The Rise of AFSOC’s Special Tactics

Oct. 30, 2017

A CV-22 Osprey conducts exfiltration and infiltration exercises in Florida in 2016. Photos: A1C Joseph Pick; courtesy photo; TSgt. Manuel Martinez; SrA. John Linzmeier

Since the Vietnam era, the Air Force’s special tactics community of pararescuemen, combat controllers, and experts in weather, tactical air control, and far-forward surgical care have been the most highly decorated airmen in the Air Force. They are often first in, leading joint and coalition forces by establishing air control in remote locations, directing precision strikes at the forward edge of the battlefield, and rescuing personnel under the toughest combat conditions.

Since 9/11, USAF’s special tactics airmen have endured an astoundingly high operations tempo, matched by a grim record of sacrifice. In the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, special operations airmen have received more than 600 Bronze Star Medals (almost 250 of those with valor), more than 100 Purple Hearts, 36 Silver Stars, and 10 Air Force Crosses.

During that same period, the career field has averaged almost one airmen killed or wounded in action per month. While they don’t get as much attention as Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets, USAF’s own special operators have been continuously on (and behind) the front lines of the war on terror.

These achievements and sacrifices define the special tactics community, providing ground power ahead of—and in concert with—the world’s best air force. These unique missions demand a commitment to excellence along with a willingness to take on substantial levels of risk.

USAF’s 2,500 special tactics personnel operate in 29 locations around the world and 16 geographically separated units. The career field maintains nine recruiting sites. This stability was a long time in coming, because the community really only established itself as a mature career field—and clarified its mission and its role—through the counterterrorism fight of the post-9/11 era.

Having been tested, the community has emerged stronger than ever. The task now is to stay on top of today’s fight while working hard to prepare for the next one. “As a whole, special tactics has an adaptability mission set,” according to Maj. Gabriel Brown, an enlisted combat controller in Afghanistan in 2002 and now a special tactics officer at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

“We can go from anti-terrorism to supporting flood relief to landing a C-130 on a major highway,” CMSgt. Michael West said. He is superintendent of the 720th Operations Support Squadron at Hurlburt.

Special tactics airmen were crucial to aiding relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They controlled “2,000 airplanes in two weeks from a card table beside a runway—a single-use runway with no taxiway,” West said in an interview.

Early Days

Air Force special tactics started out as little more than “a safety mechanism for Military Airlift Command [MAC],” retired CMSgt. Wayne Norrad told Air Force Magazine. When he finished his combat controller training in 1972, the job was mostly “going out to drop zones … and setting up the navigational aids, taking [wind measurements] to make sure they were within the limits.” The controllers didn’t receive much advance preparation at the time, Norrad said. “Our only training was two weeks every six months.”

Norrad pointed to the October 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 as a key point of transition. When Palestinian terrorists took over the plane and redirected it to Mogadishu, Somalia, the West German elite special police unit GSG 9 stormed the aircraft during a nighttime operation and rescued all 86 passengers.

The Lufthansa incident accelerated US plans to “stand up a special unit” that could respond to terrorist attacks of a similar nature, Norrad said, and combat controllers and pararescuemen were included in the early plans.

Norrad was one of 14 enlisted combat controllers and two combat control officers who began training with Army Delta Force members at Scott AFB, Ill.

By 1979, Delta Force was ready to go, and soon after, the unit would receive its first test in Operation Eagle Claw. After 52 US diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran and held for nearly six months, the US military launched a rescue operation that stalled under brownout conditions. The air assets involved in Eagle Claw were unable to cope with the conditions, and the mission was aborted. (See “Desert One,” January 1999.)

Retired Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) from 2011 to 2014, said, “There were a lot of people who said it was a failed mission,” but “they never got to execute it.”

As the Eagle Claw force secretly prepared to return from Iran, a helicopter collided with a refueling plane on the ground at the forward staging area. Eight US troops were killed. “They never got to attack” the compound, Fiel noted. If the plug had not been pulled, “I’m sure they could have done it,” he said.

Nonetheless, the special tactics community benefited from the soul-searching that followed the hostage rescue attempt. In 1980, a special tactics unit was established at Pope AFB, N.C. No longer treated as a MAC safety force, special tactics airmen were “in the tactical planning and mission briefs and putting it together for the counterterrorist mission,” Norrad said.

