The US Air Force Special Operations Wings provide US forces with the ability to insert or extract or perform search and rescue missions behind enemy lines at night or in bad weather. The USAF Special Operations Wings have a history that dates back to W.W.II. Officially, the 1st Air Commando Group came into being on March 29, 1944. However, the group had existed before under different names. Army General Arnold had tasked Lt. Colonel Phil Cochran (a war hero and basis for the comic strip "Terry and the Pirates") and John Alison (former deputy commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron; the USAAF group that the AVG Flying Tigers became when they were absorbed back into the American force structure) with the creation of an Air Corps unit to support a guerrilla force being created to harass the Japanese in Burma in early 1943.
Cochran and Alison succeeded in training 523 men to operate as a cohesive, highly effect special operations force. It should be noted that the normal compliment of an Air Corps Wing was around 2,000 soldiers, nearly four times what they had on hand. Moreover, their training was cut short and they were deployed to the Pacific theatre after only a month of flying. After training with the Chindits (the force they were supporting) for three months they performed their first mission.
The unit eventually operated 346 aircraft; including L-1 and L-5 scout aircraft for scouting and light medevac, P-51 Mustang's for fighter/attack cover, B-25H's for heavy attack, C-47's and CG-4A Waco Gliders for assaults and resupply, and four YR-4 helicopters. They were the first to use the helicopter in combat, and perfected the "glider snatch" technique, in which an loaded glider on the ground would be grabbed and towed aloft by a low-flying C-47 cargo plane. The unit was so under staffed that it was not a rare occurrence for the pilots of one type of aircraft to hop into another and go up for a second flight after finishing the first mission.
The early USAAC (United States Army Air Corps; the forerunner of the US Air Force) built a tradition of excellence and determination, coining the still-used motto of "Anytime, Anyplace." The motto came into being after one of the gliders crashed in a night-time training accident. The Chindit's commander, British General Wingate, was very impressed with the ability of the newly-formed air commandos and sent them a message that despite the crash, "we will go with your boys ant place, any time, any where."
The 1st Air Commando Group went on to take place in Operation Thursday, a disruptive action that successfully stopped the Japanese invasion of India. On the first night, March 5 1944, they successfully delivered over 500 men and 15 tons of supplies behind Japanese lines to landing zone Broadway using gliders and C-47 cargo aircraft. Two nights later Operations reached a high tempo and no less than 92 planes loads ( roughly one every 4 minutes) arrived in the small jungle clearing in a night. Because of the Chindits (made possible by the air commando's insertion and resupply abilities) raids and sabotage, the Japanese invasion failed
The Army Air Corps also had a unit that operated in the European Theatre. Choosing the name "Carpetbaggers," the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group began to train for their mission of agent insertion and resupply behind enemy lines. Using modified ex-Navy PB they began practicing low-level flights in single ship formations, a far different way of operating than the high-level massed-formation daytime operations the pilots were used to.
One of the modifications was the removal of the ball turret on the bottom of the aircraft. This allowed an easy exit from the aircraft for any agents being inserted. Another was the installation of a radio navigation device that lead a good navigator to within three miles of his target--at night in pitch black conditions. The cockpit instruments were also redesigned, putting the critical instruments front and center so the pilot could keep his eyes on the ground as much as possible.
They began operations in January of 1944 and flew until September of that year, taking place in many important actions, including the build up to the D-day invasion of the French coast. Two days before the invasion, on June 3, 1944, they flew 17 missions in a single night. Before the invasion a need arose to pick up agents and ferry them back to England. The venerable C-47 Dakota was added to their inventory, and after two months of training the were ready for their first nighttime covert short field landing and take off. All in all, the Carpetbaggers C-47 inserted 78 agents with 104,000 pounds of supplies and extracted 213 agents from occupied territory.
