Air Force Special Ops A week
with the U.S. Air Force's little-known commando unit.
BY SCOTT GOURLEY
Photos by James A. Sugar
When it comes to versatility, it is hard to beat the Air
Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). "We are the Air
Force's only ground combat force," says Capt. Mike Martin,
chief of current operations for AFSOC's 720th Special Tactics
Group (STG). "There are some base ground defense units, but
we go forward." For the members of this elite combat team,
going forward means swimming with the Navy's SEALs, jumping with
the Army's Special Forces and Rangers, and hitting the beaches
with the Marines' Force Recon. And then their real work begins.
The job of AFSOC "operators" is to quickly turn a
patch of hostile terrain into a fully functional airfield.
Sometimes this means a stealthy attack by motorcycle and ATV.
Other times it means cleaning out hostile forces by scouting
locations for the delivery of 15,000-pound BLU-82 Daisy Cutter
Military action in Afghanistan brought AFSOC's unusual
capabilities into the forefront in the war on terrorism. During
the closing months of 2001, AFSOC Special Tactics (ST) combat
controllers were the critical element in the surgically precise
airstrikes in Afghanistan. Using systems like the Special
Operations Forces Laser Marker (SOFLAM)--at left, which creates
the spot that laser-guided bombs aim for--team members precisely
marked terrorist locations for destruction. Despite their highly
visible success, this elite force remained little known to those
outside the military. When POPULAR MECHANICS inquired how the
Air Force trained these elite troops, we were invited to take a
closer look for ourselves by observing them in action at their
headquarters, at Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field,
Cryptic military terms convey only the slightest hint of what
this unit is really about. In the chain of command, AFSOC is the
Air Force component of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
There are 19 AFSOC Special Tactics units, called
"flights." Each flight consists of 18 men, called
operators, who are trained in combat control, pararescue or
weather forecasting. Five of the 19 flights are on continuous
worldwide alert every hour of the day, every day of the year. As
detailed as their assignments may seem, they omit one essential
fact. To get to work, ST operators must be highly skilled in
parachuting and underwater and amphibious operations along with
small-unit combat tactics.
There is no easy way to join the ranks of AFSOC. But one of
the best routes into this Air Force unit is to first join the
Army, Navy or Marines and distinguish yourself as a Ranger, SEAL
or member of Force Recon.
"When you look at the special operations force skills
that we possess, it includes all the characteristics and
attributes possessed by our counterparts: Navy SEALs, Army
Rangers, Army Special Forces and Marine Corps Force Recon. And
the reason is so that we can seamlessly operate with those units
on the battlefield," says Capt. Chris Larkin, acting
commander for the 720th's 23rd Special Tactics Squadron and
supervisor for ST Advanced Skills Training.
Primed For Combat
During PM's visit, we meet men who had previously served with
the Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Force Recon and in Army Special
Forces. For example, Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel--wartime rules
prevent us from giving his last name--wears both the Ranger and
Special Forces tabs above his stripes, reflecting his prior
service with the Army's 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment
("A Week With The Airborne Rangers," June 2001, page
58) and 20th Special Forces Group.
"I had worked with the Combat Control Teams previously,
when I was in the Ranger battalion, and I had seen what they
were doing and who they worked with--SEALs, Special Forces. It
wasn't just a straightforward job," Daniel says. "It
was really diversified. And that's why I crossed over."
AFSOC Combat Control Team (CCT) training takes more than 18
months of grueling work, as trainees learn the requisite basic
and advanced special operations skills. Physical, mental and
emotional toughness are the basic requirements. What Air Force
training turns out is guys--no women are permitted in ST
units--who can think two steps ahead of the game, while they
fight off someone who is trying very hard to kill them.
We watch this philosophy in action at a swimming pool where a
small group of ST students are receiving "pre-scuba"
instruction during the 60-day Water Phase of the training.
Today's lesson is "buddy breathing" on a single
snorkel. It is normally not a hard task to master. The ST twist
is to simulate the physical and mental challenges of a real
combat situation. A mountainous Air Force instructor adds this
extra note of realism by joining the trainees in the pool, where
he proceeds to climb on their backs, yank off their masks, hold
their heads underwater and try to block their airways.
Performing a diversified job requires a diversified range of
combat hardware. Air Force ST operators carry a variety of small
arms, including the M9 9mm pistol with sound suppressor, the
Remington 870 12-ga. shotgun, the M203 stand-alone 40mm grenade
launcher, the M4A1 SOPMOD (Special Operations Peculiar
Modification) 5.56mm carbine, and the M249 5.56mm SAW (Squad
As an austere expeditionary advance force, ST combat
controllers also must have the capability to establish a remote
airfield. They do this using equipment ranging from a Nikon
Total Station survey set that can quickly lay out a landing
strip to pocket-size landing lights.