Training for special tactics personnel was also expanded in the 1980s. “We’re learning how to fast-rope, we’re learning how to do high-altitude, high-opening” parachuting, and “going to a lot of shooting schools,” Norrad said.

While the growth of joint special operations training helped the special tactics airmen, they continued to suffer from institutional neglect. Ever since Vietnam, Fiel said, USAF had let the mission “deteriorate” so far that the special tactics roles almost passed out of the Air Force altogether. Promising airmen were overlooked for promotion, he said, and there were “very few making colonel, very few making senior master sergeant or chief. They just ended up separating.”

Fiel said it was difficult “growing up in the Air Force” as a special operator in the 1980s, “being an aircrew member in SOF [special operations forces] in an Air Force that’s mostly fighters and bombers.” The big Air Force failed to understand how critical the mission was, and the lack of special tactics officers in key staff positions reflected that gap. At the time, AFSOC had only one wing, two squadrons, 14 MC-130s, 10 gunships, and “some helicopters,” Fiel said, and special tactics was but a subset of this special operations slice of the Air Force.

Ready for Afghanistan

Today, AFSOC has 95 MC-130s as well as its own intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. Several special tactics airmen have been promoted to general officer; Fiel himself retired in 2014 with three stars.

Things have improved dramatically in the past three decades. “The biggest change was standing up US Special Operations Command,” he said, because “SOCOM has its own money.” After 1987, “the Air Force would buy us a C-130, and SOCOM would turn it into a gunship.”

The mission has also been refined. Trained to respond to the terrorist threat of the 1970s and 1980s, special tactics has found itself well prepared for the global counterterrorist wars of the post-9/11 era. Especially in the difficult geography of Afghanistan, the US military found the one qualification that was “the most important, and everybody wanted, and no one had, was JTAC-qualified guys,” Norrad said.

Joint terminal attack controller is a special skill for combat controllers, tactical air control party airmen, and some pararescuemen. JTAC-trained operators can establish control of remote airspace, deconflict aircraft, and direct air strikes on enemy targets.

When the war in Afghanistan demanded more personnel with JTAC certifications, “our guys were naturals for that,” Norrad explained. In addition to completing air traffic control school, special tactics airmen had been expanding their tactical training ever since the 1980s. They could control multiple aircraft overhead, he said, and still “move and communicate and shoot and do whatever the Army unit is doing.”

Because they were also qualified in free fall jump and military combat diving, they could go anywhere Army Rangers or Navy SEALs wanted to go. The “only difference,” Norrad said, is that USAF special tactics operators are “usually carrying a little bit heavier load because they’ve got radios and batteries.”

Afghanistan proved an ideal setting for special tactics airmen to mature operations. Col. Michael Martin, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, points to the Battle of Takur Gar in Afghanistan in May 2002 as having validated new tactics. Even so, seven US service members, including two airmen, lost their lives there, and three Air Force Crosses were awarded to airmen in the battle. (See “Stacked Up Over Anaconda,” March 2012.)

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Coordination on Takur Gar

The team on that mission had “operators out in the battle space” calling back reconnaissance reports on enemy fighting positions via satellite communications to the air assets, Martin said in an interview. “We actually knew where all the friendly positions were. We knew where the enemy positions were. We had a prioritized list of

those enemy positions.”

What resulted was a “near real-time coordinating and deconflicting” of the kind that “we hadn’t really been doing up to that point,” Martin said. But on Takur Gar, it “really drove the targeting cycle through that period of darkness” and hastily rebuilt an “abbreviated air tasking order cycle that the CAOC [combined air and space operations center] is used to producing.” This information was being relayed back from operators in “inhospitable terrain” and working at high altitudes in extremely low temperatures.

The close air support they directed was crucial to salvaging a tough mission on Takur Gar, and none of it would have been possible without the direction provided by the special tactics personnel. “They made that a mission of success and it really could have been a huge mission of failure,” commented West.

The special tactics community has refined its role as the war in Afghanistan has continued and built a record of success. Because of this, “special tactics has been busy,” West said. “The emphasis has been on small special forces teams, and that’s what we’ve seen a lot in Afghanistan.” That high tempo of operations has weighed heavily.

