who heads the Air Force Special Operations Command, noted that AFSOC
troops increasingly are soaring into uncharted territory.
“Our force is maturing to the point where we can be assigned
a geographic area in Iraq, for example, and be held responsible
for that piece of ground,” Wooley said in an interview.
During the invasion of Iraq, special operations forces were given
responsibility for taking the western part of the country, he said.
AFSOC’s role, Wooley said, was to provide air mobility to
those forces and to conventional units. More recently, Air Force
special operators provided close air support for Marines in the
battle for Fallujah, he said.
AFSOC—headquartered at Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach,
Fla.—is the Air Force component of the U.S. Special Operations
Command. It includes 20,000 active-duty, reserve, Air National Guard
and civilian personnel.
Air Force special operators, who call themselves “air commandos,”
are highly trained and rapidly deployable. The command’s special
tactics squadrons provide combat control, combat weather and pararescue
personnel to support both special operations and conventional forces.
The command also conducts airborne radio and television broadcasts
for psychological operations and supplies combat aviation advisors
to the military forces of other governments.
In 2003, AFSOC took over responsibility for Air Force combat search
and rescue operations (CSAR). Nearly 7,000 airmen in these units
were transferred from the Air Force’s Air Combat Command to
The merger with AFSOC has been “a great success story,”
Sometimes, rescues take place far from the battlefield, Wooley
said. “Back in July, for example, the Air Force rescue coordination
center at Langley [Air Force Base, Va.] got a call about a sailor
aboard a Chinese merchant ship in the Caribbean,” he recalled.
“The sailor had gotten caught in a winch, and his lungs had
Units from the 347 Rescue Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and
920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., responded to
the call. The sailor was flown to medical care in Puerto Rico. “A
judge advocate from Moody who spoke Mandarin coordinated the whole
thing,” Wooley said.
CSAR units are “evolving and modernizing even as we speak,”
Wooley said. Soon, they will be getting new helicopters. The Air
Force is planning to buy 132 new helicopters, dubbed “personnel
recovery vehicles,” to replace 104 aging HH-60G Pave Hawks.
The Pave Hawks are flown by Air Force special operators, the Air
Education and Training Command, Air Force Reserve, Air National
Guard and Pacific Air Forces. The Air Force plans to award the contract,
worth possibly as much as $9 billion, in the fall.
AFSOC currently is equipped with 160 specially designed aircraft,
such as the C-130 Hercules transport and its derivatives, including
the AC-130H/U gunship, EC-130E/J Commando Solo psychological operations
aircraft, HC-130P/N combat search and rescue aircraft and MC-130
E/H Combat Talon I/II special operations transport. Air commandos
also fly MH-53J/M Pave Low helicopters, in addition to the Pave
These aircraft “are getting pretty tired,” Wooley said.
“There’s no doubt about that. We’re working them
So far, however, the aircraft are holding up fairly well, he said.
“There are no real show-stoppers,” he said. “We
take a hard look at them during the inspection cycles.”
The command is acquiring 14 C-130s from other Air Force units that
will be reconfigured for special operations missions. Ten of them
will become Talon IIs, which are used primarily to insert, extract
and re-supply special operations forces in hostile or denied territory.
They feature terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radars capable
of operating as low as 250 feet in adverse weather conditions. They
can take off and land on short, unimproved runways, and refuel in
flight, giving them an unlimited range.
The other four will be AC-130U gunships, which use the call sign,
“Spooky.” The U models are the third generation of C-130
gunships. Armed with 105 mm and 40 mm cannons, and 25 mm guns, they
provide close air support, air interdiction and force protection
during convoys and ground combat, including urban operations.
AFSOC also is moving ahead with plans to acquire the CV-22 Osprey
tilt rotor aircraft, Wooley said. The CV-22 is the Air Force version
of the V-22, which is designed to take off and land like a helicopter
and fly like a fixed-wing platform. “The CV-22 is a wonderful
aircraft that offers increased capability,” he said.
Since the V-22 first flew in 1989, prototypes have crashed four
times, killing 30 crewmembers and passengers. But the problems that
caused those crashes have been corrected, according to the V-22
program office. Testing has continued, and the program office plans
to complete operational evaluation this summer and seek a full-rate
production decision from the Defense Department in the fall.
