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, Fla.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
training and precision locating equipment paid off in Afghanistan where
the United States was able to precisely target a Taliban ammunition
Performing a diversified job requires a diversified range of combat
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 Automatic Weapon).
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.
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.
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 station.
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 in 2008.
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.
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.
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.
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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