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AFSOC: Missions Everywhere, All the Time, and a Revised Modernization Plan

Air Force Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel has maintained his command’s focus on the current mission, the people, and modernization. His current missions are in a significant state of flux, with the drawdown in Afghanistan, the growth of mission requirements in other theaters, and the changes in the numbers of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) aircraft assigned to each theater. The modernization plan of the AFSOC fleet of air machines has also seen significant adjustments to its numbers and future procurements due to economic realities in the national budget correspondingly affecting the Department of Defense’s (DoD) budget, and that of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

The primary work of the command remains warfighting. The battlefield airmen of AFSOC’s special tactics wings held their position as the most decorated of the year, a position the special tactics (ST) community has held since Sept. 11. Most of their missions entail working with the Special Forces A-Teams and Navy SEALs in the field and being on the ground with those forces they support, providing expert ability to call in air fires from above, medevac support, and medical care from the Pararescuemen, or PJs. The high demand for ST airmen since the war began has resulted in the 720th Special Tactics Group becoming part of the 24th Special Tactics Wing, along with the 724th Special Tactics Group and Special Tactics Training Squadron. Its first wing commander, Col. Robert Armfield, appeared on the Air Force’s promotion list to brigadier general. The growth of the career field and its operational engagement has therefore resulted in a taller pyramid of responsibilities and rank structure.

The aircraft of AFSOC have had their missions expand during 2013 as well. When asked which of AFSOC’s many missions would qualify as the mission of the year, both Fiel and his Director of Operations (A3) Brig. Gen. Mark Hicks, spoke of the attempted evacuation of Americans from South Sudan in December 2013. Hicks also said that the mission is AFSOC’s Mackay Trophy nominee for the most meritorious flight in the Air Force for that year.

The aircraft of AFSOC have had their missions expand during 2013 as well. When asked which of AFSOC’s many missions would qualify as the mission of the year, both Fiel and his Director of Operations (A3) Brig. Gen. Mark Hicks, spoke of the attempted evacuation of Americans from South Sudan in December 2013. Hicks also said that the mission is AFSOC’s Mackay Trophy nominee for the most meritorious flight in the Air Force for that year. Here’s the write-up, submitted by Col. Bill West, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW):

When civil war erupted throughout South Sudan in December 2013, the U.S. State Department ordered the evacuation of the U.S. embassy and American citizens from the region. On 20 December, approximately sixty American citizens sought shelter within the United Nations compound in the town of Bor. On 21 December, three CV-22s from the 8 ESOS [Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron] and two MC-130Ps from the 9 ESOS were launched from Djibouti. Their tasking was to cross the Ethiopian plateau and transit the 790 nautical miles (approximately the distance between Boston and Atlanta) to Bor, South Sudan, and evacuate the American citizens. As security for the evacuation, the CV-22s carried [21] special operations ground personnel. Pre-launch intelligence reports indicated large concentrations of armed anti-government personnel had surrounded the U.N. compound, but that they would allow evacuation of non-combatants via the adjacent airfield.

MC-12 Liberty Aircraft

361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron MC-12 Liberty aircraft prepare for operations on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2010. AFSOC will inherit 35 of Air Combat Command’s MC-12s, and will use them to replace its shorter-range, single-engine U-28s. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris

Other than unforecast weather during the air refueling, the flight to Bor was uneventful and the team of SOF airmen and ground forces arrived on schedule. Given the intelligence brief of the objective area and the fluid nature of the conflict, the ground force commander and CV-22 flight lead planned to assess the situation on the ground via overflight as part of their airfield traffic pattern entry procedures. The flight of three CV-22s made entry into the traffic pattern, identified the U.N. compound and noted the armed force surrounding the area. With no initial evidence of hostility, and acting on the diplomatically pre-arranged agreement with the warring factions to allow the evacuations, the flight turned and configured for landing.

As the CV-22s made the final turn to land, anti-government forces surrounding the U.N. compound opened fire on the formation with crew-served weapons and rocket propelled grenades, hitting all three aircraft. The flight lead immediately initiated evasive maneuvers and directed his flight to follow suit. In a matter of seconds, the three aircraft survived a combined 88 impacts. Once clear of the engagement zone, a battle damage assessment revealed that four of the special operations forces aboard the lead aircraft were wounded and two of the aircraft were heavily damaged and leaking fuel at an alarming rate. Three of the wounded were assessed to be in critical condition and required immediate medical attention.

With the nearest suitable medical facility over 400 miles away (Boston to D.C.), the air mission commander and CV-22 flight lead worked with the MC-130 crews to develop a hasty plan. The MC-130 aircraft would daisy chain with the CV-22 formation and provide near-continuous air-refueling enroute to Entebbe, Uganda, where medical personnel were alerted and standing by. With multiple systems failures in two of the CV-22s, the crews’ arduous training paid off as they kept the bullet-ridden aircraft aloft. The lead CV-22 would ultimately leak almost 8,000 pounds of the nearly 11,000 pounds of fuel they received from the MC-130P during the two-hour flight to Uganda.

The fact that two AFSOC generals first mentioned a flying mission that occurred in Africa tells us a great deal about the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan – it’s no longer center stage.

While the aircrews dealt with the aircraft, the special operations medical personnel aboard the lead CV-22 battled to save the lives of the wounded. Though three of the wounded were in relatively stable condition, one continued to deteriorate. Medical personnel determined that he would succumb to the wound of his upper femoral artery without an immediate blood transfusion. After the determination was made that the appropriate care was not available in Entebbe, the mission commander coordinated to transload the wounded to a C-17 immediately upon arrival.

Within minutes of the formation touching down in Entebbe, Air Force Pararescue personnel who had been aboard the second CV-22 administered lifesaving blood transfusions to the wounded as they were transferred to the C-17, which immediately departed and delivered the wounded to the trauma center in Nairobi, Kenya. All four of the wounded were later released from Nairobi. The American citizens in Bor were evacuated by U.S. assets the following day without further incident.

The fact that two AFSOC generals first mentioned a flying mission that occurred in Africa tells us a great deal about the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan – it’s no longer center stage. Part of the reason for this could be that the original question was qualified by the limitation that only unclassified missions can appear in a magazine article, but there is a buzz in the command that many of its aircraft and airmen are now free of constant rotations to and from the Middle East and are available for other theaters of operation.

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