Wooley told National Defense that he is “very confident”
of the V-22. A couple of months ago, I went down to [Marine Corps
Air Station] New River, in North Carolina, [where the aircraft is
being evaluated], and flew the MV-22 [the Marine variant],”
AFSOC plans to buy three CV-22s this year. Ultimately, it intends
to acquire 50 of them.
A key word now among air commandos, Wooley said is “interoperability.”
The command, like other special operations forces, now operates
frequently with conventional troops, Wooley said. “Gone are
the days when special operations forces go off on their own, in
isolation,” he said.
For example, Wooley noted, air commandos played a major role in
the airdrop of 1,000 paratroopers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne
Brigade into northern Iraq during the early part of the war.
To make it happen, AFSOC covertly inserted a combat weatherman
into the area several days before the operation. “He was there
working the weather aspects for the drop,” Wooley said. “That
area is notorious for sandstorms that could have could have adversely
A sandstorm at the wrong time could have jeopardized the entire
mission, Wooley said. “Everybody knew it was dicey,”
he said. “It was only a couple of hours before the drop that
the combat weatherman was able to convince the commander of the
operation that the weather would be sufficient. The weather cleared
up half an hour before drop time.”
Combat weathermen are forecasters who work in forward ground-combat
areas. They gather and interpret weather data while deployed primarily
with Army special operations forces. The data is used to generate
accurate forecasts for specific mission travel routes and target
areas. Combat weathermen are recruited from the Air Force’s
traditional weather career field, and then subjected to airborne,
survival and special-tactics training.
The other members of AFSOC special tactics teams—pararescuemen
and combat controllers—also are trained in parachuting, survival
and special tactics. Pararescuemen, or PJs for short, are specialized
combat search and rescue personnel. They are the only members of
U.S. military services specifically trained and equipped to conduct
both conventional and unconventional rescue operations.
PJs can deploy by land, sea or air behind enemy lines to identify
and extract U.S. or friendly combatants. If a combatant is injured,
they are trained to administer first aid.
Combat controllers set up navigational air equipment to guide aircraft
for landing on makeshift runways without the benefit of a tower
or large communications system. They are the first to deploy into
restricted environments by air, land or sea to establish assault
zones, control air attacks against enemy targets, provide vital
command and control, gather intelligence, and use demolitions to
clear obstructions from potential runways and landing zones.
Their unique missions entitle members of the three specialties
to wear berets of differing colors—gray for combat weathermen,
maroon for PJs and scarlet for combat controllers.
The special tactics teams are not to be confused with tactical
air-control party airmen. TACP members—part of the Air Force’s
Air Combat Command—are embedded with Army ground combat forces,
mainly special-operations troops. Their primary mission is to direct
combat air strikes against enemy targets. They receive Ranger, airborne
and dive training. They also are schooled in radio maintenance and
operation. They wear black berets.
In recent years, all four specialties have been dubbed “battlefield
airmen,” Wooley explained. “That’s a new term
for something that’s been around for a long time,” he
To do their jobs, battlefield airmen are required to take as much
as 160 pounds of equipment—including mapping, plotting, designation
and communications equipment—into the field with them. To
ease that burden, the Air Force has begun deploying a new battlefield
air-operations kit that is 50 percent lighter and reduces the time
needed to link sensors to shooter by 40 percent.
“At the end of the day, however, it’s the people—not
the equipment—that will see us through this global war on
terror,” Wooley said. “When 9/11 hit us, we were undermanned
in all of those [battlefield] skill areas. … We started behind
The Air Force is working to bring those specialties up to strength,
Wooley said. He praised the service’s Air Education and Training
Command for its efforts to help train additional special operators.
Many airmen who want to become special operators have trouble completing
the tough training courses.
The AETC has not relaxed standards for special operators, but it
“has hired psychologists and coaches to mentor young folks,
and help them succeed, not fail,” Wooley said.
“We’ve done a similar thing here at AFSOC,” he
said. “We are capitalizing on AETC’s good work. We are
posturing for a successful scenario. We’re no longer letting
our applicants just sink or swim.”
As a result of such efforts, Wooley said that he is “very
confident” that, within about two years, the battlefield air
specialties will be up to near 100 percent strength.