the world. The AFSOTC will take on indoctrination training for all new AFSOC people and operational training for those in missions that have numbers too small to have formal schools in the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command. These would include any of the advanced skills training of the combat controllers, the training of combat aviation advisors who train partner nations in special air warfare, and aircrew training where there are too few aircraft to assign some to a formal Air Force school. (See article “Hero School.”)
EMPLOYING THE FORCE
Early in 2008, 1st Special Operations Wing Commander Col. Brad Webb traveled to Balad Air Base, Iraq. He took on temporary command of the Provisional Wing there for a little more than a month while the actual Provisional Wing commander, Col. Greg Lengyel, traveled to the United States to attend some meetings and take some leave. This “swap” gave the Hurlburt wing commander a brief chance to command much of his own wing while it was deployed and being employed in the war. Webb was slightly perturbed by the current method of deploying his airmen to the battlefront, which made him, the home wing commander, the only member of his wing of 6,000 people who was normally not deployable to go and fight the war. The exchange of time with Lengyel had partly solved Webb’s problem.
The swap out of the wing commanders is a small example of how the basic facts remain the same for Air Force Special Operations Command. It’s a relatively small command among Air Force major commands – about 13,000 people and 120 combat aircraft – and they’re continuously engaged in the wars. Also, AFSOC’s aircraft are arranged in small fleets of unique airplanes providing specialized air power to special operations missions, so its assets are in demand and must maintain continuous presence in current combat operations. Hence, many of AFSOC’s units must divide themselves up at the squadron level, keeping part of the squadron always at the front and part of the squadron at home to train and sustain normal life. Unlike the rest of the Air Force, which rotates among whole wings, with each wing getting more than a year at home before returning to the war on four-month rotations (many with the home wing commander going forward as well), the majority of AFSOC’s squadrons never completely redeploy home. So, small units of as few as 12 aircrews and eight aircraft conduct perpetual, simultaneous operations at home and in combat, and the AFSOC squadrons don’t rotate forward on a schedule – they never fully go home, and they never fully go forward.
This situation is now seven years old, and the results are strong concentrations of combat experience in the AFSOC units. These are expert maintainers and aircrews, ready for the execution of ever more complex missions. The crews of the MC-130E/H Combat Talons, while providing combat mobility and re-supply, know how to get through the weather, land on the dirt, and can get in and out of places other C-130 crews wouldn’t think of going. The MC-130P Combat Shadows carry fuel to helicopters through difficult canyons at low altitudes while also providing theater-wide mobility and support. Members of combat operations AFSOC special tactics teams are spread throughout SOF ground operations, providing air expertise and connectivity to close air support and rescue capability. Gunships over-watch it all, and on many nights shoot their entire munitions loads, emptying their magazines over battlefields where sizeable numbers of their enemies have come to die.
The men and women of Air Force special operations thus continue in the “Long War,” where persistent insurgents and terror networks create the need for AFSOC’s combat skills. AFSOC aircrews have amassed literally thousands of combat sorties from many austere and improved airfields. Often the aircraft have operated at or above the designed maximum weights and in sand that gets into everything, from hydraulic fluids to fuel to computer keyboards. The environment wears out the aircraft and puts stress on the subsystems. Keeping it all going means some people are doing a lot of hard work quickly and effectively. “Our maintainers continue to amaze us all,” Wurster said.
The most significant organizational award in AFSOC in 2008 has to be the Department of Defense Phoenix Award for the most outstanding large maintenance organization in the U.S. military. The winner of the award is the 1st Maintenance Group of the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Hurlburt Field, Fla. While winning this accolade, the Hurlburt maintainers supported combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq every day of the year, and were taking care of the oldest and most highly used fleet of aircraft in any wing’s inventory in the Air Force.
The DoD news release described the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Group’s work:
The 2008 winner of the Phoenix Award for field-level maintenance is the Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Maintenance Group, Hurlburt Field, Fla., which distinguished itself by accomplishing superior aircraft maintenance supporting the generation of 3,200 combat sorties that flew nearly 14,000 hours over hostile territory. Challenged with a $336 million modification program and the bed down of two new weapon systems at home, the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Group was able to generate 4,200 training sorties that produced more than 3,100 combat ready aircrews needed to fight the Global War on Terrorism. Despite an imposing operations tempo, maintenance personnel throughout the group still supported 65 off- and on-station training and exercise commitments highlighted by a revamped training program that saved 98,000 labor hours per year and accomplished more than 33,000 training events.
