Special Tactics airmen are the keen edge of the U.S. Air Force’s spear and the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (STS), based out of Pope Field, NC, is the Air Force’s Joint Special Operations Command component. 

The term Joint in this context denotes a unit that deploys and operates with members of sister-service units. As a Tier-1 asset, the 24th STS is the Air Force equivalent of the Navy’s SEAL Team Six or the Army’s Delta Force. 

Air Force special tactics airmen are involved in air, ground, and cyber operations around the globe. Members of 24th STS are pararescue jumpers, combat controllers, and even battlefield surgeons. This unit is one of America’s Special Mission Units (SMU) tasked with operating behind enemy lines. 

They have four main objectives: Global Access, Precision Strike, Personnel Recovery, and Battlefield Surgery. 

Global Access

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics operator
A U.S. Air Force Special Tactics operator assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing watches as a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from the 62nd Airlift Wing takes off during Exercise Rainier War, April 29, 2021, at Yakima Training Center, Washington. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jason Robertson/U.S. Air Force)

Special Tactics airmen maintain the ability to open and control potential airfields in contested areas. Using reconnaissance assets and available intelligence, Combat Controllers (CCT) are able to assess the area, locate a suitable airfield, and either control an existing strip or prepare an area for infiltration. 

Precision Strike 

U.S. Air Force joint terminal attack controllers plot target data on a map.
U.S. Air Force joint terminal attack controllers assigned to the 3rd Air Support Operation Squadron, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, plot target data on a map during RED FLAG-Alaska 14-2. (Photo by Senior Airman Joshua Turner/U.S. Air Force)

Special Tactics airmen are highly-trained in aircraft drops, whether munitions, operators, or humanitarian aid. Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTAC), part of the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), embedded with special operation forces, direct strikes with pinpoint accuracy. Confining dropped munitions to precise targets minimizes civilian and collateral damage. 

Personnel Recovery 

U.S. Air Force pararescueman lowered from a HH-60 Pave Hawk.
A U.S. Air Force pararescueman is lowered from a U.S. Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk during a mission, November 7, 2012, in Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/U.S. Air Force)

Pararescue jumpers (PJs) from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron are trained to operate in contested and hostile areas, fulfilling their creed of jumping into harm’s way to rescue others. The PJs of the 24th STS are notably portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down, about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Ty Burrell plays PJ Tim Wilkinson in the film.

Battlefield Surgery

Battlefield surgery is one of 24th Special Tactics Squadron's main objectives.
U.S. Air Force Special Operations Surgical Teams practiced integration operations with a special operations partner force during a Special Tactics exercise, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Oct. 16, 2015. SOST members are military medical professionals selected to provide battlefield trauma and other surgical support in a special operations mission set. SOST members often forward deploy to austere or hostile areas to perform life-saving trauma surgery for special operators with little to no facility support. (Photo by Airman Kai White/U.S. Air Force)

Battlefield surgeons are not a new concept. As far back as Alexander the Great, tourniquets were used to control bleeding, on the field, and after the battle. Advances made in medicine often result from wartime needs, and battlefield surgery has become increasingly responsible for saving civilian lives. The 24th STS deploys the Special Operations Surgical Team (SOST), made up of six members, instrumental in saving lives in the field.