Masters of Invisibility

June 1, 2002

It wasn’t standard procedure, but the circumstances called for urgent action. North of Kandahar in Afghanistan, several US soldiers had been gravely wounded. Enemy forces were reported to the south. It was broad daylight, and local Afghans–loyalties unknown–were watching from surrounding hillsides. Soon, two MH-53 Pave Low helicopters–Chalk 1 and Chalk 2–from USAF’s 20th Special Operations Squadron were speeding toward the site.

As they did so, a medic on Chalk 1 pointed out that there was a great oddity to this particular mission. “This is something I thought I’d never see,” he said, “Afghanistan in the daytime.”

Literally and figuratively, USAF Special Operations Forces stay in the shadows. These “air commandos,” like their Army and Navy counterparts, use darkness as a cloaking device that helps them achieve maximum advantage against enemies who lack the technology and training to fight at night.

In a way, Air Force operators are more circumspect than special units from other services. Air Force SOF are rarely the trigger-pullers, so much of the attention for wartime exploits tends to go to the combat forces that the air commandos support. Other special operator units, such as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Special Forces, Rangers, and Delta Force, produce more news.

“You have to be quiet to do our business,” said Lt. Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla. “We move underneath the radar.”

Though they were tough to spot in Afghanistan, USAF’s air commandos were deeply involved in Operation Enduring Freedom and instrumental in its success.

Troops from Hurlburt fought alongside Army and Navy special operators on the ground in Afghanistan, calling in air strikes and rescuing comrades in danger. On many missions, they transported ground troops into and out of combat zones, in darkness and secrecy. SOF cargo aircraft dropped tons of supplies to US ground forces. And obscure specialists such as combat weathermen spent dangerous weeks in remote outposts gathering the various kinds of information needed in battle.

All Skills Needed

“We had the opportunity to demonstrate and employ every single skill we train to,” said Brig. Gen. (sel.) Lyle M. Koenig Jr., commander of the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt.

So invisible are the air commandos that many of their wartime exploits have been attributed to others. Throughout the war, for instance, news reports routinely credited Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) with calling in the air strikes that enabled the Northern Alliance’s rout of Taliban forces.

In reality, USAF combat controllers called in about 85 percent of all air strikes in the war, according to Col. Robert Holmes, commander of the 720th Special Tactics Group at Hurlburt, which includes combat controllers, pararescuemen, and combat weathermen.

Typically, Central Command would assign one or two AFSOC specialists to each 12-person Green Beret team, known as an Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA. While Green Beret ODAs train in spotting targets, Air Force combat controllers have more specialized knowledge and are used to working more closely with pilots.

Technical Sergeant Calvin (last name withheld), for instance, was one of several combat controllers sent to Uzbekistan in mid-October of last year. He was quickly teamed with an ODA that infiltrated to a location north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 19, meeting up with troops of the Northern Alliance. They were the first US team to hook up with the anti-Taliban forces.

“There was a little bit of tension at first,” Calvin said, noting that the strange bedfellows took some time to size up each other. Within 30 hours, however, the team had called in its first air strike against nearby Taliban forces. “An immediate rapport was built,” Calvin recalled.

Over ensuing days, Calvin’s team moved stealthily among some 10 observation posts, finding Taliban targets as air strikes whittled the enemy down. “You work big to little,” he said. He meant that the top priorities would be targets like military convoys, troop concentrations, tanks, or anti-aircraft guns. In addition to lasing targets or pinpointing coordinates for prompt strikes, Calvin and his team would analyze the enemy’s order of battle and develop detailed targeting plans. Each night, they’d prepare a list of roughly five to 20 suggested targets and transmit the intelligence up the chain of command. Other targets obtained through other intelligence channels would come back down.

Virtually all of the proposed targets were approved. This marked a stark contrast with USAF’s experience in the Kosovo war, during which hundreds of targets were put on no-strike lists because of concerns about collateral damage. “Rules of engagement,” said Hester, “become much more liberal when you have physical eyes on the target”–an advantage lacking in Kosovo.

Overall, Calvin counts about 500 targets he helped identify and destroy.

The Real Pros

He and other combat controllers added depth to the ODAs’ targeting expertise. Air Force controllers study the capabilities of surface-to-air missiles, and they routinely rehearse close air support procedures with Air Force pilots. “A lot of people say they can do this job,” said Holmes, “but our airmen understand the view of the battlespace, they understand airspace management. They know which weapon to use and how to bring it in.” They can also suggest ways to “fuse” weapons systems, or use different aircraft together to go after challenging targets.

At first, Calvin’s team encountered a determined enemy.

