Korengal Valley, Afghanistan: Four months into their deployment, a joint special operations team moves to conduct a “key leader engagement” with tribal elders when they are suddenly ambushed. Pinned down in tortuous terrain, a “troops in contact” call is immediately declared over an established satellite communications network. Within minutes, an Air Force Combat Controller’s headset is buzzing with chatter from inbound F-15E Strike Eagles. Surrounded by chaos, team leader barking orders in the background, the controller surveys the situation, slows the scenario in his mind, and goes to work.
Minutes later, the strike package turns inbound for their first bomb pass. The F-15s expertly place “bomb on coordinates” provided by the Combat Controller while he reassesses the situation and calmly prepares the aircraft for a second pass – simultaneously engaging the enemy in a ferocious gunfight. Meanwhile, Air Force HH-60 helicopters scream toward the objective to support a casualty evacuation mission for a wounded special operations teammate. Crouched in the back are Air Force Pararescuemen who have spent their entire adult life preparing to go into harm’s way to save lives. As aircraft stack overhead and the fight rages on, Special Operations Weathermen continue to fuse meteorological data to ensure weather complications do not overtake the team as they complete their mission. A savvy special operations forces (SOF) team leader, enabled by a small element of Special Tactics (ST) warriors, turns the tide in their favor and ultimately win the day.
Simultaneously, halfway around the world, State Department officials confer with military officers on how to provide much-needed disaster relief to a country destroyed by massive earthquakes and flooding. When told that political sensitivities demand a small military footprint, that the single airport near the affected area is without electricity or communications, and that there will be no support available to any inserted team, a voice replies, “We can do that, send us.” Within hours, a small ST element jumps into the airfield, assesses the runway, sets up navigational aids, and opens an airhead for specialized aircraft to begin delivering humanitarian aid. Survival specialists begin testing and treating water for the gathering masses, while Pararescuemen triage and treat the injured. Hope is brought to those who had resigned themselves to death.
Similar scenarios occur on a near-daily basis throughout the world. Although often overlooked, the ability to rapidly integrate specialized airpower and immediately alter the course of battle has remained a critical factor in innumerable SOF mission successes. This rapid and seamless integration of airpower did not happen overnight. It has been a long and difficult journey to achieve such decisive, surgical effects for special operations forces. Committed to remaining a valued member of the joint fight, the story of Special Tactics serves as a case study on adaptation, integration, and success in modern warfare.
The birth of Air Force Special Tactics can be traced to the disastrous July 1943 parachute drop into Sicily. The airborne infiltration phase of Operation Husky was, to put it bluntly, a complete fiasco. Less than 20 percent of the men made the drop zone, while many landed more than 20 miles away from their intended targets. A furious Col. James M. Gavin summarily decreed that airborne operations would thereafter utilize methods to sharpen drop accuracy. The decree was answered in spades.
Immediately following the activation of the first Pathfinder units, the group proved its worth. Two hundred of these specially trained commandos jumped ahead of follow-on airborne forces during the September 1943 assault of Paestum, Italy. Follow-on jumpers landed safely on the drop zone, and the demand for these experts skyrocketed. Within a year, glider-borne commando teams were created to be “First There” behind enemy lines and control the infiltration of follow-on forces. Simultaneously, more than 6,000 miles to the east, a pioneering group of young men – energized by Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold’s commanding words “… to hell with the paperwork, go out and fight” – began to wage shadow operations in the Burmese jungles. While their cousins in the European theater were supporting large-scale conventional operations, small teams of Air Commandos in the Pacific were writing the book on integrating airpower into unconventional warfare.
Maturation of the Force
Following World War II, Special Tactics’ modest beginnings became further fused through turf wars between the Army and the Air Force. The Allied victory in World War II dictated a subsequent drawdown of American military forces, triggering a fight between the Army and fledgling Air Force over the control of these air integration specialists. After seemingly endless debate, the Air Force retained control, but like any young organization with new capabilities, it wasn’t entirely certain how to manage or develop its unique assets. Time and operational adaptation would dictate that development. Vietnam would provide the venue.