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AFSOC Begins a Long War – Special Operations Forces and Operation Enduring Freedom

Operation Enduring Freedom: The First 49 Days - Part 7

Editor’s Note: Maj. Gen. Rich Comer, who is well known to our readers, wrote the following piece from memory and personal records, and as such it represents one of the few first-person accounts of this period of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A). Our thanks to the general and the media team at Air Force Special Operations Public Affairs for clearing it for publication.

Lt. Gen. Clay Bailey knew he and his command would face tremendous demands in the days ahead. He also knew he was in a real predicament. Bailey sat in his command center at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., while he watched the horrifying events of Sept. 11, 2001. The general knew he would soon face large requirements to put his planes, helicopters, crews, and full capabilities for sustainment in the field for a long and protracted war requiring virtually all the assets under his command. During an earlier assignment when he had two stars, he served in U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the J-3 (director of operations) where it was his job to coordinate with the Pentagon and cut orders sending special operations forces (SOF) to any troublesome place in the world. He knew his old office was already churning, working their communications with the burning Pentagon.

For a major command in the U.S. Air Force, AFSOC was relatively small, with only 12,800 people and just over 100 aircraft, not all of which were combat configured. Air Force Reserve or National Guard units that would have to be mobilized constituted a quarter of the command. Another 30 percent of Bailey’s people were base support personnel.

At that moment, his biggest consideration was the aircraft under his command. AFSOC operates one of the greatest specialized air capabilities in the world, and its commander knew these aircraft would be in demand for the operations about to begin. Few people at that time understood the complexity of providing his aircraft to the fight. It was Bailey’s job to make it look easy to anyone outside his command, but he knew he had some problems.

He felt his combat forces were adequate in number for short-duration missions and deployments, and his squadrons regularly conducted large special operations exercises and filled three-month rotations in small numbers in support of no-fly zones. It was a good force structure for conducting raids or low-intensity, short-duration conflicts. This war would be something else. His forces now faced a near total deployment of unknowable length. He would not be able to hold some at home in order to rotate forces. He would not have enough to do that, not until the initial combat phase ended, and he had no way of knowing how long that might take.

Bailey was set to retire in two months, ending his time in command of AFSOC. He knew that this new war would not only outlast his military career, but also probably outlive him outright. His feeling that AFSOC would have a tough time ahead fulfilling all the requirements of a large war was shared, he knew, by several of his predecessors. Not having enough aircraft had been a congenital condition for AFSOC since its birth as an Air Force command in 1990, destined always to employ forces defined as “low-density/high-demand.” This is life as an Air Force special operator. He reviewed the options with his staff and his commanders; he clearly understood that the requirements of what was already being called a worldwide war against terrorism would test his command, stretch his aircraft, and demand his people give it all they had.1

MH-53 and WTC

An AFSOC MH-53 helicopter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., flies to Manahattan from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft were being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. MH-53s would soon be flying in the skies over Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell

The next morning, then-Rear Adm. Albert M. “Bert” Calland, U.S. Navy, commander of Special Operations Command-Central (SOCCENT), called. He told those of us at AFSOC the mission U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) was planning could be described as “regime change in Afghanistan.” He also wanted to talk about a long-term posture change for AFSOC, which he felt would be necessary in the CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR). Back at home base (Hurlburt Field, Fla.), Calland wanted a group of small, fixed-wing aircraft that could work with the special operations forces of other countries. He envisioned a coalition of Middle Eastern countries that would work together to eliminate terrorist groups from their territories. AFSOC would train their airmen on joint, tactical operations of air and ground SOF. It was an exciting idea and we told him we would work on getting some of the aircraft we discussed. At the time, we had only one leased Antonov 32 (NATO designator “Colt”) in the squadron, charged with the mission of training other nations’ air components. In the rest of AFSOC, we had nothing smaller than C-130s, except for helicopters, of course.

