Col. William G. Holt – 352nd SOW
(RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom)
The largest AFSOC unit based outside of the continental United States (CONUS), the 352nd SOW is located on the venerable air base at Royal Air Force (RAF) Mildenhall in Suffolk. But despite calling a 1930s RAF air base home, the 352nd SOW is a unit that is evolving fast and moving soon. Until just recently, the 352nd was a SOG like the 353rd at Kadena AB in the Far East. But some expansion in the unit itself, as well as an enlargement of its roles and missions, means that in early 2015 the 352nd became a SOW. The 352nd is also extremely busy, providing aircraft and personnel for operations across Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. There are also plans to move the 352nd some time in the next several years, to Spangdahlem AB, in Germany.
The Year in Special Operations: You have a rather unique arrangement over in European Command (EUCOM) regarding the relationship of the 352nd SOW to the rest of the force. Can you explain both that structured relationship and your relationship to NATO there in EUCOM?
Col. William G. Holt: Actually, I have two hats that I wear with EUCOM and NATO. I am the Joint Special Operations Air Component (JSOAC) commander here. That’s one job. My other job is the 352nd Special Operations Wing commander, which we recently stood up as a Special Operations Wing (SOW).
It’s been a very interesting year and I’m excited to get the activation behind us and see what it’s like from this point forward.
At the moment, the 352nd SOW is undergoing simultaneous structural and organizational changes, which have to be described as formidable. Can you please explain them to our readers?
At the moment, the most significant changes are coming as we “split” one flying squadron into two, along with growing and reorganizing our ground echelon elements. Right now we have seven CV-22s (the 7th SOS) and seven MC-130Js (the 67th SOS), so our aircraft base is an entirely new fleet. Our oldest airplane is about two years old, and we’re still flying them out of the factory. And we still have six more (three each of CV-22s and C-130Js) scheduled to arrive over the next couple of years. So, some additional CVs and some additional MC-Js, and some additional personnel for maintenance and flying those aircraft are also inbound. So, the 352nd SOW in the near-term future will continue to grow slowly as we get those additional assets. That’s probably the most exciting thing we have going on. There are also some new focuses here in Europe, based on missions within the area of responsibility (AOR), and then we’re also doing some cross-Combatant Command support to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), because they don’t have their own SOF aviation component. So we support both theaters.
What shape are your facilities and the infrastructure there at RAF Mildenhall in today? We get the idea that you’re not going to be there that long. But talk first about Mildenhall if you will?
Mildenhall’s facilities are fairly old, and there’s not a lot of new construction on the base. My offices are actually on the side of a hangar that was built, I believe, in 1932. It’s been obviously upgraded since then, but at one point it was being camouflaged. There were spotlights on the roof and air raid sirens that were vintage World War II or somewhere in that time frame. That said, we have a wonderful relationship with the host wing, the 100th Air Refueling Wing. So we work with them to keep the facilities operating, although they are definitely showing age. We need a new home, and that is going to be on the European continent.
I’ll start by saying our Western European partners have great range opportunities for us, some of them very good. But, those nations also tend to have a lot of restrictions on operating in their countries – places like France, Germany, Italy, and so forth. As far as Eastern Europe is concerned, we have really good working relationships with all the nations in Eastern Europe right now, and there are some really good training opportunities there, although those nations themselves don’t necessarily have the same funding for their military as some of the Western European nations. But we do partner with all of those nations across the continent.
The biggest challenge is going to be the move of the wing to Spangdahlem, Germany. That won’t occur for several years, and will be a challenge for my successor for sure. We’re already working some of the details and there’s going to be a lot of new military construction (MILCON) for our wing before we get there. But there will also be some challenges with developing training opportunities there. But that will just be something we have to do like we do here in England. But sometime in the next five to seven years, the wing will move from RAF Mildenhall to Spangdahlem, and Mildenhall will close at that point.
With two major regional Combatant Commands to service, it goes without saying that the 352nd SOW is a very high opstempo unit. I recognize you’ve got new airplanes, but how does that very high opstempo strain your aircraft crews and support personnel, and how are you managing those stresses?
For us, the opstempo is a little different than the other wings. We are on the road a lot but it tends to be on shorter duration – one-to-two week types of missions and engagements. We do cover longer combat rotations like other SOWs, but primarily we are on the road for shorter periods of time, then back home for one or two weeks, and then back out on the road again. The toughest challenge I have right now with opstempo is the crew ratios. With new airplanes come new crews, and we are still building up our crew force for the CV-22 and the MC-130J. I won’t get into specific details on the numbers, but not being 100 percent yet probably creates some extra work for the folks as far as what’s required to make a squadron operate, and make the SOW operate. Overall they’re doing well. You know, at the end of the night, we’re in Europe. We’re living in a country that really likes having us here, and I think our officer and enlisted personnel, both single and married, have a really good time here and learn a lot. But, it doesn’t mean the opstempo doesn’t put some stress on them, because it does.
Let’s talk a little bit about those new airplanes, the CV-22B Osprey and C-130J Hercules. How do you like them, and what do you like about them?
I like speed, I think like all aviators do, although I’ve spent most of my career flying small airplanes and AC-130s that aren’t real fast. The thing I like about the CV-22 is that it can carry 24 troops in the back and move them at a “get-out-of-town” speed – you know, C-130 speed, about twice as fast as a helicopter and about twice as far. So, that’s what we like about the CV-22. It’s very quick to move people and supplies wherever they need to go. And then, of course, there is the vertical landing piece of the platform. A lot of people will equate the CV-22 to a fast helicopter. I think it’s better to equate it to a small C-130 – a 1/3- to 1/2-size C-130 that can land vertically when it needs to, because that’s the speeds that it does fly at. The crews love the aircraft, and our ST folks really enjoy the airplane.