“Sometimes, we’d take indirect fire, when they were just trying to fish something out,” he recalled. “But when they found out our positions, we’d come under direct fire and get behind walls, get into the bunkers.”

Enemy barrages could last as long as 30 minutes, until the spotters moved to another location or US air strikes silenced the guns. On the day the Northern Alliance began its final offensive, “we came under really heavy machine-gun fire,” Calvin said. “We became high-value targets.”

It quickly became apparent to the Americans that the Taliban’s forces were badly overmatched.

“I don’t think the enemy knew what was happening to them,” said Calvin, who noted that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters talked over unsecure radios and thus allowed Calvin’s team to listen in as they described the effectiveness of air strikes. “We’d get on-the-spot BDA [Bomb Damage Assessment] and correct based on that.” Nor did the Taliban seem to learn quickly: “We’d see a convoy at night with its lights on. We’d get it, and an hour later here would come another one.”

Even so, operating in Afghanistan without the slightest supply post nearby was arduous. Although they moved by horse and made do with local food, the ODAs still relied heavily on computers to upload and download intelligence information and to analyze targets. Global Positioning System devices were crucial. Some units deployed without the latest laser range finders, which had to be flown in later. Batteries for all of that equipment were forever running down. Resupplying key items, in terrain with virtually no road infrastructure, was a top priority from the beginning.

That’s why the first deployments to the theater included many units besides those that would be operating in Afghanistan. On Sept. 20, for instance, just nine days after the terrorist attacks that opened the war, the 9th SOS from Eglin AFB, Fla., was heading overseas, not sure where it would end up.

The Refueling Task

Like many units, the 9th filled an important niche that would be crucial during combat operations. The squadron operates MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft. They function primarily as refueling tankers for helicopters. They would be a key link in any operations to infiltrate ground troops, and they proved to be a vital component of the search-and-rescue capability Central Command insisted on having on hand, in case any of the pilots flying over Afghanistan got shot down.

There were several alerts, but no shootdowns. The only rescues staged by the 9th involved a news photographer and a US soldier who developed altitude sickness. As ground troops began to enter Afghanistan, the MC-130s began to refuel the helicopters ferrying them in.

“It went smoothly, but Mother Nature conspired against us,” said Lt. Col. Dan Fernandez, the squadron commander. Sandstorms and bad weather caused many mission aborts.

Ground troops worked their way in, though, and as they began operating inside Afghanistan, the mission of the 9th turned to the resupply of these forces. The ODAs’ teammates in the rear would typically prepare bundles containing bullets, water, medicine, lasing equipment, and all the other gear the troops in country needed.

They’d deliver the bundles to units like the 9th, with prearranged drop zones. The MC-130s would then fly low and fast toward the drop zones. As they neared, there was a brief window of time when the ground units would contact the aircraft by radio to finalize the details. Punctuality was crucial. If the aircraft arrived late, the mission would most likely have to be scrapped, since the troops on the ground could only expose themselves at a drop zone for a few moments. In addition to the timing, the challenge, said Fernandez, “was trying to get it to them and make sure no one else gets it.”

Occasionally, there was firsthand evidence of the impact of the resupply effort. During the Northern Alliance’s mid-November siege of Kunduz, there was an urgent request for batteries. The bundle arrived late on the tarmac. The MC-130 took off with the haste of a fire truck heading to a blaze, and the crew made the drop zone on time. The troops got the batteries in time to power up the equipment they were using to call in air strikes during the offensive.

“We got to hear them calling in B-52 strikes using the batteries we had just delivered,” beamed SSgt. Jule Stratton, a loadmaster with the 9th.

The Toughest Mission

A slew of other support troops helped orchestrate the complex airborne ballet and pick up the slack when complications arose. A team from the 16th Operations Support Squadron from Hurlburt, for example, helicoptered into Afghanistan to evacuate an American soldier who came down with viral meningitis. Flying the eight-hour mission from a rear base in Uzbekistan–at elevations as high as 18,000 feet, with no heat–was the most challenging mission he faced during the war, said Capt. Scott Shepard, an aviation physician’s assistant.

SSgt. Steven Cum, a paramedic with the 16th OSS, found himself doing triage on a planeload of injured Americans after a friendly fire incident Dec. 5. “We train for it,” said Cum, “but I never thought I’d actually do it.”

The early phases of the war focused on northern Afghanistan, but air commandos were also busy in southern Afghanistan and on bases in Pakistan and elsewhere. When the terrain is tough and the environment is “nonpermissive,” as was the case in Afghanistan, helicopters are the preferred method of infiltrating special operations ground troops. In mid-November, crews from the 20th SOS did begin to carry out such missions in the Pave Lows.

