Reflecting on his time in Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Headquarters, Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster reminisced about one of the first staff meetings he chaired at the time he was a major general and the new vice commander of the Air Force component of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). It was the spring of 2006.
He had been listening to a briefing on the plans for shutting down and retiring the last squadron of AFSOC’s helicopters, a requirement from the recent board of directors’ (Component Commanders) meeting at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. This would be the culmination of force reductions, begun in 1996 and forced on the Air Force component of SOCOM, to close down a total of six of its flying squadrons. Incidentally, Wurster had been the wing commander of AFSOC’s largest wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., when its MH-60 squadron had been inactivated in 1999. To accomplish this, Wurster had to pull them out of combat in Serbia, where they had accomplished the rescue of two fighter pilots while under fire. In essence, Air Force Special Operations Command had been shrinking for 10 years, a process that had only barely slowed after 9/11. Other briefings scheduled for that day would involve how to maintain the various C-130s in the command, many of which were more than 40 years old. Wurster was looking at a command on life support, and he decided it needed a transfusion.
“What have you people at this headquarters been doing for the last five years?” he asked. “We need a plan to provide specialized air power to the country’s special operations forces, [SOF] and the truth right now is that we do not have one.” He walked the staff through aircraft availability numbers and saw that AFSOC could provide only about 12 C-130s and six helicopters for deployment to the combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That’s not enough, and we don’t have realistic plans to increase it,” he said. “Let me tell you what I think we should be doing.”
At this point, he stood and walked around the meeting room and described his vision of the aircraft that should be ready for use in various special operations mission scenarios. He painted a vivid picture of the needs for special operations forces conducting training missions with foreign militaries, enabling worldwide and simultaneous counterterrorism that could pressure terrorist groups in every theater. To perform all these missions, he said, AFSOC should be providing aircraft and people to conduct the training of other air forces while also having enough forces to conduct direct-attack air missions and air support of other U.S. special operations forces. His vision entailed the ability of AFSOC to carry out, and sustain over long periods, both direct and indirect missions in all theaters, and all at once.
Wurster said that his three stated priorities have not changed in the three-plus years he has been in command of AFSOC: Fight the wars; care for the warriors and their families; and recapitalize the fleet of machines that serve the command’s missions. In restating these objectives, Wurster also said that the main effort in AFSOC is warfighting. Hence, the main event for the year 2010 is the same one it was last year and the year before: warfighting.
Within the large category of fighting the war, however, the events that make up the major happenings of the year also concern recapitalization. Since the advent of Wurster at AFSOC, The Department of Defense (DoD) has agreed that one of the priorities of the entire department has been increasing the operational availability of special operations mobility platforms – meaning aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing. This need was stated as a DoD priority in the 2008 Quadrennial Defense Review, and Congress has helped with the requisite funding to buy airplanes.
It’s also easy to make the case that recapitalization, as carried out by AFSOC in 2010, is warfighting. The year is thus characterized by first-time deployments of aircraft procured or modified as part of the recapitalization. So, 2010 saw the first-time deployment of MC-130W Combat Spear gunships, the first-time deployment of CV-22 Ospreys to Afghanistan, first-time deployments of PC-12s to three theaters, and first-time deployment of AFSOC MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.
The foremost example is the enhancement of gunship capability by modifying and deploying to combat four MC-130W aircraft. These Combat Spear aircraft were built to augment the mobility fleet of AFSOC after 9/11. With a more pronounced shortage of gunships, AFSOC modified the first one for gunship testing and flew it in 2009, then deployed four of them to combat in the summer of 2010. All of the 12 aircraft are planned to be fully modified by the middle of 2012. The modifications were designed “in-house” to install a gun and a dispenser of precision munitions, which effectively replaces the howitzer of the older gunships.
Although contractor help was used for the final MC-130W installations, design and testing were streamlined by work done internally by the AFSOC flight test and development squadron. According to Col. Stephen A. Clark, the wing commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), N.M., and himself a career gunship pilot, the Combat Spear has improved survivability due to the stand-off capability of its precision weapons and improved EO/IR sensor. The aircraft also works at a higher altitude due to being a lighter airplane, its sensor improves targeting accuracy, and the aircraft has improved defensive equipment.
The Combat Spear deployment allowed the maintenance and logistics folks of AFSOC to accomplish critical repairs to the H- and U-model gunships that needed their center wing boxes replaced. The Dragon Spear versions of the Combat Spear aircraft also have developed a lower-cost modification to the C-130 airframe that can carry over to the newer C-130J models that will eventually replace the AC-130H Spectre gunships.
