The 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) is an admittedly odd duck in the “Big Blue” world of the U.S. Air Force. Not much “wild blue yonder” at all, as its airmen fly propeller-driven Russian- and Spanish-built transports as well as Russian- and U.S.-built Vietnam-era helicopters. And there is even less “slipping the surly bonds of earth” described in the poem “High Flight,” as the squadron’s organizational structure and terminology reflect the unmistakable imprint of U.S. Army Special Forces.
Likewise, this is reflected in the squadron training given to those volunteers who complete the pre-assignment screening process (e.g., light-infantry weapons proficiency, small-unit tactical movement, and escape and evasion). Describing the 6th SOS becomes more difficult still with the Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) preference for the terms “combat aviation advisory unit” and “non-standard aircraft squadron” rather than the “Foreign Internal Defense-Aviation” language commonly used elsewhere throughout the Department of Defense (DoD).
A troubling corollary to this successful-if-belated expansion is that this singular squadron still remains, five years after the launch of the Global War on Terrorism, the only designated Foreign Internal Defense-Aviation unit in the Department of Defense.
Some clarification is thus mandatory here, as “odd duck” is not a DoD-sanctioned term. The AFSOC preference for “combat aviation advisor” at least provides a more upscale introduction of these remarkable airmen. Their story begins with the squadron’s activation at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in 1994, after years of debate within the Air Force concerning the proper role – if any – for aviation forces dedicated to the low intensity conflict-spectrum of warfare.
Thus “born” with decidedly mixed blessings, the 6th SOS languished and struggled for the next 13 years with an assigned strength barely exceeding 100 airmen. This was an odd state of affairs, as by 2005 so many of America’s allies in the Global War on Terrorism were asking for the squadron’s assistance that more than half such requests were declined due to the unit’s lack of resources. With such strong and still-growing “customer validation” mandating a change, steps were taken that led in 2007 to a near doubling in size of the squadron.
A troubling corollary to this successful-if-belated expansion is that this singular squadron still remains, five years after the launch of the Global War on Terrorism, the only designated Foreign Internal Defense-Aviation unit in the Department of Defense. Given the squadron’s successes and the fact that, relatively speaking, its annual budget comes out of DoD’s petty-cash drawer, this seeming paradox warrants a closer look.
Foreign Internal Defense
The Goldwater-Nichols Act that created the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1986, specifically included, among the new command’s designated core missions, that of foreign internal defense (FID). The intent was, and remains, that FID operations provide an “enabling strategy” for America’s allies and could-be allies that are struggling to confront their own insurgency, terrorism, and illicit drug threats. In short, FID is meant to help our allies resolve their problems before they escalate to become America’s problems.
The obvious primacy of U.S. ground forces in assisting host-nation forces to combat insurgency, terrorism, and illicit drugs has spared DoD much of the traditional Army-Air Force rivalry that normally accompanies the perennial hot-button “roles and missions” debate. The most sophisticated air force in the world has, however, struggled to define its response to FID threats coming from the most unsophisticated end of the warfare spectrum.
How, for example, does “Big Blue” operate in Central and South America where less than 10 percent of the airfields can handle even the rugged C-130 Hercules? And what C-17 strategic airlift wing or HH-60 combat rescue squadron is tasked to assist African countries in sustaining and employing non-U.S. aircraft for which maintenance records – such as exist – may be found in a desk drawer? Obviously such non-standard problems require non-standard solutions.