Their accomplishment is even more significant in light of the fact that AFSOC’s inventory is made up of aircraft most in need of recapitalization in the U.S. Air Force. The average aircraft in the Hurlburt wing is more than 30 years old, with many of the oldest being veterans of combat in Southeast Asia and more than 40 years old. Those older aircraft, the MC-130E Combat Talon I, the MC-130P Combat Shadows, the AC-130H Spectre gunships, and the MH-53M Pave Low helicopters, also saw the USAF’s highest utilization rates in combat operations. These aircraft represent the smallest number of each aircraft type in the smallest of the several unique fleets of aircraft in the U.S. Air Force, meaning they also had the smallest logistical support infrastructure for their support as well. “These aircraft require lots of hard work, leadership on the flight line, together with great knowledge of their systems, to keep them flying. Our people work tremendously hard and make great things happen – forward deployed at training exercises and at home station – every day. I can’t give them much rest and I only wish I could reward them as much as they truly deserve,” said Col. Pete Robicheaux, the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Group commander.
The aircrews naturally had their moments in the spotlight as well. The gunship squadrons from Hurlburt conducted combat missions every day of 2008. Sometimes these missions were no more than patrolling in case they were needed. They were airborne and ready and sometimes very much needed. Notably, Maj. Chad Bubanas won the 2008 Cheney Award for the USAF’s Most Meritorious Flight of the Year for an AC-130H gunship mission, flown during 2007 in Afghanistan, where he and his crew worked to help save the crew and passengers of a downed Army helicopter and also supported several special operations units on the ground. Other gunship crews, flying the AC-130U Spooky gunship over Iraq, helped Iraqi forces in the battle for Basrah, earning several Distinguished Flying Crosses and winning praise and thanks from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. The U-model gunship crews, in fact, accounted for almost a quarter of all the combat action medals awarded in the Air Force for 2008.
Modernization of AFSOC’s aircraft bore first fruits in operations, as did the new PC-12 airplanes (called nonstandard aircraft or NSAv – airplanes smaller than C-130s) of the 319th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). These aircraft provide SOF mobility to small fields and also provide other capabilities. They flew a total of 4,800 combat hours supporting ground forces that captured more than 1,500 insurgents in the combat zones.
AFSOC also grew its tactical mobility capabilities in the 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), N.M., which was only three months old at the beginning of 2008. The 27th SOW conducted the stand-up of a new squadron, the 318th SOS, with intermediate-sized NSAv (meaning two-engine) aircraft to provide mobility for special operations forces. Col. Tim Leahy, the wing commander, noted that it was only six months between stand-up of this new squadron, acquisition of leased aircraft, and its first deployment overseas to support SOF movements in combat zones.
Significantly, AFSOC people have created partnerships and networks internal and external to their command that provide a worldwide network of cooperation that, in turn, provides an Air Force team providing support to joint SOF operations. For instance, the 353rd Special Operations Group (SOG) in Okinawa provided the predeployment support and advance personnel to receive the first deployment of AFSOC’s newest aircraft, the NSAv aircraft, to provide mid-sized forward mobility support to ground operations in an area of the Pacific theater. The same function was performed by the 352nd SOG in Europe, helping pave the way for similar air operations in their theater. Wurster remarked that the use of the forward-deployed Special Operations Groups can facilitate joint SOF operations in forward areas, validating the wisdom of the SOCOM commander, Adm. Eric Olson, in his decision to cancel the proposed return of units to the continental United States (CONUS). According to Wurster, permanent forward presence, especially for the Air Force component of SOCOM, is the right way to go, as deployments always flow through airfields and the SOGs, with their Operations Support Squadrons (OSSs), will have the right mix of people and specialties to aid in deployments, shorten bed-down times, and enable rapid transition to operations whatever the mission of SOF forces might be: foreign internal defense and training of foreign forces, humanitarian relief after natural disasters, or complex combat operations. AFSOC’s overseas positioned Special Operations Groups have each illustrated this concept.
The 352nd SOG of Mildenhall, England, supported the wars with at least one aircraft and crew for 12 months of 2008. Since the group has only nine assigned aircraft, that’s a significant amount of its capability. Still, the group, under the command of Col. Brian Cutts, accomplished a singular mission in its own area, using two of its MC-130Ps to conduct a short-notice evacuation of non-combatants from Chad, taking in the SEALs for security and bringing out 140 evacuees, including the U.S. ambassador. Basing in Cameroon, the group was first into the country and remained engaged in humanitarian operations and embassy support for two months afterward, finally returning the ambassador when the danger had passed.
Later in the year and then under command of Col. Lewis Jordan, the SOG moved quickly to support European Command when Russia invaded Georgia, moving an assessment team into Tbilisi and standing by with aircraft on alert at another base to evacuate people, if necessary. The group also launched from alert to support a flight of rescue helicopters that saved a sailor from a ship 300 miles west of Ireland, near Iceland. The bad-weather mission necessitated multiple low-level air refueling below the clouds and only 500 feet above the ocean.