In part because of the Carpetbaggers actions, guerrillas were able to cut 885 rail lines and destroy 322 locomotives, 295 alone in the month following the D-Day landing, when their services were needed most. By September of 1944 the Allied army had captured the area the carpetbaggers operated, and the need for their night-time flights almost disappeared. There was still a need for their expertise, so they were simply moved forward and began operating from liberated bases in France.
In one operation, a stripped-down C-47 smuggled a captured German V2 rocket out of Sweden for examination. They also inserted agents into Norway, although the weather caused many of their flights to abort due to bad conditions and inability to see the drop zone through the clouds and storms. When General Patton's drive into Germany stalled (His tank drive was so effective it ran ahead of the supply chain and they ran out of gas and had to stop) the Carpetbaggers modified their bombers-turned-cargo planes into flying fuel trucks, with the capacity to carry 2,500 gallons of non-aviation fuel each flight. All told, they airlifted almost a million gallons of fuel to Patton's gas-starved tanks and allowed them to resume their drive to Germany.
With the success of the Carpetbaggers came the need for more special operations capabilities in other areas. Fledgling units within conventional Air Forces (such as the Twelfth Air Force's 885th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) (Special) ) were created to aid in the supply of OSS agents and Eastern European Guerrillas in their fight to oust German occupation forces. The forerunner to today's Special Tactics Teams, BATS (Balkan Air Terminal Service) Teams, were created to coordinate the creation and use of covert airstrips, including guiding the aircraft in and unloading/loading cargo.
The smaller units and the Carpetbaggers continued to operate until the end of the war, inserting agents behind enemy lines and resupplying covert and conventional units. New aircraft, such as the A-26 Invader (Later used in the Vietnam War) and British Mosquito were adopted to enable them to operate deeper and with greater safety to the aircrews. One innovation (which must have been quite the wild ride) was the use of the A-26's bomb bay doors as a platform for the agents to lay on. When the drop zone was reached, the pilot simply opened the bomb bay doors (with the proper warning, of course) and away the two agents went.
With the close of the Second World War, all Army Air Corps Special Operations Air assets went away. Pilots were either discharged or transferred to conventional units. The planes were almost always scrapped. The United States had no unit dedicated to the resupply of forces behind enemy lines. Although the newly created United States Air Force began to look into covert operations in the late 1940's, there was nothing in place when the Korean War broke out in 1950. As ad-hoc units took on the airborne special operations role, an "official" squadron was rushed into readiness.
It was named the "Air Resupply and Communications Service," and although there was another unit that operated unofficially (det 2 of the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron) earlier, the ARCS was the USAF's primary Special operations unit in the Korean War and was the only one to survive the drawdown after the war (although it was also eventually dissolved). There were a total of six ARCS squadron's planned; only three became operational and served in any capacity.
The ARCS were a combination of many functions, much like the different groups that make up the USAF's special operations forces today. B-29 Stratofortress bombers were used to bombard North Korean troops with Psychological leaflets designed to make them surrender or to lower moral. Helicopters were used to rescue American pilots shot down behind enemy lines, in many cases evading deadly enemy fire to do so. In addition, the Pararescue squadrons were first officially started in the ARCS.
With the close of the Korean War, the immediate need for aviation special operations forces decreased. In an attempt to survive the budget cuts, the ARCS squadrons came up with new missions for themselves; such as rescuing U2 spyplane pilots. For various reasons, some missions could not make it successfully back to their bases. Two pilots were rescued by the ARCS SA-16 amphibious planes after coming down in the Caspian and Black Sea. Even with some of the new missions, there was not enough of a perceived need for special operations forces and the ARCS were shut down in the late 1950's.
There was another less known special unit that performed deep penetrations of Chinese Airspace in the late 1950's. Det 2 of the 1045th Observation, Evaluation, and Training Group was responsible for resupplying Tibetan guerrilla's resisting the Chinese Acquisition of Tibet. Flying into mountainous terrain, the group would insert Guerilla's that had been trained in the US. One of the later missions that was performed was the a real resupply of the Dali Lama as he and his entourage escaped from Chinese forces. Det 2 was the first group in the US Air Force to use C-130 transports for special missions, the beginning of a long tradition that remains today.
