Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster is in his third year of his command tour at the Air Force Special Operations Command, AFSOC, and he says very plainly that his top three issues haven’t changed at all. Everything is the same as it was last year. First in priority is steady and absolute commitment to the war efforts; second is the support to the Air Commandos and their families; and third in line is the recapitalization of the aged fleet of AFSOC aircraft. This set of Commander’s Intent hasn’t changed since Wurster took command, but in executing his guidance, AFSOC – the command – has changed, and is changing a great deal in its size, the make-up of its population, in its equipment, its posture, and in its capability.
When asked what were the major events of 2009 for AFSOC, Wurster replied quickly: “Building the Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, creating air command and control infrastructure in new theaters, and the first deployment of the CV-22 to combat.”
AFSOC’s people and aircraft have amassed an impressive set of statistics in warfighting in Operation Enduring Freedom and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The AFSOC History Office compiled the totals of these mission statistics:
In 2009 in support of Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, AFSOC flew 12,425 combat hours on 4,505 combat sorties, supporting 686 named direct-action missions, yielding 590 primary targets captured or killed, 305 communication devices recovered, 470 enemies killed in action and 1,229 detainees. AFSOC mobility aircraft transported 27,727 passengers, 13,048,961 pounds of cargo, and 463 vehicles. Special tactics personnel participated in 3,401 missions of which 158 involved direct contact with the enemy. They provided 2,760 tactical controls of aircraft and were credited with 1,042 enemy killed in action and 1,106 detainees.
Such a statistical summary doesn’t provide the full story of those many missions. Most of AFSOC’s air missions are flown in joint operations with other SOF components, either from ground or maritime domains, wherein often the people actually doing the capturing are Army, Navy, or Marine SOF elements. The statistics also leave out how many of the shooting missions of the AC-130s were called on to protect other components in close contact with the enemy being killed or detained. Neither do these statistics tell how many of the troop movements were under fire, nor do the statistics say how many U.S. and coalition lives were saved by rapid action of AFSOC air elements.
Still, the continuous and overlapping deployments of AFSOC squadrons are without pause; hence, dwell time for AFSOC airmen is the lowest in the U.S. Air Force. Typically, squadrons deployed to the wars are managing internal rotations and keep one-third of their people in the combat zones, with the necessary overlap in place in order to conduct personnel rotations. There are no alternative special operations air units to take their place and give them a chance to rest. And AFSOC has a lot more going on than just a couple of wars.
RECAPITALIZATION AND RENEWAl
Recapitalization and renewal of the AFSOC fleet of aircraft constitutes a major revolution in AFSOC force structure, and it proceeds almost hidden in the background of the wars. The AFSOC C-130 fleet is aged and almost all of these aircraft have been used and often over-used. After years of flying heavy, and often with waivers to accommodate flying heavier than designed gross weight, the large majority of these airplanes require new center wing boxes – essentially a replacement of the center of the aircraft to which the wings, nose, and tail are attached.
AFSOC’s plan includes outright replacement of the 37 oldest of these aircraft; those equipped to air refuel helicopters and V-22s. The plan to buy and modify 37 new C-130Js was approved previously by SOCOM, and in 2009, the Department of Defense approved, funded, and scheduled the buy into its long-term budget. Also, during 2009, AFSOC and SOCOM made the decision to replace the eight older H-model gunships with 17 newer AC-130J airframes modified into a newer gunship, increasing and modernizing a capability requested by all services and theater combatant commanders.
Making a solid commitment of much of its future to the C-130J airframe, AFSOC will use its C-130Ws as temporary substitutes for gunships. The W models recently made their first deployment to combat operations, going to Southwest Asia for three months to provide combat mobility and helicopter air-refueling capability. Upon their return to Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), N.M., some of the aircraft entered a modification program to give them a precision munitions delivery system and a gun system to provide close air support. The modification was completed quickly and test fired during 2009. This program, dubbed “Dragon Spear,” will provide substitute gunships during the center wing box replacements of the gunship fleet and, depending on operational needs, provide additional airframes until the new AC-130Js are completed over the next several years.
At the same time, ongoing procurement of smaller aircraft is creating new squadrons and enabling new missions in SOF mobility. These efforts include buying small, single engine PC-12s, while leasing, and eventually buying, medium-sized, two-engine aircraft. Most of these aircraft have been assigned to the growing operation at Cannon AFB.
