AFSOC Future Operations
Throughout this article and others in this edition of The Year in Special Operations, the acquisition of new aircraft and systems have been discussed in detail. But how will the command use these aircraft, systems, and highly trained personnel to the greatest advantage for SOCOM and the nation in the years to come? This is a sensitive subject with AFSOC, whose personnel tends to be among the “quietest professionals” in the American special warfare community. Things as simple as which unit at which base has a particular mix of aircraft models and capabilities can reveal a great deal about the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that the local Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) can employ. Such TTP exposures can cost aircraft and lives, not to mention contributing to possible mission failures.
That said, the near future looks much like it does today, with AFSOC’s future platforms and structure already in place. While the platforms are being acquired, however, fitting them out with the needed equipment lags behind due to funding constraints. While the press reports that special operations forces’ budgets remain uncut, in fact each of the component commands is beholden to its parent service for much of its equipment. If the Air Force decides to cut back on C-130J procurement due to red ink, AFSOC will be affected as well. And there is a natural knock-on effect from that. The vast majority of AFSOC’s operations are driven by aircraft, system, and technology availability. This means that if a JSOTF commander does not have the right mix of the right aircraft with the necessary onboard penetration aids and countermeasure gear, then operations into certain threat environments will not be practical. Similarly, the AFSOC staff, which is slowly but surely acquiring the planned force of CV-22B Osprey and C-130J-based platforms, may not be able to use those new aircraft across the full range of operations until well into the 2020s.
Most important of all are people. They have always been the key to everything the command has been and done and remain so today.
Another continuing challenge for AFSOC is the matter of force density. It is a matter of hard fact that its entire force of both V-22 and C-130-variant aircraft, when fully procured, will still total less than 100 airframes. This means any loss or disablement of manned aircraft is going to affect AFSOC operations across the entire force. Further, the Obama administration’s ongoing “Pivot to the Pacific” is going to have vast effects across the entire AFSOC enterprise, especially with respect to garrison basing and long-term maintenance and upgrades of aircraft and systems. SOCOM in general, and AFSOC in particular, have always had the virtue of being “economy of force” sorts of communities in terms of manpower, cost, and deployed footprints. But this virtue can also become a vice when it is spread too thinly across a planet with more wars, disasters, and humanitarian crises then it has resources to deal with them.
One other issue facing AFSOC operational planners in the years and decades ahead is a strikingly simple one: What will they be able to do? The late Rep. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., is said to have coined the phrase, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Much the same can be said of AFSOC and the rest of the American special warfare community. Nobody questions that people in SOF are successful when others are not because they defined the word “impossible” differently from the rest of the U.S. military. But few would debate that even the fertile minds at AFSOC and the rest of the SOCOM component commands need some technical, intelligence, personnel, and capability “edges” to make the impossible continue to happen.
For AFSOC, these things include the promise of directed energy/laser and standoff precision weapons for the AC-130 gunship fleet; lighter and more compact equipment and systems for the Special Tactics personnel, who frequently have to carry their “magic” on their own backs into battle; and what about the possibility of a stealthy, tilt-rotor medium transport aircraft to replace the venerable and ubiquitous C-130 Hercules? These are just a few of the ideas that are publicly known about AFSOC’s “wish list,” which itself runs deep and “black” with partner agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and others. It is been said that every time a member of the special warfare community goes to see a new James Bond, Star Wars, or Pixar movie, they do so with a notepad and pencil to write down all the good ideas that Hollywood puts up on the screen.
AFSOC today is a vast enterprise compared with what it was four decades ago after the end of the Vietnam War. Its bases span the globe from Europe to the Pacific Rim, and the command has the ability to reach virtually any point on the globe should it be directed to. The questions in the next decade or two for AFSOC are going to be “what capabilities?” and “how much?” There can be no question that the introduction of the CV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor transport has revolutionized the command’s capabilities and capacity. The standardization of the rest of the command’s aircraft around the C-130J Hercules is already paying benefits in terms of manpower and finance, along with maintainability and reliability.
Most important of all are people. They have always been the key to everything the command has been and done and remain so today. That is sure to remain the one constant into the future, whatever it may hold.
These interviews first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2015-2016 Edition.