In 1961 the special operations capabilities of the Air Force were again established with the creation of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (aka "Jungle Jim"). The 4400th was headquartered at Hurlburt Field located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and began training aircrews for counter-insurgency operations. The squadron was then changed to a group, and then changed again to become part of the new Special Air Warfare Center. Initially, the unit operated with C-47 Dakota cargo planes, T-28 attack trainers, and B-26K's (heavily modified A-26 invaders from W.W.II).
Despite the antiquated aircraft, the aircrews fought well and developed many tactics to use their slow-flying machines to good effect. For example, fares would be dropped off to the side of a fort being defended so that the airplane would not be silouetted as it flew over the enemy's heads. Attacks would be made from different directions on different passes so that the enemy would not find a pattern and set up traps. These tactics made their missions more effective and safer, but there was still a high toll of airframes and crew.
Structural problems caused by the age of the aircraft and compounded by their heavy usage, and rough operating conditions lead to a series of accidents caused by structural failure. As a result these original aircraft were retired and A-1E Skyraiders were brought in. The Air Force would continue to use these aircraft for Search And Rescue (SAR) for the rest of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam war saw the not only the rebirth of the Air Forces Special Operations forces, but also the addition of new abilities and the aircraft to carry these missions out. U-10 Helio Courier aircraft were used to transport personnel and material into virtually any airfield or dirt road in Vietnam and Laos. The U-10's were also used in Psychological Operations, dropping propaganda leaflets or broadcasting voice messages over loudspeakers as the aircraft flew low and slow over the jungle.
Also used in the Psychological Operations theatre was the MC-130 Combat Talon. Using their larger capacity, higher ceiling, and longer range, the MC-130's would haul large bundles of counterfeit money up to altitude near Hanoi and dump them so that they would land where the citizens would pick them up and hopefully read the propaganda message attached. They were so successful and the counterfeit money so effective that the North Vietnamese Government refused to negotiate in 1969 until that bombing campaign stopped.
It was also about this time that the Air Force began seriously use helicopters for recovery of airmen shot down behind enemy lines (which was pretty much everywhere in Vietnam). HH-53 Jolly Greens that the Air Force acquired from the Navy were outfitted with refueling probes, radios and extra weapons to enable them to fly into enemy controlled country to conduct SAR Operations. In addition, the Pararescue forces began developing the ability for extended operations of the ground, performing searches for friendly pilots hiding from enemy forces.
One of the more popular weapons to come out the war (at least for ground forces) was the gunship. seeking to overcome the problems caused by forward speed on accuracy, the Air Force came up with a design where the guns were mounted on the side of an aircraft and fired while the aircraft was circling around the target, able to keep the guns on target as long as there was ammunition and fuel. It should be noted that initially the USAF was HIGHLY resistant to this new concept and it was the motivated efforts of some crucial people (such as Ronald Terry, who paid for parts and fuel out of his own pocket when the Air Force cut funding) that kept the program alive. To this day the Gunship is an integral part of any USAF special opsforce and most conventional assaults.
The Vietnam War saw more than the creation of new aircraft and squadrons; new units without aircraft were also created such as the Combat Controllers. The soldiers in these units were trained to jump out of aircraft and perform vital tasks on the ground, such as guiding rescue aircraft in or acting as a Forward Air Controller on the ground. Although they were trained to insert via jumping from fixed-wing aircraft, usually they were based at forward locations or were inserted via helicopter.
Both the Combat Controllers and Pararescue teams, participated in many missions and saved countless lives. In particular, note should be made of the citations received. In a war dominated by medal-happy officers, enlisted ranks rarely received the commendations they deserved. Only 19 enlisted airmen received the Air Cross Medal, given for extreme bravery and heroism on the battlefield. Of those 19, ten were members of the Pararescue teams.