“Some of these guys have been over there in the teens,” Field said, indicating airmen who had deployed 13 times or more. AFSOC has confirmed that its deploy-to-dwell ratio has sometimes been one-to-one in recent years—the airmen have spent just as much time deployed as they have at their nominal home stations. “We started seeing [the] toll it was taking on them,” Fiel said.

AFSOC had provided its operators with “NFL quality” workout facilities, but “we realized we weren’t taking care of them emotionally and psychologically and spiritually,” Fiel said.

In 2013, SOCOM launched a program, called Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF), to alleviate these pressures on special operators, including special tactics airmen. Chaplains, psychologists, and physical therapists were integrated into each squadron to provide constant support. Adding chaplains was “an easy welcome,” Fiel said. “The psychologist was a little bit different” because airmen worried that with a certain diagnosis, “first thing they do is take your clearance.”

Despite the concerns, POTFF is making a difference in its goal to “really take care of people,” West said. “We do everything we can, mentally and physically, to provide them with all the resources they need, and we provide their family with resources.” West said he’s willing to pull members off assignments if necessary. “If we have to go to the leaders and say, we’re short one, I’m not afraid to do that.”

That leadership is crucial, Brown insisted, for maintaining the operations tempo of recent years. Officers must

be willing to “call a shortfall just to do the right thing for the individual” in some cases. “I’ve seen people put their promotion worries aside so they’re taking care of their guys first,” West said. “And I like that.”

In the end, though, commitment to the mission drives morale more than any other factor, Fiel said. “Are they tired? Sure. Are they worn out? Yes. Do they miss their families? Absolutely. Are they going to go again the next day? You betcha,” he explained, “because they believe in what they’re doing.”

Fiel himself became a believer when he found special tactics. “I had no plan to stay in” the Air Force, he said, “but I stayed in for 33 years. To be honest, if I had never come to special operations, I never would have stayed in.” In the special tactics community, he found that “just the attitude of the people to get the mission done is second to none.”

Eyes on the Next Fight

Special tactics grew into maturity in the context of the wars of counterterrorism, but its leaders insist it will be ready for the next fight even as it keeps its focus on Afghanistan 16 years later. “We are not a myopic force,” Martin said. “We pay attention to the threats that are out there.”

That includes the North Korean threat, Martin said. Special tactics airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Group, Kadena AB, Japan, recently conducted a “joint clearing team” exercise, he said. “They air-dropped into an airfield and simulated doing an airfield assault and assuming control of that to project force.” The goal was to practice holding targets at risk “north of the 38,” the line of latitude that roughly divides North and South Korea.

Fiel sees the need to adapt to near-peer adversaries as the next special tactics challenge. “I can’t remember the last time we fought in contested airspace,” he said. When he was a young airman in the 1980s, the threat was “the Red Army, and we practiced that and trained that and exercised that a lot.” But now “you spend all your day worried about Iraq and Afghanistan,” Fiel said, and “there is a whole generation—almost 16 years now—of people who never even worried about” fighting an enemy with advanced air defense systems. He said the special tactics community will “need to start doing some high-end training.”

Others, like Norrad, imagine a near future where Air Force special tactics operators are deployed for “unilateral missions, without a security force, without Delta, without the Army.” Precisely because the special tactics members have become “so well qualified and trained,” Norrad thinks Air Force operators could deploy to “certain strategic places” as a secretive force when heavy surveillance of a US joint special operations compound makes undetected movement difficult.

“Moving a few Air Force guys some place, [they] might not detect that,” he said. Such a force could “take down a foreign country nuclear plant” or take on a mission involving “chemical weapons, or [hit] an airfield some place undetected.” These are the sorts of missions that might make sense in light of the Pentagon move in August 2016 to give SOCOM primary responsibility for countering weapons of mass destruction.

Whatever the future looks like for special tactics airmen, it will certainly involve “day after day after day, going and getting bad guys,” Fiel said.

To support that mission, Martin said the community would continue to focus on the basics and on creating a “culture of excellence” around their core competencies of “access, strike, recovery, and surgery.” If special tactics operators and their support teams concentrate on these, they will have “the foundation to make sure the operator force can do what they do,” he said.