Programs of Record
To continue recapitalization of its C-130s, AFSOC will procure 37 new MC-130Js and 16 AC-130Js over the next few years. These procurements constitute two programs of record that gained support from both Air Force headquarters and SOCOM. The aircraft will replace, one-for-one, the 37 MC-130Es and MC-130Ps, all built before or during the Vietnam War, that AFSOC has used as helicopter refuelers since the creation of SOCOM in 1987. The 16 AC-130Js will replace the eight AC-130Hs, also of the Vietnam era, now stationed at Cannon AFB. The larger number will make the J-model gunships almost as numerous as the U models at Hurlburt, allowing for balance in firepower oriented to the eastern and western directions of deployment.
The USAF is committed to fund the “service common” airframes, and the Air Force is paying more than 95 percent of the costs for the replacement of SOCOM’s refuelers and what will be half of its gunship fleet. AFSOC worked with Air Combat Command (ACC) on what modifications in radios, mission equipment, and defensive systems would be installed on the new aircraft; therefore, there will be virtually no difference between the ACC HC-130J and the MC-130J helicopter refuelers. Hence, the whole aircraft and all modifications are service-common, and the Air Force pays the acquisition costs.
The main event of 2010 for AFSOC, therefore, was the continuation and maturation of another strong philosophical belief of its commander: AFSOC’s job is to provide fixed-wing aircraft to support special operations forces, and especially if that’s in combat zones. The Non-Standard Aviation (NSAV) programs of AFSOC will provide airplanes to fulfill those needs. The best interpretation of the term “Non-Standard Aviation” is “Not a variant of the C-130.” These programs, therefore, procure aircraft smaller than C-130s, not service-common, and solely within the budget of AFSOC and U.S. Special Operations Command. In round figures, the Air Force budget is about $100 billion, while the SOCOM budget is $10 billion. In order to get these aircraft, AFSOC has to get cost-effective aircraft as cheaply as possible.
New M-28 SkyTrucks and Dornier 328s have been arriving this year on the aircraft parking ramp at Cannon, and new PC-12s have been showing up at both Hurlburt and Cannon. It’s hard to know how many of these aircraft AFSOC has or how many of each will be finally procured, as the SOCOM acquisition programs are harder to track. When I asked how many are funded, it was suggested that I count them. To count them is impossible without traveling around the world, and very quickly. AFSOC has deployed every type aircraft as soon as they achieve IOC, or initial operating capability. This means that as soon as there are enough aircraft and trained aircrews to support a small deployment, they deploy. AFSOC maintains a deployed rate of 50 percent of the aircraft and 40 percent of the people in these new machines.
Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of SOCOM and therefore providing much of the money from the SOCOM budget to procure the new aircraft, said that special operations forces worldwide are getting their money’s worth. He referenced numerous deployments where the new aircraft are providing lift in the Philippines, in West Africa, in Latin America, and not just in the high publicity combat zones. He said of the NSAVs and their crews, “Of course it isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darned good and keeps getting better.”
When asked if deployment so early in an aircraft’s operational life constitutes significant risk, Wurster readily agrees. He also said that early deployment also gives SOCOM value for its investments and allows his people to do their missions as soon as they’re qualified in their aircraft. The result: The entire command has combat experience and experience self-deploying their aircraft all over the world. His view is that AFSOC’s job is to provide combat mobility to SOF, any time and any place. The best morale program he has in AFSOC, he said, is to promise his people that they will perform the missions for which they train.
Significantly, AFSOC has done the same with the CV-22, of which AFSOC will eventually have 50. With only five CV-22s in 2009, and soon after declaring IOC, all of the AFSOC aircraft were deployed to combat in Iraq. In 2010, they made their first deployment to combat in Afghanistan with six aircraft. In both combat deployments, training of additional crews at home ceased, as is required when an IOC squadron deploys, and all attention was on the combat operation. The CV-22 proved itself in combat, providing many lifts of SOF to combat operations with speed and range characteristic of a fixed-wing aircraft but not tied to or limited by runways.
Mid-deployment in Afghanistan, one of the aircraft crashed, killing two crew members and two passengers. The cause remains unclear, as two investigations reached different conclusions, one blaming crew error and the other citing an engine malfunction. The mishap crew was the most experienced in the CV-22, while the supposed engine malfunction has not been replicated. The accident will probably remain unresolved.
Population Growth and Education Programs
When Wurster arrived at Hurlburt Field in 2006, the population was falling from about 8,000 toward 7,000. Today the population of Hurlburt is growing and will reach a little more than 10,000 in 2015. Cannon AFB had a fighter wing on it in 2006, but was scheduled to close. Now it’s an AFSOC base with a population of about 3,500, which will grow to be more than 6,000 by 2015. The growing number of Air Commandos has to be managed, and training has to be focused, in order to grow the numbers without a significant loss of special operations mentality and culture.
