Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold is the commander, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), Hurlburt Field, Florida. The command is the Air Force component of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and provides Air Force special operations forces (SOF) for worldwide deployment and assignment to unified combatant commanders. The command has approximately 19,000 active-duty, Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian professionals.
Heithold enlisted in the Air Force in 1974 and spent three years at Holloman Air Force Base (AFB), New Mexico, as an F-4D avionics technician. He was commissioned in 1981 as a distinguished graduate of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas. He has commanded at the squadron, group, wing, and agency levels, including serving as the commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group in Southwest Asia and as the commander, Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency. His staff assignments include positions on the Air Staff and a unified command staff. Prior to his current assignment, he was the vice commander, United States Special Operations Command.
The Year in Special Operations: What are your thoughts on the anniversary of AFSOC?
Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold: This is a special year as we are fast approaching our command’s 25th birthday on May 22. In 1990, the 23rd Air Force was designated Air Force Special Operations Command, and we proudly took our place as an Air Force major command. Our nation expects that we have the people and capabilities needed to quickly address our nation’s most threatening adversaries, and that’s something that hasn’t changed over the years. Even before we were a major command, we were providing special operations airpower across the globe.
Can you reach back in your own memory and recall some of the things you saw the Air Force SOF community do during the time before AFSOC became a major command?
I’ve been in the special operations community since the mid-1980s and I’m proud that we’ve always answered the nation’s call to carry out sensitive missions anytime, anyplace. Before AFSOC stood up, we still provided SOF airpower, but we were more limited in the types of aircraft we owned and the size of our force. We flew MC-130Es, AC-130Hs, CH-3Es, and UH-1Ns, while our Air Force Reserve and National Guard partners flew AC-130As, EC-130Es, and HH-3Es. We have grown since then in both responsibility and scope, from the days of serving as the 23rd Air Force to standing up AFSOC in 1990. Now we fly two types of MC-130s, three types of AC-130s, EC-130Js, manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft as well as unmanned remotely piloted aircraft, the CV-22 vertical lift platform, and non-standard aviation mobility aircraft. We also have a Combat Aviation Advisor mission and an entire Special Tactics wing. We have grown to many times the size we were in the 1980s, to a force of some 19,000 people, and we are now a major command. What has not changed is that Air Commandos have always proven themselves quiet professionals, working to accomplish the mission as a dedicated team, regardless who receives the credit.
What do you remember of the atmosphere around special operations prior to the passage of Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen in the late 1980s?
I entered special operations in December of 1985. At the time, SOF was in quite a bit of turmoil after the tragedy in the desert in Iran five years earlier. There was a lot of new attention being placed on the community, so I made sure to read the entire Holloway Report. I think I was the only captain in the squadron who did. I was the 16th Special Operations Squadron Chief of Tactics then, and I was focused on what gunships could have done better in the Iran mission; recall that gunships were planned to fly on night two, supporting the hostage extraction. I was very interested in emerging night-vision goggle tactics, techniques, and procedures because they weren’t commonly used then. I remember thinking, “how can I get my unit better prepared to execute the mission if we had to do it again?” This goes to show that there was a feeling of wanting to improve the effectiveness of special operations at all levels, even down in the squadrons.
When the enabling legislation (Goldwater-Nichols/Nunn-Cohen) was passed in the late 1980s, what were your feelings as a young U.S. Air Force SOF aviator when you realized that Congress was about to give you and the rest of your fellow special warfare brethren a service-component community of your own?
Speaking as a SOF aviator, Goldwater-Nichols and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment were the most significant acts of Congress to affect my career. Out of these pieces of legislation sprang United States Special Operations Command with a four-star officer at its helm, enhancing SOF interoperability and fostering joint cooperation and training. I lived through the change and it was a good one. I watched SOCOM, and then on the heels of that, AFSOC, stand up. It all unfolded from inside the same building that I sit in today. I’ve had many years to reflect on the act that provides separate funding for SOCOM and habitual joint training opportunities, such as Emerald Warrior, which is taking place right now. I think personally, one of the most significant effects of Goldwater-Nichols was that it meant there was not going to be an attempt to “stove-pipe” unique solutions by the services. By the legislation’s very nature it ensured teamwork. As part of SOCOM, we present a unified portfolio of diverse SOF capabilities, and as Air Commandos, we organize, train, and equip airmen to execute those missions in concert with our brothers and sisters from the other services.
What are your personal memories from the invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause) in December 1989, and what were AFSOC’s particular achievements?
The operation took place in 1989, but the planning and training started in May of 1987. I was a captain then, again working as the 16th Special Operations Squadron Chief of Tactics. My squadron commander, Howie Chambers, came and got me, taking me off to a secret location right here at Hurlburt Field, in a tent with wire around it, and briefed me in. There, we started the initial planning for Just Cause. Bringing all of the components together to do the training together was quite an experience for me. To train with the soldiers that we were going to directly support with the gunships – it was the beginning of my joint planning experience. All of the focused training that we had done to practice seizing airfields, which was a capability that came out of the Iran hostage rescue mission, paid off.
What are some takeaways from your time as AFSOC commander?
First, AFSOC is an incredibly dynamic place right now. Our is as high as I have ever seen it, and our people are knocking it out of the park every day. Our people’s ability to get the mission done doesn’t depend on proximity to the fight – they will get it done right, whether in garrison or on the front lines. The Air Commando, “quiet professional” ethic is strong, and I am very proud to be a part of this team.
We are engaged all over the world. Our forces are on five continents and bring a diverse range of talents to their missions. Our aviation wings and groups continue to make huge impacts across the world in combat zones and training environments. We have the most decorated unit in the Air Force: the 24th Special Operations Wing. Many of our support specialties have won Air Force-level awards, recognized as the best in the business. Each of the Air Force Crosses, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, Meritorious Unit Awards, and Gallant Unit Citations have stories behind them that pay tribute to all of our Air Commandos who have deployed into harm’s way. All of our Air Commandos have made meaningful contributions to the struggles of this generation, and many of the stories will remain untold.
This is a special year for us – the 25th anniversary of AFSOC – and I’ve designated it the “Year of the Air Commando.” This year will simply highlight our Air Commandos and their accomplishments. It started with a ceremony we recently held to remember those we lost during our command’s watershed moment in history, Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. This is the 35th year since that tragedy played out in Iran at Desert One. Our next Commando Rally meeting in May will continue to honor this heritage, and we will host all of our Air Force SOF general officers and senior commanders at that event. This will culminate in our annual Outstanding Airmen and Civilians of the Year Awards Banquet, where we highlight our best of the best. Our Air Commandos are the best in the world, and this is our time to pay tribute to them as they create their own AFSOC history.
This interview first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2015-2016 Edition publication.