U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is a fundamentally different kind of special operations force (SOF) from the other service component commands within U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). When a Special Forces (SF) team is pinned down by the enemy and needs precision air support, AFSOC Special Tactics (ST) personnel are the ones who do that job better than anyone else. Similarly, while the legendary 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has a well-known ability to put personnel onto any spot in the world, plus or minus 30 seconds from time-on-target, it is AFSOC MC-130 tanker/transports that make sure they have the airborne gas to actually reach and return from the selected landing zones (LZs). When a shot-down pilot needs to be rescued from behind enemy lines, AFSOC ST personnel are the ones who jump into the darkness and bring them home. AFSOC does all that, and a lot more. You need to reopen an airfield nearly wrecked by a massive earthquake? AFSOC ST did exactly that in Haiti several years ago, allowing desperately needed relief supplies, personnel, and capabilities to be delivered within a matter of hours.
AFSOC is often referred to as an “enabling force,” and provides the rest of SOCOM (among many other military forces and organizations) the ability to get where they need to go, and do what they need to do. It is these kinds of skills and capabilities, not resident anywhere else within SOCOM, that make AFSOC an essential consideration in the planning of any special operation anywhere in the world.
AFSOC is composed of dozens of active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard units based around the globe. But the operational and combat power of the command resides within four Special Operations Wings (SOWs) and one Special Operations Group (SOG). These five units, and the four different bases they call home, represent a carefully structured organization designed to maximize the ability to deploy and operate, while making sure that their personnel and their dependents are cared for in a manner befitting some of America’s finest warriors. On this 25th anniversary of the standup of Air Force Special Operations Command, we spoke to the five commanding officers of these units to see what they had to say about what is special and unique about each of their commands.
Col. Sean M. Farrell – 1st SOW
(Hurlburt Field, Florida)
The oldest and longest tenant at Hurlburt Field, the 1st SOW traces its roots back to the Air Commandos of World War II and the Cold War. Today the 1st SOW is the flagship unit for AFSOC, and continues its tradition of aerial unconventional warfare as one of the two largest combat wings in the command. Composed of more than 70 aircraft, including the AC-130, MC-130, CV-22, U-28, and PC-12, 1st SOW is one of two stateside AFSOC combat wings that trains, maintains, organizes, and packages Air Force special warfare forces for deployments overseas. This is a tradition for Hurlburt Field that dates back three quarters of a century to when Jimmy Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders trained at and around Hurlburt and Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) before their famous 1942 raid against Japan.
The current commander of the 1st SOW is Col. Sean M. Farrell, who has more than 3,500 flight hours in C-130 Hercules variants, including combat in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
The Year in Special Operations: You have spent most of your career in various versions of the C-130 Hercules. What kind of things did you learn in those airframes and how do those lessons influence your approach today as you run 1st SOW?
Col. Sean M. Farrell: Well, as you know, my first AFSOC airframe was the AC-130H Spectre gunship. That airframe traditionally in combat carries anywhere from 13 to 14 crew members, and in garrison operations such as in training, we can put up to 21 people on one of those aircraft. So, the first thing you learn in gunships is that teamwork is paramount, and everyone having the same goal is paramount. And being able to properly articulate that as a leader inside that aircraft is also very important. I think a lot of those same skills I’ve brought to the 1st Special Operations Wing, where I have to very clearly articulate my position and get my entire wing pulling on the same end of the rope. I think another critical thing I learned in gunships is teamwork with others outside your team sharing a common goal. So, whether it’s the ground force commander or a JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] on the ground, we have to make sure that our efforts are synchronized with other organizations. I see my role as 1st SOW commander the same way. I have to synchronize the activities of my wing with my higher headquarters as well as my component brothers and sisters.
You and the 1st SOW live in a complex of bases that is one of the most diverse in the Air Force. What did you find waiting for you when you arrived at 1st Special Operations Wing that was different from the range complexes and the infrastructure you had out at Cannon AFB, New Mexico?
Obviously the ranges at Cannon are a lot newer to the AFSOC portfolio, so they’re not as mature as the ranges that we have here in the Eglin complex. I also think there is a little bit more freedom of maneuver with respect to our ranges in New Mexico; however, our ranges here provided by the Eglin range complex are currently suiting all of our needs and we have a very good relationship with our partners both at the 33rd Fighter Wing and the test folks. Also, I like to take advantage of our unique proximity, or close proximity, to 7th Special Forces Group (SFG) to be able to train with one of our traditional partners.
You command a unit that has a long and rich history and tradition of service to SOCOM, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the nation. Given that history and 1st SOW’s “can do” reputation, how has that shaped your command approach to it?
I think that the roles and missions that our commandos have undertaken in the past are really very similar to the ones that we’re taking on right now, and will be called upon to take in the future. I think that our airmen are displaying ingenuity, tenaciousness, and courage every day, and I think that our quiet professionalism prevents us from speaking too much more about it.
Can you talk about the units that are presently resident at Hurlburt within your wing and, if you could, include also the support units and what missions the wing is tasked with?
Within the 1st Special Operations Wing, I have four subordinate groups: medical, maintenance, operations group, and support. In addition to the 1st SOW assets at Hurlburt Field, we currently are hosting 34 partner or tenant organizations that represent six Air Force major commands. So, as the host unit, the 1st SOW is responsible for much of the care and feeding of those personnel and tenant organizations, including medical and personnel and standard base support.