Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has maintained numerous deployments to combat zones, worked numerous issues to modernize its fleet of aircraft, trained its people in new aircraft and tactics, taken care of its wounded, accentuated programs for its families, and, overall, had what its commander would call a “normal” year in the post-9/11 era. The command has had a full share of celebrations, with unit homecomings and awards ceremonies, but has seen them balanced against a couple of aircraft losses and, worst of all, some combat losses of people who were serving their county in dangerous places. AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Eric E. Fiel said that AFSOC’s priorities conform to U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM), in that current missions come first, as they must when the country is fighting a war against a globally dispersed network of extremists. Second comes the expansion of the Global Special Operations Forces (SOF) Network, and next, tending to the welfare of the people, including active duty, Department of Defense civilians, and their families. Closely related, the fourth priority is providing proper resources in equipment and installations, involving the tools the people use to do their jobs and the places where they work and where they and their families live. This fourth priority constitutes major force laydowns to move greater capability forward to be more responsive to anticipated mission requirements, future expansion of overseas units, major acquisitions of aircraft, and significant changes in the lives of AFSOC’s people. As such, this fourth priority constitutes a major effort to prepare the command for the future and to prepare its people for the changes ahead.
The Current Fight: Simultaneous Pullback and Advance
The year 2012 began with the last AFSOC aircraft in Iraq, an AC-130H of the 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), leaving on Jan. 10, ending AFSOC efforts in that country, which at one time had more than 60 percent of the entire command’s assets committed. The H-model squadron was able to go home in its entirety for the first time since a brief period in 2003. Except for those four months, at least a third of the squadron remained deployed from September 2001 until December 2011. Indeed, during times of surge for combat in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the squadron deployed at 100 percent of aircraft and 90 percent of personnel. The chance for the squadron to be home and to fully re-fit itself also occurred at a relatively new home as the 16th SOS had moved from Hurlburt Field, Fla., to Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), N.M., in 2008. The 16th SOS gunships amassed 24,366 combat flight hours contributing to 4,640 enemy killed in action and 5,018 high-value individuals captured.
Meanwhile, the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and the 27th SOW at Cannon AFB maintained their status as the first and second most deployed bases in the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Some of the personnel at these bases belong to another AFSOC wing that is brand new – the 24th Special Operations Wing, activated on June 12, 2012, to provide leadership and to organize, train, and equip all Special Tactics (ST) units in AFSOC. These three wings of AFSOC are continuously deployed, replacing people and aircraft on a rotational basis. They cannot trade out with other wings as the conventional forces do. There is no time, therefore, when they are not deployed to combat.
According to Col. Jim Slife, commander of the 1st SOW, the two squadrons flying the U-28A aircraft – the 319th SOS and the 34th SOS, both at Hurlburt – win the prize as the most deployed flying squadrons and most deployed aircraft in AFSOC during 2012. The deployments of these manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft testify to the needs of that capability in every theater. These small, single-engine aircraft are in use in all combat zones assisting U.S. troops and in several noncombat locations to assist U.S. forces and partner nations in the fight against extremist groups across the Middle East, across Africa, and in the Pacific.
The U-28As also sustained the largest single loss in AFSOC in 2012 when one of the aircraft crashed near Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti on Feb. 18. Four crew members died in the accident, which did not involve any enemy fire. The squadrons mourned the loss while continuing unbroken the deployed operations at all U-28A locations.
Also seeing more movement into new and different theaters, the 27th SOW at Cannon deployed AFSOC’s newest aircraft, the PC-12, the C-145 (M-28 Skytruck), and the C-146A (Dornier Do-328), to every theater, supporting combat and noncombat operations. In fact, the return home of the C-145s from their first combat deployment to Afghanistan was followed by short-notice deployment to Africa. The C-146s deployed to the Middle East and to Africa within weeks of aircraft delivery. The demand for these aircraft is overwhelming as soon as the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) learn about the responsive and durable mobility support they can provide.