Increasingly important in the era of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
and GPS-guided smart bombs are AFSOC's weather forecasting
tools. The 720th's 10th Combat Weather Squadron, which includes
detachments throughout the special operations community, is
equipped with the Kestrel 4000 handheld station and the new
Remote Miniature Weather Station.
AFSOC operators need to move fast. In addition to small boats
such as the Zodiac F470 series Combat Rubber Raiding Craft, ST
personnel use a combination of motorcycles, "quad"
all-terrain vehicles, and tactical wheeled vehicles. Included in
that arsenal is the GRC-206 Mobile Communications Vehicle, an
Air Force Humvee equipped with a sophisticated package of
Perhaps the most unusual piece of AFSOC wheeled gear is the
Rescue All Terrain Transport (RATT). Derived in the early 1990s
from a commercial dune buggy design, RATTs support pararescue
missions by providing highly mobile battlefield trauma care.
Each RATT carries a driver and two pararescue personnel. Six
stretchers fold out to carry the wounded to an aid or evacuation
The United States is able to best enemy forces by making
extensive tactical use of night vision gear. But before you can
fight at night you need to get on the ground without announcing
your arrival. AFSOC's airborne capabilities are provided by the
16th Special Operations Wing, which is based at Hurlburt Field
in the United States, and by Special Operations Groups at RAF
Mildenhall, England, and Kadena Air Base, Japan. Arriving at the
16th Wing's 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), we climb
into the front of one of the MH-53M Pave Low helicopters for a
briefing on the platform's capabilities. "It's the most
sophisticated helicopter in the world," Capt. Rob says.
"We can put this thing low and jerk it around pretty good.
That's what's unique about our mission. The fighter guys have to
worry about threats but they don't have to deal with the stress
of possibly killing themselves. We go out at night at 50 ft. or
lower, on a black night, with night vision goggles, and it's a
daily worry about whether or not you're going to fly into a
small house or a small tower. With terrain-following [and]
terrain-avoidance radar, in really bad weather, I have to climb
up to 100 ft. And then it's the system that's giving us our
cues. But if you can actually see out there with the goggles you
can put this thing really low and make some pretty tight
The squadron is in the process of converting most of its
fleet of MH-53 "J" Models to the latest "M"
designator. However, current plans have the squadron replacing
some of these helicopters with the Air Force Special Operations
tilt-rotor CV-22. Air Force planners project initial operational
capability for the first six CV-22s at Hurlburt Field sometime
Spooky And Spectre
AFSOC's most fearsome weapons are its massive gunships, which
are derived from C-130 transports. The Wing's 8th and 15th SOSes
respectively fly the MC-130E and MC-130H Combat Talon and Combat
Talon II. In addition to providing global, adverse-weather
capability, day and night, Combat Talons can deliver the
15,000-pound Daisy Cutters that proved so deadly in Afghanistan.
Slightly more precise but equally devastating firepower is
delivered by the 16th Wing's AC-130 gunships. The Wing has two
models: the AC-130H "Spectre" flown by the 16th SOS
and the AC-130U "Spooky" flown by the 4th SOS. With a
sobering array of direct-fire weapons protruding from their left
side, the gunships circle a target area, delivering overwhelming
amounts of fire with television-targeted and computer-guided
accuracy. On board one of the 4th SOS's "U" models, we
notice that this newer version differs from the "H"
model in being pressurized and in supplementing the earlier
configuration's 105mm howitzer and 40mm cannon with an
additional five-barrel 25mm Gatling gun. The weapon combination
represents a mind-numbing lethality.
Rounding out the AFSOC air assets are the MC-130P Combat
Shadow and the EC-130 Commando Solo. The Combat Shadow
penetrates hostile lines to provide midair refueling for special
operations helicopters, while the Commando Solo provides a
sky-based radio and television station for psychological
operations and civil affairs messages.
As the inside story of the war in Afghanistan begins to
unfold in the months ahead, AFSOC will undoubtedly emerge as a
pivotal reason for the United States' success. The array of
advanced weapons that ST teams bring to the battlefield are only
part of the story. The extraordinary men, distinguished by both
their skill and their attitude, are the backbone of this unique
force. "They're really just ordinary people," says
AFSOC's Command Chief Master Sergeant Bob Martens, "but
they're doing extraordinary things, day in and day out."
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