To run its increasingly divergent operations around the world, AFSOC has created the 23rd Air Force, a numbered AF command and control organization. In 2009, the 23rd likewise created the 623rd Air Operations Center, under Col. Ronald “Opie” Wiegand, which provides connectivity to SOF air components in every theater to create a responsive system of reachback when additional assets or support are needed. The 623rd also created Air Component Commanders and Joint Special Operations Air Component (JSOAC) staffs for SOCAFRICA and SOCSOUTH, and then instituted personnel rotations to sustain these commands. These small, “distributable JSOACs” provide all the air staff support functions needed to plan and run exercises or operational deployments. These JSOACs also provide airspace coordination and logistic support for aircraft deployed in small numbers into the theaters from the newly created squadrons in AFSOC. As Wurster explained, “Air Force squadrons do not have the infrastructure to perform international air mobility missions when deployed with just one or two aircraft with only their aircrews. These distributable JSOACs provide the command structure to interface with the theater, theater knowledge, airspace management, coordination with embassies, and reach-back logistics which can make these deployments of highest value to the theater Special Operations Commands we send them out to support.”
GROWING A NEW WING – AND QUICKLY
The 27th Special Operations Wing in New Mexico began 2009 with three MC-130Ws in the 73rd Special Operations Squadron (SOS), and the 3rd SOS with UAVs. It finished the year with 38 aircraft, six flying squadrons, and continuous deployments to four continents. In total, the wing had an almost 50 percent increase in personnel, from 2,300 to just more than 3,400.
Wing Commander Col. Stephen Clark pointed out that his wing has grown by five squadrons between January 2009 and January 2010. This includes the transfer of the 16th Special Operations Squadron, with eight AC-130H Spectre gunships, which moved from Hurlburt AFB to Cannon in June. That squadron maintained forward deployed combat operations through the entire year, even while making the move. It also picked up the 318th SOS, with lighter mobility aircraft (new PC-12s and leased twin-engine aircraft), and the 524th SOS, which flies a larger-sized leased aircraft (Q-200s). Additionally, the wing stood up the 33rd SOS to fly larger and more heavily armed UAVs. Early in 2010, the wing also began re-constitution of the 20th SOS, which will get its first CV-22s by March.
To create those new fixed-wing squadrons, the 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) began its training even before aircraft arrived. To help, the AF Special Operations Training Center (AFSOTC, AFSOC’s training group) stood up a dedicated training squadron at Cannon, the 551st SOS, to formalize both academic and flight training of new crews for the new aircraft. The 551’s mission, to accelerate mission capability and then to maintain training capacity even when aircraft were deployed, entails training and using instructors assigned to the end user unit, thus producing training capacity while minimizing additional manpower costs. Each of the new squadrons achieved initial operating capability, IOC, within a couple of months of aircraft arrival at Cannon. Immediately upon reaching IOC status, each of the squadrons then forward deployed aircraft to support SOF units in foreign lands, with most locations of these deployments being classified.
Hence, even with leased aircraft, the 27th SOW has deployed each of its new squadrons within 90 days of “rubber on the ramp.” Since initial deployments, the 27th Wing has maintained an average deployed rate of 40 percent of the people in those new squadrons and 50 percent of their aircraft. Such rapid creation of capability with new aircraft hasn’t been done since the initial stages of the Vietnam conflict, almost 50 years ago, in creating COIN capability and getting it forward quickly. In this way, the 27th SOW harkens back to the roots of Air Commandos and Operation Farm Gate, which placed newly acquired aircraft at the front lines and the final aircrew qualification took place while already forward deployed. The quick evolution of mission capability with the new squadrons has also resulted in SOCOM support of budget action to acquire squadrons of aircraft to replace the leased aircraft now in use.
INITIAL OPERATING CAPABILITY: A CASE STUDY
Eagerly anticipated, often criticized, sometimes praised, and long-delayed by a muddled joint development program, the SOF-version CV-22 Osprey has finally seen combat. The deployment of the CV-22 to combat was a major milestone for AFSOC in 2009. The 8th Special Operations Squadron declared IOC in 2008 when it had four aircraft and crews. Under its first CV-22 commander, Lt. Col. Eric Hill, the 8th advanced quickly. As the maintenance folks developed their system of parts supply and trained for familiarity on the new aircraft, the squadron made two initial deployments to demonstrate and test its capability. First, a trip to Mali and desert flight operations in 2008, and then a deployment to Honduras and jungle operations in early 2009 provided the unit with experience, lessons learned, and valuable training with foreign and U.S. special operations units. Hill built the first AFSOC CV-22 squadron from scratch and he made it ready, but his command tour ended with his assignment to War College before he could take it to war.
