1st SOW has the MC130, which is their troop carrier aircraft, and which also has the capability to pluck a single individual out of an open field without landing, using a device called the Fulton Recovery System, aka the Skyhook.
This gizmo has been around for years. In fact James Bond used it at the end of Thunderball. For a number of years it was out of service in Special Forces, because Brigadier General Joe Stillwell, the younger, son of the famed WWII general, decided to test it personally. The pilot was understandably nervous about picking up a general. The skyhook is a leather suit with a long nylon rope attached to a balloon. The specially equipped C-130 making the pick-up has what is essentially a big set of tongs in front that catches the rope.
The rope has about a 25 per cent stretch factor, but it’s still a hell of a jolt to be sitting still, and be picked up by an aircraft going about 130 mph. So, General Stillwell’s pilot came in rrrreeeeaaaallll slow. The general went up in the air and slammed into the ground, then he went up again and slammed into the ground again, and again. Broke every bone in his body. He decided the FRS wasn’t really a good idea and grounded them.
But now they’re back in service, and the pilots know not to go too slow.
The AC130H Spectre gunship is a flying weapons platform loaded to the gills with machineguns, grenade launchers, bofers guns, and a 105mm cannon. To direct these it has every kind of target acquisition device known to man; television, night-vision, infra-red, thermal imaging, everything.
The original Spectre gunship was designed to bust trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Henry Zeybel, a retired air force navigator who was the TV guy on a Spectre in Vietnam wrote the book “Gunship.” The targets were acquired by the crew, but the pilot fired all the guns. Zeybel described the best pilot he ever flew with this way. “He was firing the guns like he was keeping time to an album titled ‘Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.’” Zeybel swears that once when they were getting heavy anti-aircraft, this guy rolled a Spectre. Anybody will tell you that’s impossible, with a four-engine cargo aircraft, but Zeybel swears it happened.
One thing those ships have now that they didn’t have then was women in the crew. In Afghanistan there was a young Spectre Weapons Service Officer, a Captain Allison, nicknamed “Ally, the Angel of Death.”
She would get on the radio to SF guys working with the Northern Alliance. Their general, Dostum, would then contact the Al-Queda formations they were fighting, and patch Ally through. A New Yorker, still seething over 9/11, she would purr, “I understand you guys don’t treat your women very well. You really should change that.” She would then rain 105mm howitzer shells and 40mm grenades down on them, in a feminist statement that made her point with great conviction.
That story comes from Robin Moore’s new book about Special Forces in Afghanistan, The Hunt for Bin Laden. For a good, close look at today’s Special Forces in operation, I highly recommend it.
The US Special Operations Command was formed as a remedy for the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages held in the Iranian embassy in 1976. The failure was directly attributable to the ad hoc nature of the air support, Air Force C130s, and Marine helicopter that had no time to train properly to work together.
Credit must be given here to retired Major General Jack Singlaub. As colonel he had commanded the Studies and Observation Group in Vietnam, the top secret organization that supervised commando recons and raids into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. When the Reagan administration went looking for a solution to the problems of the ill-fated raid, Singlaub had it. He’d been putting the concept together on his own for years.
The spirit of Special Forces remains the same, and so, for the most part, does the organization. However, minor changes have had far-reaching effects, and serve as a brilliant example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As in algebra, when you change one factor in an equation, you change the entire equation.
Removing the first lieutenant from the A-team, the Operational Detachment Alpha, and putting in a warrant officer is usually hailed as a good change. The Warrant Officer is more seasoned than a young lieutenant, and knows a hell of a lot more about Special Forces.
My concern would be that now officers enter Special Forces as captains, which means that the commander of the A team is always the new guy. Sure he’s a seasoned officer, but SF is different. If he’s not assertive he runs the risk of becoming the operations sergeant’s liaison with the officer’s corps. If he’s very assertive he runs the risk of issuing a lot of stupid orders, which will make eleven smart guys hate his guts. If that happens he won’t survive.
Relations between officers and NCOs in SF are different from the rest of the army. For one thing, if a seasoned SF NCO isn’t an officer it’s because he doesn’t want to be. The NCOs are as smart as the officers, and know their jobs as well or better than the officers know theirs. They’ve just made a decision to avoid the politics that is inherent in being an officer.
The whole time I commanded an A team I never gave an order. We just sort of discussed how we wanted things to work, over dinner, or inspecting the camp. A loose rein is best with ten prima donnas, and one lieutenant. If these young commanders stay out of their teams way, they’ll avoid stupid errors.
But they won’t be the guiding light of the team. The Team Sergeant is all about the team, but the CO should be all about the mission. His analysis of the operational area, his assessment of the enemy, his concept of operations. That should be the framework.
With the captain being the new guy, and communications with the next higher headquarters so good, the captain ceases to be an entrepreneur and becomes a manager.
Jim Morris is a longtime SOF correspondent and former Special Forces officer. His SOF memoir The Devil’s Secret Name, is in print from St. Martin’s, and his novel, Above and Beyond, is in print from realwarstories.com.