Over the past few decades, it has become apparent that to fully employ air power to its maximum potential, there has to be a full spectrum of targeting from ground level to space. Is it safe to say that airpower “experts” had really failed to understand that idea prior to your ST folks getting in the fight in those early days after 9/11 at Mazar-e Sharif and Bagram Air Base (AB) in 2001?
I would agree with you that we certainly underestimated the importance of it in certain cases. However, institutions learn differently than individuals. I think that what really highlighted it, though, was the nature of this conflict. The real challenge is having the situational awareness of understanding everything that’s happening on the battlefield, to be able to make the decision to use lethal fires when necessary. That’s something that the United States has never taken lightly and the Air Force has never taken lightly, which is why so much investment has been put into the ST community. You know, in 1942, the Army Air Corps realized that you had to have airmen out there to ensure the delivery of these [fires near] Army troopers was accurate. And in 1947, when the Air Force separated, they said, “That’s our mission. That’s our role. That’s our job, to ensure that we provide air power to you, the Army.” Hence the basis for this [ST] career field we have today. Often, though, I think we get caught in the technology, and think that humans are going to be replaced with technology. And there’s certainly aspects where that could be the case. But when you’re talking about the nature of warfare and the responsibility the United States takes toward conducting lethal operations, it’s not something that we’re willing to trust to anyone other than an expert who’s got the judgment, the training, and the authority to make those decisions.
How well do those ranges, facilities, and infrastructure at Hurlburt today match up with the needs and requirements of the 24th SOW?
I was stationed here first in ’94, so I’ve got a history of watching the place a little bit. The thing with Special Tactics is we do such a broad array of operations that no one place is going to meet all of our requirements. The biggest benefit for us of being here at Hurlburt Field is a combination of two environments, both land and water, and the access to the 1st SOW, our Air Commando brothers that fly the special operations aircraft. Being merged with them allows us to train and maintain that competence level for the employment of air power. You know, we can shoot gunships here, do helo calls for fire, and helo insertions, and there’s a lot of space to go move around on the range and do some swamp operations. There are great water ranges for airdrops, scuba divers, boat operations, and all the myriad amphibious operations. So, it’s worked out very well for that.
However, there are other aspects of our jobs that mean we just clearly have to go elsewhere because of environmental reasons. So on the rescue side, we spend a lot of time doing the rock climbing, high angle rescue, and pulling folks off the side of the mountains in places like New Hampshire and out west in the mountainous environments. I’ll tell you one of the most challenging things for us to track down in terms of places to train on a range is a Special Forces ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha] or for a SEAL team. Putting air support overhead is a collective task. It’s a unit-level task. But, when you’re an airman that’s integrating it all, it’s an individual-level task. So, we spend the majority of our time trying to put this stack of air power overhead, a very costly and expensive effort, because the first time that airmen does it with that Special Forces team on his very first deployment with no one looking over his shoulder, that No. 12 guy in that ODA [the ST airman] has got 11 people looking over his shoulder. You always have to have your first deployment and he’s got to put a stack of air power overhead, and when things go wrong he’s the guy that’s going to create order out of the chaos on that battlefield because of what air power can provide in terms of strike and ISR and mobility. So, we spend a lot of time chasing airplanes and ranges across the United States, mainly close air support aircraft. In fact, the challenge of the declining size of the U.S. Air Force is acutely known amongst all of those folks that try to maintain their qualifications in joint terminal attack control. But in the end, this has been a great place to train. We have folks all over the place and many of them still come here to train because of the 1st SOW and the assets we have here, as well as a pretty good set of ranges for us to use here at Eglin.
What is the current configuration of the 24th SOW and what units are in it?
Within the 24th SOW there’s really three subordinate entities. The first one is the 720th Special Tactics Group and my Wing 06 (colonel commanding) Headquarters located here at Hurlburt, along with an Operational Support Squadron (OSS). Then we have the Special Tactics Squadrons, each with its 05 (lieutenant colonel commanding) headquarters. There’s one here at Hurlburt – the 23rd STS – the 21st STS up at Pope Field, the 22nd STS out at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the 26th STS out at Cannon AFB, and the 17th STS at Fort Benning, Georgia. The STSs also have their own OSSs, which do their ops and some support functions. The next entity is the 724th Special Tactics Group, which is also an 06 headquarters responsible for tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP), which is located up at Fort Bragg, and they also have an operational support squadron, a Special Tactics Squadron, and the mission support squadron associated with that organization. And, then we have the Special Tactics Training Squadron, which is located here at Hurlburt, that directly reports to the wing and is responsible for the initial upgrade training for Combat Control, Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWTs), and SOF-specific pararescue TTPs as they come into AFSOC. So, it’s really those three entities. Two groups, the 720th and 724th and their Training Squadron, and the Special Tactics Training Squadron.