Ultimately, the Vietnam War saw the USAF field three Aircraft that remain in service today (AC-130, MC-130, and H-53), foster the Combat Controllers and PJ's, and raise at least three Squadrons (15th, 20th SOS)
Following the Vietnam War, the Air Force once again diminished the size of their special operations capabilities, but this time they did not get rid of them. Special operations crews were present in two actions following the war. In May of 1975 (shortly after the close of the Vietnam War) an American freighter, the USS Mayaguez, was boarded and seized by the crew of a Cambodian gunboat while sailing in international waters. The order came down from Washington to immediately recapture the boat and free the crew.
After a brief search the ship was located on Tang Island. Members and helicopters of the 21st SOS and US Marines were dispatched to the USS Coral Sea. The plan seemed simple, the helicopters would drop a USMC raiding force that would overpower the guards and free the captives, which would then be loaded onto the helicopters for the ride back to the carrier. Unfortunately for the aircrew and US Marines present, there was no proper intel and the planners of the mission forgot some lessons that had been learned in Vietnam.
The members of the force were briefed that they could expect eleven guards, and lightly armed ones at that. A later inquirey revealed that a passing gunship had counted up to 50 campfires, but that no one had shown any interest in passing the information on. Operating on the assumption of light defense no attack aircraft were attached to provide defense for the helicopters and ground troops.
In the end it was very nearly a total disaster. The eleven "lightly armed" Khmer Rouge soldiers turned out to be in excess of 300, and some were armed with rocket-powerd Grenades and heavy machine guns. Two aircraft were immediately shot down and several more limped away, one losing its last engine on the way to the carrier and another so full of holes that it had to stay connected to an MC-130 tanker the entire flight back to the carrier to keep from running out of fuel. In the end fifteen soldiers had been killed and three were missing, with another 50 wounded. The crew of the Mayaguez was found to be on the mainland and was rescued by an American destroyer after being set adrift on a fishing boat.
The second action was the attemped rescue of American hostages from Tehran, Iran. More details of this operation can be read at my case study of Operation Eagle Claw, but the operation ended in disaster, with at least eight American Servicemen losing their lives. Although the operation ended badly, there were many positive effects. Because of the confusion and lack of force cohesion, it was decided to create a joint special operations command that would oversee training and integration of special forces units, including the US Air Force's.
This effort would take time to complete, and only very basic contacts had been set up by the time the US decided to invade Grenada in 1983. Tensions between the US and the Grenadan government had increased and reached a peak when the current Prime Minister was killed in a coup. There were over 1,000 Americans on the island, many of them medical students studying on the island and the decision was made to go in and provide protection for their extraction.
Part of the plan involved the securing of the airport at Point Salines. Before that happened the US commanders needed to know the state of the airport, whether it was defended and what obstructions might be in place. A USAF Combat Controller was tasked for this mission, but instead of sneaking him in on a civilian airliner it was decided that he would insert with two boatloads of SEALs from ST6 as escorts. The insertion, scheduled as a daytime drop into calm seas, was delayed and turned into a night-time drop into stormy weather, something the newly-formed ST6 had never practiced. Consequently, four members of SEAL Team 6 drowned in the insertion and the surviving force further delayed.
The small force never reached land, but they were close enough for the Combat Controller to see obstructions and hear local readio stations broadcasting citizens to rise up and defend the airport from invaders. He radiod that the airport would have to be cleared before anything could land, but by this time the USAF MC-130 cargo aircraft carrying members of the Army's 75th Rangers were already in transit. Instead of stepping off the planes on the ground as had been planned, the Rangers would have to jump.
Although the drop was ultimately succesful, several events happened that almost turned it into a disaster and brought to light the weakpoints in the new joint commands. While the Rangers had been told to expect heavy resistance, the Combat Talon pilots had been told that the airfield would be lightly defended if at all. The heavier than expected defenses wound up hitting the second MC-130 and driving it off until a circling AC-130H could supress the fire.