Bailey and the AFSOC Director of Operations, then-Col. Jim Connors, set our schedule and with the J-4 (logistics directorate), Col. Ken Mueller, worked the deployment schedules of all the AFSOC units designated to go to the various deployed locations – when they became available. The SOCOM J-3, Eldon Bargewell, called to discuss the first deployment to position forces near Afghanistan. He said the State Department was working on getting access to the international airport in the capital city of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. We’d also had a call earlier that morning from the Hurlburt Operational Group Commander, then-Col. Frank Kisner, USAF, to tell us that a young captain in the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) had called from Uzbekistan to suggest that a military Air Base called Karshi-Khanabad (“K2”) would be a good choice for a base near Afghanistan. The captain was in Uzbekistan at the time on a deployment for language immersion training, had established a relationship with the local military, and this suggestion came from them. It was our first use in this war of the concept of “global scouts” that SOCOM used to justify and fund training in faraway places to establish such contacts. Bargewell said he would send that suggestion back toward the State Department. Karshi-Khanabad did end up as the main base where Kisner, as the air component commander, and then-Col. John Mulholland of the 5th Special Forces Group ran the unconventional war in Afghanistan for SOCCENT and Calland.


Voids and Gaps: Capability and Sustainment

By the first weekend after the 9/11 attacks, deployment lines were processing people for deployment. Bailey and his staff attended the deployment processing for the 919th Special Operations Training Wing at Duke Field, about 15 miles north and east of Hurlburt. Duke Field was a melee of everything going on at once, from dental exams to training flights for currency and check-rides, combined with the pre-deployment eagerness of American airmen who wanted to fly toward the enemy. No one wanted to stay behind.

Bailey presented a thoughtful, and still stirring, picture of what was going on around him when he addressed the 919th. “I know how to bring all of you up, and mobilize you, but I can’t tell you how, if ever, we can bring you down. Today, I can see that the conflict we’re entering will be long and I don’t know how long. I know that we don’t have enough crews, maintainers, security people, civil engineers, or support people without you reservists all being on active duty. Expect that we’ll have you working until it’s over. We need all of you badly and AFSOC cannot fight this war without the total force.”

When we headed back to Hurlburt that evening, he spoke some more to those of us in the car, saying that AFSOC’s force structure was built around AFSOC’s elderly C-130s, which had been modified for Vietnam special operations. Modernization of the aircraft had been sparse over the years, except for a few modifications for defensive systems, and most of those were in need of further modernization. The helicopters still in AFSOC were also pretty old and had a limit to the life left in them, especially flying at what their weights had increased to after the first Gulf War in 1991.

Additionally, the training of special operations forces had concentrated over the past several years on operations that could be called “raids.” There was little training for long-duration operations, where aircraft and crews would fly different scenarios on successive days and nights. We had not planned for sustained operations, which would use all the assets all at once.

“Our logistics will be under enormous pressures,” Bailey said. “Almost all of AFSOC’s force structure will deploy for this operation, and there will be nothing left for rotation and long-term sustainment. Also, almost everything will be in the Middle East and not much will be available for other things, which might come up. We’re gonna need more force structure,” he said.


Avenues of Attack

Deployments began within the week, with the intention of attacking al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban from different directions and in different ways. Karshi-Khanabad became a base of operations to attack Afghanistan from the north and for three types of AFSOC C-130s – AC-130 gunships, and MC/HC-130 helicopter refuelers and mobility troop carriers. The Army sent in MH-47 Chinooks, MH-60 Black Hawks, and Special Forces “A-Teams.” From the south, Afghanistan would be attacked from land and sea, including the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). Some of the bases used from this direction remain classified to the present day due to the sensitivity of allies.

306th Rescue Squadron

Airmen from the 306th Rescue Squadron from Tucson, Ariz., pose for a group picture outside Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The airmen have relaxed grooming standards since they are in close contact with the Afghan population. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrea Wright

From each of these different avenues, SOF units executed different competencies in the spectrum of special warfare. From the north came Special Forces A-Teams, which were deployed into Afghanistan and positioned with native Afghan insurgent forces that had been fighting the Taliban for years without much help. These teams, augmented by AFSOC combat controllers who carried communications and expertise to call in and control air strikes, tied the different factions of Afghan resistance together and converted them into a semi-coherent, coordinated set of forces that could maneuver and flank their enemy. At least for a while, the former uncoordinated warlords worked together and, with first world air support, took over their country in a couple of months.

The Joint Special Operations Task Force operating from the south conducted direct action raids in the style of SOF training of recent years. Using large infiltration formations covered by carrier and bomber-supplied air support and organic AC-130 gunships, they sought, found, killed, and captured many high-value targets using the man-hunting techniques developed in recent operations. By December, they were in the mountains of Afghanistan trying to root out al Qaeda leaders from the caves of Tora Bora.