From July until November 2009 came the much-anticipated test for the CV-22, its aircrews, and its maintainers. Leadership at HQ AFSOC, the 1st Special Operations Wing Commander Col. Greg Lengyel, and the new 8th SOS Commander Lt. Col. Shawn Cameron, decided that the maturation of the squadron and the CV-22 community required a deployment to combat operations as early in development as possible. With only seven aircraft, and still only in IOC status, the squadron deployed for three-and-a-half months to combat operations in Iraq.
Cameron decided to take everything he could, deploying six aircraft (leaving one behind to continue required developmental testing) and flying the 30 hours per aircraft, covering almost 7,000 nautical miles in just over three days to arrive in Iraq. Air refueling support came from both the 9th SOS from the 1st SOW and the 67th SOS of the 352nd Special Operations Group of Mildenhall, England. The CVs carried their own crews, some parts, and some maintainers, while the tankers carried other spares and 90 additional people for a self-contained package. The self-deployment and condition of the aircraft upon arrival made them available for missions a week earlier than expected in the original plan.
In pre-deployment planning, the squadron figured to make three CV-22s available for missions each night (or day). Their extra aircraft were intended to make up for the scarcity of CV-22 parts and an immature supply line for the new machine. The squadron found out that things work out in combat deployments in much the same way as at training exercises – supported units’ needs grow to the number of aircraft you bring. They were therefore often tasked to provide four and sometimes five aircraft for their missions.
In a little over 100 days, the Ospreys supported 45 direct assault missions, sometimes conducting landings on the target and sometimes positioning land forces in close proximity to targets. Additionally, the aircraft performed 51 re-supply missions to SOF units in the field. In all, the CV-22s flew more than 600 combat hours, moved 1,800 assaulters, and also supported casualty evacuations when needed. Their most complex mission moved 48 assaulters onto a target using four primary aircraft and a flying spare one night. The movement used all the capacity the young squadron could provide at one time, along with many contingencies. The squadron commander considered it a culmination operation, proving his unit’s mettle.
When asked what was learned about the new aircraft, Cameron related that the crews and the user units learned more about how better to employ the aircraft over time and with mission experience. The increased speed over a helicopter allowed missions to have time-on-targets which were either sooner or later than helicopters in the period of darkness, allowing for more flexibility and less predictability of planned times on target. Likewise, the increased range of the aircraft meant the forces being employed did not have to pre-position to forward operating bases in Iraq as often, facilitating planning and briefings in preparation of the missions. When flying like an airplane, the CV is twice as fast as and significantly quieter than a helicopter, but upon landing in helicopter mode, the CV-22 creates a dust-storm similar to a large helicopter. The importance of cockpit aids for hovering to a landing could not be over-estimated, as there were few landings wherein the pilots could see the ground or any of the outside environment.
As expected, the aircraft in the sand used significantly more parts than at home; in particular, engines needed overhaul much sooner than in non-desert environments. The blades/propellers, however, seemed to last longer than expected. There is a price also for self-deployment flying hours, which made required maintenance inspections come early during deployed time. Three of the aircraft had time-phased inspections that came due while deployed, each requiring more than 200 man-hours of maintenance to get back into the fight.
Other lessons learned concerned the costs to the squadron in lost training time at home in deploying all of its aircraft. Deploying all of a unit in IOC status limits how long a unit can sustain itself while deployed. There were no replacement crews preparing to take their places and no crew training progression in the squadron for the duration of the deployment. It’s probable that future deployments will not take all the aircraft, so that reach-back for sustainment and personnel rotations can be possible. Also, the highest altitude landing zone the squadron encountered was below 2,000 feet above sea level. Higher altitudes, say those above 6,000 feet, will entail mission restrictions not encountered in Iraq.
There was yet one other result of the deployment. When testifying before Congress in March 2010, SOCOM Commander Adm. Eric T. Olson stated that SOCOM would like to accelerate the acquisition and delivery of the CV-22s to more quickly reach the eventual total of 50 in SOCOM. He cited the aircraft’s deployment to Iraq and quoted the statistics, adding one other stat: “A recent national contingency mission used three of these aircraft for combat search and rescue, personnel recovery, and quick reaction force support.” The admiral knows that increased numbers will enable the CV-22 to achieve full operational capability, and only then will there be enough people and machines to sustain the force while maintaining continuous deployment.