Based on their intelligence, the Rangers had requested a drop from 500 feet; a very low altitude that leaves no room for error. The first aircraft had suffered an INS (Internal Navigation System) failure and dropped out of position to let a fully functional aircraft lead the way in. Consquently the Rangers arrived out of order, and badly fragmented by the large time gap created by the heavy air defenses. Eventually all players were on the ground (remarkably, no Rangers were killed, the only casualty was one that had broken his leg) and the airport secured for the arrival of more C-130s.
The AC-130 tasked with suporting the airport assault was responsible for taking out 6 gun pits, one BMP amoured personnel carrier, and numerous structures that Cuban and grenadan troops were using for cover. It expended all of its ammunition and was in the air for an astonishing 31 hours straight. Another AC-130 was responsible for protecting half of a SEAL Team 6 force that had been tasked with rescuing the governor of Grenada so that he could authorize US forces to officially come to the island. An initial landing at the mansion had been cut short when one of the Blackhawk helicopters was hit by antiaircraft fire and driven off before all of the SEALS were on the ground. Outnumbered and outgunned by the Armored personnel carriers that appeared, the SEALs were protected all night long by the circling AC-130.
The Grenadan assault was succesful in many aspects, but a disaster in others. Whie the US had sent a force to assault the island quickly, interservice fighting and extremely poor communication caused deaths and delays of the US forces. As a result of the problems with grenada the US Military created the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) an 1987. Air Force Special Operations units were given higher status and were consolidated into the new 23rd Air Force.
However, this was still a tenuous organization: the Air Force had signed an agreement earlier in 1985 to turn all rotary-win aircraft over to the Army and anti-special ops feelings still ran high in the Air Force brass (Special Note, I hear rumblings that the Air Force brass is trying this again. The MH-60 Pavehawk is being transferred to Search and Rescue Units with no replacement for the SOW's).
AFSOC was created from the 23rd Air Force in May of 1990. AFSOC has control over three wings, three groups, as well as the USAF Special Operations School and Special Missions Operational Test & Evaluation Center. Some of the changes that occured after the creation of the new command was the creation of the Special Tactics Groups, an organization that blended the USAF Combat Controllers and Pararescue Jumpers into an integrated force capable of supporting all the different US Special Forces units in their unique capabilities.
This new integration and force structure was put to the test during the Panama invasion in 1989 and for the most part worked with flying colors. All of the Air Force's special operations aircraft types took place in the invasion and members of the Special Tactics Groups were assigned to help out the other service's soldiers. MC-130 Combat Talons dropped Army Rangers on an airfields while HC-130 Combat Shadows (now MC-130 Combat Shadows) stayed in the air the entire first night refueling American aircraft. Nine AC-130's provided cover during the many actions (including the Navy SEALs disasterous assault on Patilla Airfield).
MH-60 Pavehawks shuttled conventional and special operations forces around the cities and countryside while MH-53J's provided transport as well as fire support for American troops. Combat Controllers were along with the SEALs during the Patilla assault, providing their capabilities to the force, and combined Special Tactics Teams helped the Army Rangers assault two separate airfields simultaniously.
In the end, several aircraft had been damaged but none shot down, and no USAF Special Ooperations airmen were killed. While there was one friendly fire incident (no US Soldiers were killed) another gunship crew was recognized and given medals for refusing a direct order to fire on what turned out to be American soldiers who were in the process of capturing a Panamanian APC. There were problems and errors made, but they were readily noticable and ones that the Air Commandos could learn from and improve on in time for their next conflict--The Gulf War.
In 1990 The Forces of Iraq invaded and conquered the country of Kuwait. Fearfull of a continued drive through Saudi Arabia, American forces were immediately dispatched and plans made for the defense of the US's oil-rich ally. From the beginning USAF special operations personnel were present. USAF Combat controllers handled all of the air traffic at King Fahd airport during the buildup of Allied forces. During that time, they handled the busiest airport in the history of the world, some days handling as many as 1,800 operations per day (that equates out to 75 operations an hour, or an aircraft taking off or landing at intervals of less than a second between each operation!!!). After the buildup they moved to Al Jouf Airfield, just south of the Iraqi/Saudi border, preparing to handle battle-damaged aircraft returning from the first night of the air war.