Can you contrast the number of ST personnel that you actually have with the number for which you actually are authorized?
Well, I’ll start by saying that for Combat Controllers, we’re authorized 488 and currently have 375. For Pararescue Jumpers, we’re authorized 169 and have 116. For Tactical Air Control Party (TacP) personnel, we’re authorized at 117 and we have 87, and for Special Operations Weather Team members, we’re authorized 96 and have 66. For Special Tactics officers, we’re authorized 76 and have 56. Combat Rescue officers, we’re authorized 21 and have 10. And for our SOWT officers, we’re authorized 12 and have four. So, overall in the ST operator specialties that we have, we’re about 73 percent manned across those personnel. So we’re currently sitting about 700 operators. I’d say we probably have about another 500 to 600 mission supporters – you know, radio maintainers and parachute riggers and all those kind of folks that make the ST mission happen for us. But when it comes to battlefield effects, it’s a very, very small force that achieves these effects. We run as hard as the nation needs us to run and our break point is when a squadron commander says, “I can’t send my guys anymore.” I think one of the things I am working on is to try to get a better understanding of what our limits are before we push our men past their limits in doing this, because the demand doesn’t go away. And if I had 100 additional people today, I could find 100 new billets, because other communities would convert their billets to mine in a minute if I would give them a guy to put into it.
Col. Tony D. Bauernfeind – 27th SOW
(Cannon AFB, New Mexico)
Just a few years ago, after the last round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) proceedings, Cannon AFB was for all intents and purposes dead. Never a favored base by Air Combat Command (ACC) after the end of the Cold War, Cannon was viewed as redundant and expendable, and scheduled for closure. However, then-Gov. Bill Richardson and the civic leaders in northeastern New Mexico saw a different future for Cannon, and began a determined effort to keep the base open and find a new client to make use of it. Their selling point was space. Lots of it. Cannon AFB has a vast tract of range space adjacent to the base, which is absolutely ideal for training of all kinds, including live fire. With little or no civilian intrusion on the perimeter of the base and its ranges, Cannon AFB had incredible potential if only a new military tenant could be found with that particular need. Enter AFSOC.
As part of its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)-mandated expansion due to be completed by 2013, AFSOC needed to stand up a new SOW at a base with good training/live-fire ranges. So the obvious “fit” between the New Mexico political leadership and AFSOC was quickly recognized and an agreement made for Cannon AFB to be the home for a brand-new SOW, the 27th. Conducting a variety of roles and missions for AFSOC, Cannon AFB and its tenant 27th SOW are both similar to and different from Hurlburt Field and its 1st SOW. Both provide basing, training, maintenance, and packaging of AFSOC forces for overseas contingencies, but their peripheral roles and missions are somewhat different. In the case of Cannon AFB, it tends to host more training and certification exercises, and has different schoolhouses from Hurlburt Field.
The commander of the 27th SOW at the time of this interview was Col. Tony D. Bauernfeind, although one week later he transferred command of the wing to Col. Benjamin R. Maitre and moved into a new assignment as deputy commander, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command, Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Year in Special Operations: You command a relatively new SOW at a relatively new base that is still building the necessary facilities and infrastructure to accomplish your mission. That said, how important is the teamwork you are trying to create within the 27th SOW as the wing and base mature?
Col. Tony D. Bauernfeind: That’s one of the big things I brought to the table here at Cannon Air Force Base, and it takes every single one of our 6,000 members of the wing, all rolling in the same direction, to be successful in our missions. And so, teamwork is key to me. Too many times in our career we tend to try to define our value by how close to the fight we are, and then it’s just not a teamwork focus. When you have everybody in the wing and on the base knowing their impact to the mission, and knowing their value to the mission, that’s going to be a much more successful team. We’ve embraced that here in our wing mission statement, that our mission in life is to provide precise, reliable, flexible, and responsive specialized air power for our joint teammates. Whether that be Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, Marine Special Operations Battalions, Combat Control, Pararescuemen, or allied SOF, our joint teammates are going to know that we’ve got their back with a blanket of specialized air power. Here at the 27th SOW, that air power includes manned and unmanned ISR and specialized mobility, assault, and precision strike capabilities to make sure that we as a joint team are successful on the battlefields.