Nowhere is that need more evident than in the mission area of aviation foreign internal defense and among the aviation advisors of the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). This unit was struggling to survive at the time of 9/11 and numbered just 85 people. Even after 9/11, AFSOC had to fight to keep its budget and its five leased aircraft used to prepare its airmen to train foreign air forces.
Today, building partner capacity and training partner air forces is a recognized and vibrant mission in fighting the war against terrorism on a global scale. The 6th SOS is now authorized more than 300 billets and will grow by 2015 to almost 700.
Indoctrinating, educating, and assimilating the infusion of new people into AFSOC has become the mission of the Air Force Special Operations Training Center (AFSOTC), which has correspondingly grown to be a group-sized set of training squadrons at Hurlburt and Cannon that train the people on their machines, their missions, and Air Force special operations history.
To fulfill its requirement to train crews and maintainers for all the new aircraft, to keep up with the growth of the special tactics units, to produce more aviation advisers than have ever before existed, and to account for any attrition from the expanding force, the AFSOTC competes with the operational units for instructors and experience. Compared to the job AFSOC had in the years immediately after 9/11, these are good problems to have.
A Full and Rewarding Year of Doing the Job
Combat statistics come up when any one of the AFSOC staff members speaks of the past year: 12,000 hours flown in combat, 4,000 combat sorties, 600 named direct-action missions, 25,000 passengers moved, 12.5 million pounds of cargo, and 400 vehicles delivered in tactical environments. Special tactics operators participated in more than 6,000 tactical missions with other SOF units and engaged in gun battles more than 150 times. They also controlled ordnance drops from tactical aircraft performing close air support 2,500 times in 2010.
Statistics can be mind-numbing and sometimes have little impact, so here’s one mission example provided by the 720th Special Tactics Group:
In April 2010 Staff Sgt. Yuri Miller, a Special Tactics operator, was on a six kilometer combat reconnaissance patrol while attached to a Special Forces (SF) team advising 30 Afghan Commandos. While clearing a village and finding no local civilians, they began receiving fire from multiple enemy personnel. The team suffered a commando killed in action as well as an SF member wounded in action. Miller quickly responded by getting a medevac on station to get the teammates to safety. The team continued to return fire and clear compounds, taking another Commando and SF team member wounded in action. After calling in an additional medevac, Miller engaged the enemy that wounded his teammates with his 40 mm grenade launcher. As enemy reinforcements continued into the compounds through tunnels, the SF team continued taking fire from three separate directions. Soon a B-1 bomber checked in overhead and Miller pulled his team back to safety. With approval to drop ordnance, Miller decimated four enemy compounds in close proximity with a 500-pound bomb on each. As Miller and five of his team members moved forward to do a battle damage assessment [they] began taking fire again from new enemy reinforcements. A Marine Special Operations Quick Reaction Force (QRF) coming to assist hit an improvised explosive device (IED) before arriving at the battle site. They ran forward by foot to join the friendly team’s melee as the enemy continued to get reinforcements and creep closer to friendly positions. With a flight of F-15s now on station as well, Miller dropped five 2,000-pound bombs on the enemy’s command and control building in addition to multiple enemy fortifications. Again, they took casualties, and an additional SF team member and three Commandos had to be ground medevaced out. As the Taliban began to try to overrun the team operating post, Miller responded with another 2,000-pound bomb, taking out 30 personnel. At the end of the day, Miller was responsible for 103 enemy KIA, releasing 14,000 pounds of ordnance with no collateral damage.
It was that kind of year.
A Mission Divert
While preparing a rotation of airmen for deployment to Afghanistan, AFSOC diverted them to become the initial entry force for relief operations after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since AFSOC’s largest wing is in Florida, it benefited from close proximity geographically and from its command and control structure that allowed it to move quickly. Mission tasks came immediately to Special Operations Command-South (SOCSOUTH). Co-located with SOCSOUTH, AFSOC had created and placed a small, deployable staff of three, a Joint Special Operations Air Component, or JSOAC, to support SOCSOUTH, along with one of the NSAV aircraft.
Hence, that NSAV was the first military aircraft to arrive, carrying the SOCSOUTH liaison staff to augment the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. It was followed by several C-130s from Hurlburt and a force led by Col. Buck Elton.
Just over a year later, AFSOC airmen deployed to support Operation Tomodachi, the relief effort following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coast of northeastern Japan. Personnel of the 353rd Special Operations Group deployed March 12, the day following the earthquake, to support relief operations. The group was able to conduct search and rescue operations, deliver emergency response teams, equipment, and supplies, survey and open airfields such as Sendai Airport and provide air traffic control, provide emergency medical care, and generally assist humanitarian assistance operations.
There’s no telling how many diversions such as natural disasters there may be from continuing missions in the next year, but with a growing number of airframes flown by crews experienced in all theaters, AFSOC will undoubtedly continue to be called on for a host of new and critical missions during 2011.
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.