“Our goal is to provide air mobility and specialized air support wherever special operations forces are engaged. When other SOF components are deployed, we should be there as well and will strive to make the members of the other components fully expect to see AFSOC people and aircraft wherever they are, anywhere in the world.” – Col. William West, 27th Special Operations Group commander, Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), N.M.
Since late June 2011, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel has commanded the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). He has continued his predecessor’s policy of deploying airplane support to any and all special operations missions at the earliest possibility. Hence, as AFSOC has acquired new airplane types, they deploy as soon as they have trained aircrews and enough aircraft to achieve initial operating capability (IOC). When asked in an interview about the risk of deploying aircraft as soon as they reach their first milestone of operational capability, Fiel called it an “operational necessity” and said that deployment early in an aircraft’s career will make the people flying and maintaining it more operationally oriented, something he identifies as an essential trait for Air Commandos. Managing and mitigating risks, he said, will always be the priority of all AFSOC unit commanders. He added that the major happenings of the command in the past year are, naturally, fighting the wars, and also included Operation Odyssey Dawn, helping the Japanese after the tsunami in March, and the growth and development of the 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Cannon AFB.
Continuous Cycles: Off to War/Welcome Home
Additionally, the AFSOC commander pointed out that the end of combat and of American deployments to Iraq has brought many of AFSOC’s Air Commandos home. “This will give some rest to the units which have carried the load in that theater, but it will also give us the chance to ensure the other theaters of the world see AFSOC aircraft and people more often.”
Throughout 2011, there have been regular, monthly, and same-week ceremonies of sending Air Commandos to the war zones on a contracted commercial airliner, and then welcoming home the people whom they replaced when they arrive at their home bases on the same aircraft four or five days later. Col. Jim Slife, the 1st Special Operations Wing commander at Hurlburt Field, Fla., said that in the latter part of 2011, more were returning home than were going out due to the end of deployments in Iraq. By the end of the year, AFSOC was considering how best to make aircraft and people available to previously neglected theaters.
Throughout the year for AFSOC, as with all of special operations forces (SOF), the constant was the wars. Missions by the gunships, Talons, and CV-22 aircraft were flown literally every day and night in the war zones. The primary deploying units from the SOWs at Hurlburt and Cannon received significant augmentation from the overseas Special Operations Groups (SOGs): the 352nd at Mildenhall, England, and the 353rd at Kadena Air Base (AB), Okinawa. Special Tactics airmen from all AFSOC locations participated in almost every ground mission by accompanying Green Berets and Navy SEALs on their patrols and training engagements. As has been true since 2003, awards are written after rotational returns, and then the awards ceremonies await the return from subsequent deployments.
Notably, in 2011, one AFSOC airman was awarded the Air Force Cross for a mission that occurred in 2009. Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), was severely wounded during a raid and continued to perform his duties in spite of a collapsed lung. Refusing relief from his duties, Gutierrez twice endured the needle re-inflation of his lung during the four-hour engagement. Gutierrez called in air strikes that protected the team, decimated the enemy, and allowed the Americans to egress the area and rendezvous with medevac helicopters. Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz made the presentation of the medal at Hurlburt Field, calling Gutierrez and all of the battlefield airmen the “most forward, most joint combat arm of the air service.” Gutierrez spoke of his duties, his actions, and his injuries:
“I’ve seen injuries like that before and time isn’t your friend. You get it done. The mission comes first, so I figured I had a couple minutes to live before I bled out. So, I was going to do anything I could to bring the fight to the enemy and keep my guys safe.”
In 2011, and as far into the future as can be predicted, the special tactics/battlefield airmen remain the most deployed, and most decorated, of any career field in AFSOC.
A significant additional combat mission occurred in March through May 2011, when Operation Odyssey Dawn required a short-notice deployment of gunships, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capability, CV-22s, and Special Tactics airmen to support the air campaign over Libya. Stateside units deployed to augment the 352nd Special Operations Group at Mildenhall, U.K., and then deployed forward to bases in the Mediterranean to support the combat zone. 352nd Group Commander Col. Gary “Chainsaw” McCollum worked as the SOF Air Component Commander of both Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) and Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) to prepare missions tasked from each direction. Gunship missions flown over Libya had the desired lethal effects on Libyan army units, aiding in protecting rebel population centers. Other aircraft of the SOF air component were held back at Mildenhall as national leadership decided not to allow ground units to support the rebels, and even to limit severely any advisory ground elements. The CV-22s remained in the U.K. until their scheduled May deployment date to proceed forward into Afghanistan.
Natural Disaster Mission Divert: Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami
On the other side of the world and also in March 2011, AFSOC units had an unexpected mission interrupt the routine of training and augmenting the war in the Middle East. Col. Robert Toth, then the 353rd Special Operations Group commander at Kadena, Okinawa, had just deployed much of his group to South Korea for a training exercise when Japan experienced a severe earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami along its eastern coastline. As in the earthquake situation the year before in Haiti, the Joint Special Operations Air Component to the Theater Special Operations Command had the first assets capable of deploying to provide aid. Unlike at Haiti, the Japanese government was intact and working to provide aid to the region, but like many natural disasters, lacked communications and knowledge of the disaster area due to widespread destruction. Toth sent aircraft and planners forward to Yokota Air Base, Japan, the day after the tsunami and followed a day later with the rest of his group staff. They established communications with the government of Japan through U.S. Forces-Japan headquarters at Yokota and began planning to find and use airfields near the disaster area where humanitarian aid could be delivered most effectively.