Although the supreme allied commander, General Schwartzkopf, had a dislike of special forces, he allowed them some missions early in the war. The iraqi border was ringed by an array of high-tech long-range radars that could warn the iraqi command of incoming bombers and attak aircraft. In order to minimize the Iraqi response the element of surprise was needed and that meant destroying the radars before the Iraqis knew aircraft were on the way. In an excellent example of inter-service coordination, 4 USAF MH-53J's lead eight US Army AH-64 Apaches through the Iraqi front lines and near to two long range randar complexes in an operation named "Eager Anvil".
The Pave lows marked a precise spot with bundles of chem-sticks and then moved off to a close orbit. Using the chemsticks to precisely update their internal navigation systems, the Apaches were able to destroy both radar stations completly within ten seconds of each other. The combined team of Pave Low and Apache were the first American and Allied aircraft across the border during the air war.
Pave Low's provided also CSAR for downed pilots, rescuing the first, a Navy F-14 pilot, four days after the war started. During that mission the abilities of the Pilots were shown as they hid their aircraft in the desert from an Iraqi fighter searching for them and crossed the border twice while searching for the Navy Pilot.
More recently, USAF Special Operations Squadrons have aided US counter-narcotic efforts in Latin America. MC-130, MH-53J, and MH-60G Aircraft operated in theatre supporting US and other indiginous troops in the fight against drugs and Narco-terrorists. The MH-60G Was retired from AFSOC and tranferred to the Air Combat Command for use in the CSAR role, although they continue to work very closely with AFSOC assets such as Pararescue groups and often deploy in support of special operations missions.
US Air Force Special Operations played a large role in Operation Enduring Freedom, with both aircraft and Special Tactics units deployed to Afghanistan and the Philippine Islands. Two Pararescuemen were killed in action in separate incidents in Afghanistan and two more were killed when the MH-47E they were flying in went down in flames in the Philippine islands. AC-130's, MC-130's, and MH-53M Pave Lows were deployed to Afghanistan. One Pave Low went down in bad weather after its radar failed in flight; it's crew was picked up by another MH-53 it had been flying with under harrowing conditions; the crew of that Pave Low was given an award (article here) for their harrowing rescue.
An Air Force Reserve MC-130E crew from the 919th Special Operations Wing was similarly awarded for an action on December 7th, 2001, when they managed to refuel four Air Force special ops MH-53's. The Pave Lows had been returning from a mission deep into Afghanistan and the tanker attached to them had suffered some damage and was not able ro refuel them. The helicopters were forced to land in enemy territory and wait while the Combat Talon crew went looking for gas. Their first chance, an Air Force KC-135, had to cancel but the second one did not, and the MC-130 was soon headed back to the rendevous point. Meanwhile, the Pave Low crews, who had been making plans to transfer fuel from two of the airfraft to the other two to make it back (while leaving the empty two for destruction by American bombers) started two aircraft and took off. Each Pave Low had fuel only for one attempt at refueling, and thankfully all four made it, two at a time. By this point however, the MC-130 was so low on fuel it could not make it back to their main base and had to divert to another in Pakistan.
One HH-60G Pave Hawk was lost on August 12, 2001 when the flight crew tried to outclimb a dust cloud after takeoff and crashed. None of the four crew members or two pararescuemen were seriously injured
AFSOC members were busy in Operation Iraqi Freedom as well. One Combat Controller Staff Sgt. Scott D. Sather of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron based at Pope Air Force Base was killed on April 8th.
Pave Low's were kept busy ferrying special operations forces deep into Iraqi held territory. The Mukarayin Dam was captured by Navy SEALs in April after a five-hour flight from Kuwait in Pave Lows, a flight that required refueling by C-130 Tanker.