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Air Force Special Tactics

Per Astra Ad Aspera: The Past, Present, and Future

Alongside brethren personifying the motto “These Things We Do, That Others May Live,” the small commando contingent was called upon to prepare for duty in Southeast Asia. Enthusiastic men of all stripes (one colorful individual kept a cougar for a pet) soon filled the ranks of Combat Control (CCT) and Pararescue (PJ). “Per Astra Ad Aspera” (roughly, “from the sky to do difficult things”) became an apt slogan for the men as they began operations in and around Vietnam. On a near-daily basis, CCTs and PJs wrote the book on joint air to ground operations.

Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger

As a Kaman HH-43F Huskie hovers, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, Pararescue crew member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS), is extracted from a burning minefield while holding a wounded Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldier. The soldier lost a foot when he stepped on a landmine. Nobody could figure out how to extract the wounded soldier without tripping the mines. Pitsenbarger said, “No problem, just lower me down on the penetrator, I’ll straddle the guy, pick him up, and then you can lift me up.” Risky, as everyone knew that the rotor wash could also set off the mines. Pitsenbarger earned the Airman’s Medal and Vietnam’s Medal of Military Merit and the Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm for this action. Pitsenbarger later was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for a different action. DoD photo

For instance, on Feb. 22, 1967, the first recorded joint-service combat jump occurred when eight Combat Controllers jumped alongside the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade near Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam. Pararescuemen, for their part, completely rewrote the book on combat search and rescue.  The exploits of these men during Vietnam have become legendary, heroics best illustrated by the posthumous awarding of the Medal of Honor to Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (of the 38th Rescue and Recovery Squadron).

The bitter aftertaste of Vietnam tempered American military operations for decades, yet battles within the Air Force raged over the future of these irregular blue-suiters. At various points, PJs and CCTs belonged to Tactical Air Command, Pacific Command, Air Mobility Command, European Command, Air Combat Command, and Military Airlift Command. The constant organizational shifts did little to stifle the innovative spirit of the community. Throughout the 1970s, CCT refined beacon bombing and gunship techniques in classified missions throughout Laos. During the 1970 Son Tay raid, air integration specialists proved their worth controlling air support and the extraction landing zone site. On a parallel track, PJs continued to expand their full-spectrum rescue capabilities supporting space shuttle recovery operations. Sadly, it would take yet another operational disaster to bring these career fields together.

The failed Iranian hostage rescue prompted political leaders to reconsider how irregular military skill sets could be better managed, synchronized, and developed. While American attention remained locked on America’s Cold War rival, a skeleton command was taking shape that would codify and champion an alternative style of warfare. U.S. Special Operations Command was activated on April 16, 1987, spurring services to rethink how to organize and categorize their irregular forces.

In a flurry of reorganizations, the Air Force brought together two career fields with very different missions, but remarkably similar employment techniques and equipment. In the early hours of Oct. 1, 1987, the 1720th Special Tactics Group was activated, combining PJ and CCT career fields and laying the foundations for an amalgamation of irregular skills that would later be dubbed battlefield air operations.

Desert Storm-Air Force Pararescue

Navy Lt. Devon Jones, left, runs toward the Pave Low helicopter that rescued him during Operation Desert Storm. The 20th SOS conducted the first combat search and rescue since the Vietnam War. U.S. Air Force photo

The 1990s was a fast and furious period for the new command – beginning an operational tempo that would only increase with the passing years. Special Tactics involvement in nearly every major military operation – from combat to humanitarian relief – during the 1990s is a testament to the dedication and drive of the command. Operations Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Desert Strike, Sea Angel, and Uphold Democracy are but a small sampling of the operations ST forces engaged and distinguished themselves in at the onset of the decade. ST contributions were most pronounced, however, during Operation Desert Storm, when ST airmen expertly controlled more than 8,000 fixed- and rotary-winged sorties on established, highway, and even dirt landing zones. The rescue of Lt. Devon Jones in hostile territory exemplified the bravery of Pararescuemen in the conflict. Following the war, the 1720th was redesignated the 720th Special Tactics Group and soon drew a new set of capabilities – those of Combat Weather – under the ST fold.

On Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy would again touch the United States. As Americans recovered from the shock of the terrorist attacks, senior leaders sought out avenues to immediately take the fight to the nation’s enemies. Special Tactics was poised to answer the call. Within days, ST warriors, alongside Army Special Forces and CIA personnel, were linked up with Afghan Northern Alliance militias and directed to hunt down and decimate al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Climbing aboard whatever was moving toward the enemy, be it Chinook helicopters, Toyota Hiluxes, or Afghan stallions, Special Tactics personnel relentlessly pursued the enemy through Tarnak Farms, the Khyber Pass, the streets of Kabul, past the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and deep into the Tora Bora mountains.

They haven’t stopped since. Credited with more than 10,000 enemy killed in Afghanistan, and more than 600 in Iraq, Special Tactics is also credited with saving hundreds of lives; including a daring hostage rescue at 10,000 feet in eastern Afghanistan. Though these numbers are impressive, they only touch on the significance of Special Tactics. What isn’t accounted for are the thousands of missions that were accomplished without incident due to ST involvement and integration from the very outset of mission planning.

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    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-55855">

    -” 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”- Are you serious? How about the SOWT is back at the TOC updating slides and relaying and collecting weather data from there?? I’m not saying they don’t have a critical role but don’t make sh$t up…honestly, reading that made me laugh and is also going to supply my ODA ammo for Months of trash talking….just say it how it is…If people don’t like it there are jobs that you can cross train into that don’t need to try so hard….