Three Avenues Toward Sustainment

Meanwhile, Bailey’s staff generated ideas on how to increase force structure in order to gain aircraft and people to sustain the existing fight. He wanted to increase his service common numbers of aircraft and first went to the U.S. Air Force leadership, asking for more Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units to be affiliated with his command and SOCOM. Bailey also suggested that the Air Force should help him create more billets in his staff, as he would be providing a large number of staff positions to man the air component staffs of the various special operations task organizations involved in worldwide operations against terrorist organizations.

The Air Staff’s responses to these ideas were not just negative, but went further, as they were already considering a force reduction and had offered up a drawdown of 40,000 active-duty and 17,000 civilian manpower billets to Congress in return for budget support in other areas. Additionally, the Air Staff was working a reduction of its Reserve Component C-130 fleet and recommended retirement of 300 of its oldest aircraft, many of which then served in AFSOC. Air Staff suggested that if SOCOM would pick up the personnel, operations, and maintenances costs in total, AFSOC could have them.

Finally, Air Staff stated that AFSOC should review its Air Force-funded manpower billets and identify those which would constitute its share of the planned force reduction.

In response, the AFSOC staff proposed a force structure increase in aircraft smaller than C-130s to facilitate Calland’s plan to create a central training site for the SOF units of countries in the CENTCOM AOR. SOCOM staffers entered this idea into its system of mission analysis and balancing costs and benefits to SOF. Since tactical mobility aircraft smaller than C-130s were not in the USAF inventory, all such aircraft would not be service common, and all of their costs would be borne by SOCOM. As the SOCOM budget did not have enough money to support major aircraft acquisitions, there was little chance of finding the resources to support such costs necessary to expand AFSOC in this way. It would take years and would require a genuine expansion of the SOCOM top-line budget. Such was not yet in the cards for what was then called the Global War on Terrorism: GWOT. The ideas were good, and would be placed in the unfunded requirements of SOCOM and prioritized at a later date.

Civilian control of the military provided the only real relief for AFSOC. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) issued several PDMs, (Program Directive Memoranda). These directives taxed the services to pay for some additional force structure in SOF. AFSOC would benefit from getting 10 new MC-130Ws, four additional AC-130 gunships, a directive not to close any additional AFSOC squadrons, and money to fully modernize its MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters. Further, OSD created a Defense Emergency Response Fund to pay for needed items to fight the new war. When SOCOM received its first distribution of these funds, it placed them against the unfunded priority list, where most of AFSOC’s aircraft modernization needs had sat without funds for years. These modification programs would finally make AFSOC’s 40-year-old fleet able to operate in higher-threat environments.


The Fight Continues

By December 2001, the unconventional warfare effort, which began in northern Afghanistan, had taken Mazar-e Sharif and afterward seemed to roll up the rest of Afghanistan like a Persian rug. The Taliban government was overthrown and the high-value targets (HVTs) were bottled up in the mountain caves, where they bribed their way across the Pakistani border and barely survived. But AFSOC’s need for additional force structure to fight the fast moving and slower moving parts of the war against terrorist groups was extremely slow at the start. The new C-130s were delivered between 2005 and 2009. The modernization money for the Pave Low helicopters was diverted and the helicopters retired years ahead of schedule. AFSOC started getting new, smaller fixed-wing aircraft in 2005 and now has a robust program of SOCOM-funded aircraft smaller than C-130s. AFSOC has grown its population as well, increasing from about 12,000 at the time of 9/11 to about 15,000 by 2015.

The fight continues. …

1. The author, Maj. Gen. Richard Comer, U.S Air Force (Ret.), is a veteran of 16 years of assignments in Air Force special operations. He commanded at squadron, group, and wing level all at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Additionally, he served in assignments at the Joint Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, N.C., as the J-5, director of plans and policy, and later as the deputy commanding general. He served in the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy and missions. At the time of 9/11, he was a brigadier general and vice commander of AFSOC. These five opening paragraphs were originally published as part of a study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled, “Special Operations Forces Aviation at the Crossroads,” published in September 2007.

Continue to part 8…

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.


Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...