The 352nd SOG collaborated with the 1st SOW of Hurlburt on the first-ever operational deployment of the new AFSOC CV-22s during Exercise Flintlock. The four CV-22s set out to prove the concept of operations of tilt-rotor capability. They flew a total of 2,300 miles one way from Florida to the middle of the African continent in two days’ time. The self-deployment proved the worldwide mobility of the CV-22s, which were air-refueled across the Atlantic and into Africa by aircraft from Mildenhall. During the monthlong exercise, the Ospreys conducted numerous training sorties and mobility for African SOF. Throughout Exercise Flintlock and enabled with tanker support, the CV-22s accomplished special operations forces troop movements exceeding 600 nautical miles without dependence on runways.
Tim Brown, of the AFSOC Historian’s Office, pointed out that the CV-22 training mission in Mali, West Africa, corresponds to a mission of historical significance and is very similar to one conducted in 1961 to train Malian paratroopers. Hence, the first mission of the Osprey mirrors the first-ever Air Force special operations deployment to train another military – a good place to begin again.
The 352nd Group’s OSS, its MC-130s, and its medical people supported the deployment for four weeks, helping prove the longer-range operating concept of the new aircraft and also proving the need for forward-based AFSOC units to facilitate operations in forward theaters.
Similarly, on the other side of the world, the 353rd SOG at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, while even smaller than its European counterpart, has also acted as a forward-deployed unit and a support base for SOF operations. Besides participating in many Pacific Command special operations training exercises, the 353rd has provided continuous support to operations in the Philippines, including support of the first-ever deployment of the AFSOC PC-12s to the Pacific theater. The group provided continuous support to the operations in the Philippines with MC-130 aircraft and 353rd OSS staff.
Col. Dave Mullins, commander of the 353rd, said his group’s most newsworthy mission in 2008 “was the rescue of two injured Ukrainian mariners from a freighter located 850 miles north of Guam in September. A [1st] SOS Combat Talon II performed a zero-illumination drop of six personnel [one CCT and five PJs] following a five-hour flight. The jump team was a combination …” of SOG special tactics and rescue squadron personnel from Pacific Air Forces. The team performed 32 hours of medical treatment and CPR while the freighter sailed to the nearest port where the patients were transported by HH-60 to a hospital. The tremendous effort saved one of the two seamen.
In the vein of providing a staging base for joint SOF activity, AFSOC’s newly acquired base at Cannon AFB has expanded with the growth of the 27th Special Operations Wing, which this year received contingent aircraft to conduct operations and training. The wing has also prepared its base and training areas to afford SOCOM an excellent desert training area with the immense Melrose Air Force Range in eastern New Mexico. The 27th Wing, commanded by Col. Tim Leahy, has continued to transform the former fighter aircraft base into an Air Commando and SOF home base with its facilities and training areas well suited for joint desert training and providing air support for those operations. Also, the transformation of AFSOC into much more than some C-130 variants plus special tactics airmen is very apparent on the aircraft ramp. Preparations to house the AFSOC squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both Predators and Reapers, have progressed to the point of having received the first complement of people and now being ready to conduct forward area UAV operations from the operations center at Cannon AFB. The intelligence function has also been manned and is already conducting the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) functions required to properly use the information coming from the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-equipped UAVs flying those missions over the combat zones.
The 27th SOW also establishes a base for SOF training in a desert environment. The wing at Cannon hosted a number of joint training events. Together with ownership of a large desert training range for both ground movements and air-to-ground and ground-to-ground firing ranges, the wing provides support and opportunities for desert-environment training for all SOCOM components. In its first full year of AFSOC ownership, Cannon has hosted Navy and Marine component members in planning the expansion and uses of the Melrose Range. U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) also participated, and also conducted training events on the range, bringing some foreign partner forces for combined training events. USASOC held its Sergeants Major Conference at Cannon, using the range to demonstrate and test fire some new weapons.
Difficult, complex, unceasing operations were the story for AFSOC last year. AFSOC’s people proved equal to the tasks and seem to thrive when they have a lot to do. This year promises more of the same. Last year ended in a similar way to how it had begun. Concerning AFSOC recapitalization, the secretary of defense announced that although many Pentagon acquisition programs would be reduced or outright eliminated, a program area that would be fully funded is new SOF mobility platforms. Concerning AFSOC operators, Webb gave up command of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt. His replacement? Greg Lengyel, newly assigned back in the United States from his year in Iraq.