In February, Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), outlined the state of Air Force special operations and described how Air Commandos need to adapt in order to remain relevant and effective.

The top Air Commando said his force faces a hard transition from hunting terrorists to a potential conflict with Russia or China.

“Now’s the time for us to accelerate change,” Slife said, echoing the Air Force mantra for the new era of competition. “But I would suggest to you that for AFSOC in particular, there is a difficulty to this that I don’t think any of us should underestimate.”

Air Commandos

Air Force Special Operations Command special tactics airmen
Members of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s 23rd Special Tactics Squadron during an exercise in Jordan, May 11, 2017. (Photo by Christopher Lange/U.S. Air Force)

AFSOC provides air transport, close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions to other special operations units.

Air Commandos operate several aircraft, such as the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the MC-130J Commando II transport.

In addition to its air assets, AFSOC deploys battlefield airmen — pararescuemen, combat controllers, special reconnaissance operators, and tactical air control party airmen — to augment Navy SEAL platoons, Green Beret detachments, Delta Force assault teams, and other special operations units.

These Air Commandos are an integral part of the U.S. special operations community but often go unnoticed because they are usually attached individually in other units instead of operating as dedicated Air Force teams.

New Threats, New Needs

Destroyed US helicopters after Operation Eagle Claw in Iran
A torched U.S. helicopter in the desert of eastern Iran after a failed commando mission to rescue hostages in Tehran, on April 27, 1980. (Associated Press)

Slife argued that U.S. special operations forces are at what he called a third inflection point.