Air Force Special Operations Command: Air Commandos

SOFREP: AFSOC, Air Force Special Operations Command

On the wall of the Command Chief’s office at the 1ST Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, hang a Spartan spear and shield, as well as the mask and sword of the Persians the fought. They were hung there by a PJ, Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez when he assumed the billet of Command Chief.

They are there to provide a visual reminder of the Command Chief’s philosophy: YOU HAVE TO RESPECT YOUR ENEMIES.

“If we fail to respect who they are, what they do and how they execute it, we’re going to come out losing. That’s why I say respect the enemy.” CMSgt Ramon Colon-Lopez

SOFREP: Pararescue (PJ) of the 24TH STS, Pope AFB, NC

PJ of the 24TH STS, Pope AFB, NC

The AFSOC description, according to the official AFSOC website, is: “AFSOC is America’s specialized air power. It provides Air Force special operations forces for worldwide deployment and assignment to regional unified commands. AFSOC’s core tasks have been grouped into four mission areas: forward presence and engagement, information operations precision employment and strike, and special operations forces mobility.”

AFSOC is headquartered in Hurlburt Field, Fla., though as the MAJCOM of some of the most deployed Airmen in the Air Force, its subordinate units are scattered around the world.  It was established 22 May, 1990, but its ancestry goes back just about as far as the use of aircraft in combat operations. Its mission is to conduct special operations missions, ranging from precision application of firepower, to infiltration, aviation FID (Foreign Internal Defense), exfiltration, resupply, refueling and CSAR to SOF and other operational elements. AFSOC Special Operations Wings utilize a number of organic aircraft and ancillary specialty vehicles, and of course, frequently work with elements of the 160TH SOAR (A) Nightstalkers.

Acknowledged Subordinate Commands Include the Following:

Note: In addition to the PJs, CCs, JTACs, ROMADs and others of AFSOC, there are numerous attached, owned and OPCONned units, such as the 1ST Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, the 1st Special Operations Security Forces Squadron, DET 1/43RD Intelligence Squadron, and many others that help make up part of the functioning whole.

  • 23RD Air Force
  • 1ST Special Operations Wing
  • 27TH Special Operations Wing
  • 623RD Air Operations Wing
  • 919TH Special Operations Wing (AFR)
  • 193RD Special Operations Wing (ANG)
  • USAF SOTC (Special Operations Training Center)
  • 18TH Flight Test Squadron
  • 720TH Special Tactics Group
  • 352ND Special Operations Group
  • 353RD Special Operations Group
  • 724TH Special Operations Group
  • 209TH Civil Engineer Squadron
  • 227TH Special Operations Flight
  • 280TH Combat Communications Squadron

See also the Air Force Special Operations Training Center and the Air Force Special Operations Command Heritage.

AFSOC in Action

Lt. Gen. John F. Mulolland Jr. on the initial move into Karshi-Khanabad, JSOTFN, after 9/11

“When we fell in on K2 in October 2001, we were very fortunate to find Col. Frank Kisner [then commander of the 1ST Special Operations Wing] already in place with his Joint Combat Search and Rescue force. This included MH-53J Pave Low special operations helicopters, MC-130 Combat Talons/Shadow special operations tanker/transports, and the 160TH Special Operations Aviation Regiment MH-60 and MH-47 helicopters supporting the bombing campaign which had kicked off earlier in the month. We absorbed the CSAR task force into the JOSOTF, which we had code-named Task Force Dagger, as the JSOTF’s Joint Special Operations Air Component. K2 was extraordinarily austere and afflicted with all of the environmental challenges of former Soviet bases. Our Uzbeki hosts were very supportive of us, though, and we worked our way through the range of challenges that surfaced throughout he deployment…”

AFSOC Operators

SOFREP: An Air Commando tab from the Vietnam War period.

