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AFSOC at 25: Busy Before Birth

Like the other parts of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has had a long and distinguished heritage but traveled a sometimes rocky road on the way to becoming a service component command in 1990. The history of Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF) might be said to have begun in October 1943 with the Special Flight Section of the 12th Air Force’s 5th Bombardment Wing in North Africa, whose aircrew flew specially modified bombers into occupied Europe. The 801st Bomb Group, the Carpetbaggers, flew similar missions from England in modified bombers as well as a variety of other aircraft, dropping agents and supplies in Axis-held territory, picking up agents and downed aircrew, and performing other clandestine missions. In the China/Burma/India Theater, the Air Commandos flew combat and support missions deep behind enemy lines with transports, fighters, bombers, light planes, gliders, and helicopters, performing the first Army Air Force night airfield seizure as well as the first combat rescue with a helicopter. All these units, however, disappeared at the end of the war.

Carpetbagger Lib and crew

A World War II Carpetbagger crew in front of their gloss black-painted B-24 Liberator. National Archives

The first major attempt to regenerate these capabilities came during the Korean War (1950-53). The Air Force activated three wings of the Air Resupply and Communication (ARC) Service to fly transports, medium bombers, flying boats, and several different types of helicopters on unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations as well as combat search and rescue missions. With the signing of the armistice, however, the Air Force shut down all its special operations forces (SOF) units.

Its first test came early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, when MC-130s led the first drops of the 75th Ranger Regiment onto Port Salinas Airfield on the island of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury).

The Air National Guard took over the AFSOF mission from the mid to late 1950s until the regular Air Force re-established the Air Commandos at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in the early 1960s. AFSOF evolved and expanded along with the nation’s commitment in Southeast Asia, growing to a force of 550 aircraft and 19 squadrons by 1968. But again, as the commitment in Southeast Asia wound down, so did most of the AFSOF capability, except for the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Hurlburt, the Reserve 919th Special Operations Group (SOG) at nearby Duke Field, and a few active-duty squadrons scattered overseas. In little more than a decade, however, that cycle of boom and bust would change permanently, and for the better.

AFSOC Before 1990

Like the rest of the SOCOM component commands, AFSOC draws much of its reason for being from the Desert One disaster during Operation Eagle Claw in April 1980. Intended to free a large number of American hostages held by the revolutionary government in Tehran, Iran, at the American Embassy, the operation went horribly wrong in the middle of a spring dust storm at a small landing strip south of the city. First the mission had been aborted due to helicopter mechanical failures. Then a ground collision between one of the Navy RH-53D helicopters and a USAF EC-130 tanker transport led to a fire and explosion that killed eight American personnel, destroyed both aircraft, and demonstrated just how unready the United States was for the coming wars against radical terrorism.

RH-53s Iran Operation

Three RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in preparation for Operation Evening Light/Operation Eagle Claw, a rescue mission to Iran that ended in disaster but spawned USSOCOM. DoD photo

In the short term, however, the Air Force special operators finally found a home for themselves, of sorts. Having languished after Vietnam within the Tactical Air Command, or TAC – the progenitor of Air Combat Command (ACC) – the various pieces of Air Force special warfare units were gathered into a new command. Formed in December 1982, the 23rd Air Force at Scott Air Force Base (AFB), Illinois, provided a command structure for the special warfare units, along with combat search and rescue, weather reconnaissance, aerial sampling, and even intercontinental ballistic missile silo security units. And while it was not the ultimate answer for the various special warfare capabilities gathered into the 23rd Air Force, it was a start that began to generate some immediate benefits for the nation.

Its first test came early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, when MC-130s led the first drops of the 75th Ranger Regiment onto Port Salinas Airfield on the island of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury). In addition, EC-130s from the 193rd Special Operations Wing acted as airborne radio stations flying broadcast sorties over the island to let civilians know they were being rescued, and AC-130 gunships provided fire support missions for personnel on the ground facing stiff opposition from local militia and Cuban troops. And while the 23rd Air Force still did not have all of the capabilities that had been available during the late stages of the Vietnam War, it was learning fast and making a case for a more formal U.S. Air Force special warfare community. However, this was not a universally popular idea at the time, especially among some of the top leadership of the U.S. Air Force itself.

Rangers parachute into Grenada

Rangers parachute into Grenada from MC-130s of the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW). DOD photo

By the middle of the 1980s, powerful forces inside Congress were making the opening moves to actually unify the various service special warfare communities by putting them inside their own Combatant Command. This effort was part of a larger legislative agenda designed to deal with the demonstrated weaknesses of the entire U.S. command and control structure, as shown by Operations Eagle Claw and Urgent Fury. But bureaucracies like the Department of Defense (DOD) are slow to change, and rarely without a fight. The final years of the mid-1980s were a time of vehement argument and resistance from some quarters inside the Pentagon itself to the planned congressional reform of DOD. One of the more obvious and potentially successful attempts came from within the top leadership of the Air Force itself, as they tried to derail various aircraft development and acquisition programs such as the new MH-53 Pave Low helicopter.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...