The Future of Special Tactics
The official mission of Air Force Special Tactics is “to organize, train, and equip all Combat Control, Pararescue, Special Operations Weather, Tactical Air Control Party and support personnel assigned to Special Tactics units to integrate, synchronize, and/or control the elements of air and space power in the objective area.” It is a broad mission statement, but to those close to the Special Tactics community, it still falls short. To fully understand ST, one must understand the often unstated rationale behind why Special Tactics exists and what drives the community’s constant operational evolution. These principles are perhaps best articulated by 720th Special Tactics Group Commander Col. Robert G. Armfield. “We strive to remain at the razor’s edge of modern conflict and fulfill our role as a valued teammate in the joint fight. To this end, the Special Tactics community exists to push the boundaries of air-to-ground integration. We are constantly seeking innovative new ways to integrate all aspects of air power: through terminal attack control, assault zone survey and control, full spectrum rescue and recovery, meteorological forecasting, or mission sets that have yet to be named. At the end of the day, our skills provide commanders a multitude of options to achieve desired battlefield effects.”
There is something strangely powerful behind this vision. Typically, a military force will define itself by either the mission sets or the types of environments for which they were designed. Not so for Special Tactics. Instead, the community defines itself by downplaying specific missions or operational environments and highlighting the integrative role it plays.
The recent addition of Special Operations Tactical Air Control Party and Special Operations Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape airmen broadens and deepens the already-impressive skill sets of the ST community. Whether it is opening the New Orleans airport to bring in disaster relief, supporting village stability operations in Afghanistan, conducting precision strikes during hostage rescue missions, providing full-spectrum rescue capability, or forecasting critical meteorological data, Special Tactics airmen continue to tailor their unique capabilities to meet the demands of modern conflict. This pioneering and innovative spirit will serve the community well in upcoming years.
With an era of fiscal austerity looming over the American military, political and military leaders must seriously consider the balance of future military forces. As services face across-the-board cuts, the ability and skills required to integrate and maximize the effects of leaner forces becomes increasingly more valuable. This is a sentiment not lost upon Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). “There is scant little room in modern warfare for things that do only one thing well. We need to seek out and empower personnel and weapons systems capable of out-thinking and out-adapting our enemies. Light, lean, lethal, and precise are the coins of the realm in the types of conflict we will continue to face. This is exactly what Special Tactics brings to the fight.”
Fiel’s approval of the 24th Special Operations Wing (SOW, activated in June 2012) is a watershed moment for both AFSOC and the ST community. The first of its kind, this command will be responsible for the training, equipping, and employment of all Air Force Special Tactics airmen. Fiel added, “The time is absolutely right to carry out this initiative. The 24th Special Operations Wing will finally consolidate our air integration specialists under a single wing commander, amplifying their operational voice and allowing AFSOC to better support these unique warriors.” Armfield – tapped to be the 24 SOW’s first commander – echoes Fiel’s sentiments. “We strive to build upon the successes of our force and I anticipate the wing will help set the conditions for our forces to be even more effective in the future. At our best, ST will provide commanders finely-trained warriors that provide battlefield air operation skills – and I say this literally – wherever, whenever, and however the situation demands.”
The activation of the 24 SOW is, in large part, an acknowledgement of the combat success and unique role of the Air Force’s premier battlefield airmen. Not only are there research and development efficiencies to be gained through the consolidation of airpower integrations specialists, under a unified wing, the ST force stands poised to dramatically alter methods in which airpower is integrated and employed. “Many factors have accelerated the rate of change as it pertains to armed conflict. Globalization, instantaneous worldwide communication, constant global media coverage, and the propagation of smaller, increasingly lethal weapons are but a few of these factors. If we intend to achieve success in this new environment, we have to be creative in how we employ and integrate specialized airpower. My task to the 24th SOW is to ensure AFSOC remains an innovative learning organization that continues to push the limits of airpower employment.” The tasking set forth by Fiel is certainly a daunting one, but one the ST community appears ready to tackle. In the words of Group Operations Superintendent Senior Master Sgt. Davide Keaton, “We are here thanks to the dedication and sacrifices of those who came before us. We welcome this challenge and, like our predecessors, we will not fail.”
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, Air Force Special Operations Command, or the U.S. government. The author would also like to thank Faircount Media Group for its generous donation to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation on behalf of the Special Tactics community.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.