AFSOC Special Tactics Airmen include Pararescuemen, Combat Controllers, Special Operations Weathermen, Combat Aviation Advisors and some JTACs and ROMADS of  the TACP Tactical Air Control Parties (the latter are assigned to both AFSOC and AIR COMBAT COMMAND). Though the CCTs, PJs and other “snake-eaters” of AFSOC are the sexy “green-side” AFSOC career fields, AFSOC as an organization projects air power in support of both conventional and unconventional operations. This requires skilled aviators and crewmembers, from the pilots of the gunships to maintainers to the gunners themselves. Missions include CAS (the “precision application of firepower”, particularly via C-130 gunships and other aerial platforms), infiltration/exfiltration, resupply and refueling operations, aviation FID, psychological operations, specialized air mobility, reconnaissance and other battlefield air ops. The various AFSOC operators have suffered a disproportionate, relatively high number of casualties in many different types of operations given the small community they represent.

Combat Controllers

SSgt. Sean Harvell, Combat Controller

SOFREP: SSgt. Sean Harvell, Combat Controller, earned 2 Silver Stars for Valor in Afghanistan

Combat Controllers are the combat airmen of the CCTs (Combat Control Teams). Their motto is First There, representing their traditional deployment ahead of conventional and even other SOF troops into forward areas and hostile environments in order to establish assault zones and perform other missions. They are ground combat forces acting much like pathfinders, working in remote, typically hostile areas (frequently ‘behind the lines’ in ‘traditional’ warfare) as air traffic controllers, coordinating fire support and assisting in C3 (command, control and communications) efforts in non-permissive, covert and/or austere environments. Because they deploy in their own teams as well as alongside other SOF units (Army Rangers, Special Forces, SEALs and others) on combat, reconnaissance, FID and CSAR missions, Combat Controllersare required to have direct action, demolitions and other capabilities not typically associated with Air Force personnel.

Pararescuemen

PJs winched up to a hovering chopper

SOFREP: PJs winched up to a hovering chopper.

Pararescuemen are known as PJs, for Pararescue Jumpers or simply ParaJumper. They hold a very unique position as USSOCOM (indeed all of DOD’s) only specific CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) career field, trained and equipped to conduct both conventional and unconventional recovery missions, CASEVAC and MEDEVAC. They are not simply medics, and they are anything but unarmed. Their motto is That Others May Live, and their trauma medicine capabilities combined with SOF battlefield skills make them special even within the special operations community. Their missions take them on a wide array of missions, from combat rescues of downed pilots to patrolling into remote areas with Green Berets and CAG, going in to assist SOF units in trouble, to supporting NASA missions. A little known fact about PJs are their officers – they were for years an all-enlisted force, until recently with the establishment of the Combat Rescue Officer. Over half of all Air Force Cross recipients are Pararescuemen. They wear maroon berets.

Combat Weathermen

Combat Weathermen prepare to jump by night

SOFREP: Combat Weathermen prepare to jump by night.

Special Operations Combat Weathermen (Gray beret) are Air Force weather technicians trained to operate in hostile or denied territory. It may seem a little strange, having “Combat Weathermen”, but in an age when so many operations involve airborne (para-) or helo-driven delivery of direct action and recce assets, knowing the weather to the last detail is imperative (consider the fact that the 173RD probably wouldn’t have jumped when it was supposed to in the early days of the invasion of Iraq, if it hadn’t been for a Combat Weatherman on the ground). In addition to FID assignments, their mission is to collect, assess and interpret weather/meteorological data and environmental intelligence from forward locations in support of Special Operations Forces to help with mission planning, target and route forecasts and both tactical and strategic planning. They operate as Special Operations Weather Teams or attached to other SOF elements.

TACP

Combat Aviation Advisor with host nationals

SOFREP: Combat Aviation Advisor with host nationals in Pacific theater.

A TACP is a Tactical Air Control Party. It is comprised of a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) and a ROMAD (essentially a JTAC in training, though the reality is ROMADs are frequently seasoned operators in their own right, having completed lengthy and arduous blocks of training and lacking only the final JTAC certification). JTACs direct the action of combat aircraft operating in CAS (Close Air Support) and other offensive operations, calling in airstrikes and gun runs like an FO or an ANGLICO Marine calls in artillery or naval gunfire. The NATO is Forward Air Controller. A typical TACP (JTAC or ROMAD or both) might be on an infantry patrol one day to coordinate immediate CAS and attached to an ODA the next day for the same reason. JTACs wear a black beret.

SOFREP: 320TH Special Tactics Squadron Sergeant Prepares for a Jump.

SOFREP: 320TH Special Tactics Squadron Sergeant Prepares for a Jump.