The distance from bases in Pakistan–and even from the carrier Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea–led to grueling flights of 12 to 15 hours duration, involving multiple refuelings. And the Pave Lows, slower than an airplane, were vulnerable to ground fire when they were flying low.

“I took one bullet in my cabin–an AK-47 round–that would have taken a guy’s head off,” said Captain William (last name withheld), a Pave Low pilot.

To transport more troops into Afghanistan more quickly, Central Command began to assess other ways to fly airplanes into the country. Combat controllers from the 720th began analyzing possible airstrips. First they would do a 3-D terrain analysis using mapping data.

Once they identified dried lake beds, dirt strips, and other potential landing sites, they’d need some firsthand knowledge of the area. Teams would fly in on helicopters, sometimes parachuting or rappelling down to the site. They’d check the compaction of the soil, measure distances, and walk the ground to get a careful look at the terrain. Usually they operated at night, using night vision goggles, and they would complete the analysis in one sortie.

Of 22 sites surveyed by the controllers, 15 became landing strips for C-130s and even for larger C-17s. The crews prepared for tough conditions. “We had shovels on all the aircraft if we had to dig a trench” to help fly the airplane out, said Senior Master Sergeant Tom (last name withheld), a loadmaster. They never had to use them.

The rudimentary airfields allowed Central Command to sneak in ground troops in much greater numbers. MC-130 Combat Talons, from the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt, had conducted the first airdrop of troops into Afghanistan, a dramatic nighttime raid involving dozens of paratroopers that the Pentagon quickly publicized.

Boots on the Ground

Being able to land airplanes in Afghanistan was far more important. Aircraft could ferry in vehicles like humvees and dune buggies and other gear needed to sustain ground troops. Combat Talons would sometimes drop off gear, then take off and fly orbits overhead for an hour or two. Fighters and AC-130 gunships–another branch of the air commandos–would circle nearby, ready to defend the troops exposed on the ground. Then the Combat Talons would land and pick up the packs the ground troops had swapped out. Overall, the majority of special operations troops inserted into Afghanistan were transported by Combat Talons landing on unimproved airfields.

The helicopters still had plenty to do, including the evacuation of friendly fire casualties on Dec. 5. The call came to the 20th SOS when many of the crew members–nocturnal, due to the nature of their jobs–were sleeping.

“As soon as you heard the words ‘friendly fire,’ the room erupted with energy,” said Captain Steve (last name withheld), a Pave Low pilot. Two MH-53s were airborne within 45 minutes, but not quite sure where they were going. An Air Force combat controller at the scene was on the radio, trying to guide the helos in–even though his eardrums had been blown out and he couldn’t hear.

Nobody was at the first location the -53s scouted. When they finally found their comrades, “the first thing we saw was a flag-draped stretcher,” recounted Steve. That was one of three US deaths in the incident.

The two choppers set down in a bowl, about 150 yards from the wounded. “The casualties were a lot more than expected,” explained Lieutenant Pat (last name withheld), commander of one of the aircraft. A group of unidentified locals gathered menacingly on a ridgeline overlooking the scene. After about 45 minutes on the ground, the Pave Lows lifted off, “cubed out”–or filled to the brim–with injured GIs.

Air Force Pararescue Jumpers–the PJs–worked feverishly on twisted limbs and wounds gushing blood in such volume that troops would have to hose out the helicopters on the ground. The injured arrived at Camp Rhino, the newly established Marine Corps base near Kandahar, and were quickly transported to hospitals in Germany and elsewhere.

As for the Pave Low pilots, they are reluctant to discuss other missions. “Let’s just say [the Dec. 5 evacuation] was a good warm-up,” said Lieutenant Paul (last name withheld), another crew member.

The PJs saw other action, too. They raced to the scene after one of the 9th SOS MC-130s crashed in February, only to find that difficult terrain prevented their helicopters from landing near the wreckage. To get to it, the PJs had to wade through more than 100 yards of waist-deep snow. When they reached the crash site, they had to cut through the skin of the fuselage to rescue one crewmember.

To the surprise of virtually everybody involved in the rescue, all eight crew members survived. As of March, the PJs had participated in four other recoveries in Afghanistan. One PJ died in combat during Operation Anaconda, while trying to rescue a Navy SEAL who had fallen from a helicopter. That loss, along with the death of a combat controller in the same incident, was a hard blow to the unit, said Holmes.

Nonetheless, the overall mood among the troops was and is exuberant. “Our group is very up because of all the things we train to do,” said Holmes. “Without exception we have validated every mission.”

Richard J. Newman is a former Washington, D.C.-based defense correspondent and senior editor for US News & World Report. He is now based in the New York office of US News. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Little Predator That Could,” appeared in the March 2002.