Air Force special tactics units expect to increase their ranks during the next several years, despite difficulties in recruiting and retaining seasoned operators. According to officials, only 62 percent of currently authorized jobs are filled.
These special tactics teams are part of the Air Force Special Operations Command, which is based in Hurlburt Field, Fla. Special tactics airmen include combat controllers, weathermen and pararescue operators.
Combat controllers move undetected into combat and other hostile environments, sometimes behind enemy lines, to establish helicopter landing zones and airfields.
Combat weathermen are meteorologists with advanced tactical skills that enable them to operate in hostile or denied territory. They gather and interpret weather data and provide intelligence, primarily while serving with other special operations forces.
Pararescuemen, or PJs, are trained and equipped to conduct both conventional and unconventional search and rescue operations of U.S. and allied personnel, often during combat. They can deploy by air, land or sea, if necessary, to find, identify, extract, treat and evacuate those in trouble.
Most pararescuemen –- along with their combat rescue officers, HC-130 P/N transports and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters — are in the process of being transferred from AFSOC to the Air Combat Command, which operates the Air Force’s fighting aircraft.
AFSOC will retain some pararescuemen to help perform its own missions. Special tactics still has 106. But the transfer –- when it is completed this month — will shrink AFSOC from about 19,000 personnel in 2005 to 13,000 at a time when it is adding new units.
In 2005, the command stood up the 3rd Special Operations Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The 3rd SOS’s mission is to fly the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, AFSOC Commander, Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, said at a recent seminar on Capitol Hill.
The Air Force announced in June a plan to transfer the 16th Special Operations Wing from Hurlburt to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. The 16th will be able to train on the nearby 66,000-acre Melrose Air Force Range.
The service also intends to bring the 1st Special Operations Wing from retirement and station it at Hurlburt. The 1st is scheduled in November to receive the first operational CV-22 Osprey.
All of these changes will require additional personnel. Special operations forces, including those of the Air Force, are planned to increase by about 25 percent from a current strength of approximately 51,000.
“Our numbers are rising,” Wooley told National Defense. Still, he conceded his command was having difficulty keeping some positions filled, especially in special tactics.
“We are still at a deficit with controllers and pararescuemen,” he said. “But,” he insisted, “that is on the rise. We have got a very good pipeline that is full.”
The problem is that many special tactics candidates don’t make it all the way through the pipeline. The training costs more than $200,000 per student. Approximately 40 percent, on average, wash out of every class.
“Because of the arduous training these people go through, we need to bring in lots more people to make up the difference in the numbers that are either quitting or being eliminated,” said Wayne Norad, a spokesman for the 720th Special Tactics Group at Hurlburt.
“For example, last year, I think we were able to bring in 148 combat controller recruits to graduate 88 people,” he explained. “That still didn’t do it. Next year, we hope to bring in 180.”
AFSOC says it is maintaining tough standards for recruits. “We have not messed with any of the standards,” Wooley said. “We have messed with the process.” For example, he noted, the command is providing mentors and psychologists to help recruits make it through the strenuous training.
The Air Force is recruiting special operators at competitive events such as marathons, triathlons and NASCAR races, he said. For example, he noted the command was sending a recruiting team for special tactics personnel to a bicycle race in Iowa. “The people who do that sort of thing are just the people we are looking for.”
The command also is experiencing trouble retaining senior personnel. “Because of the war on terror, companies such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and so on hired a bunch of security people,” said Norad. “They needed people who could shoot, move and communicate.”
Contractors are offering senior enlisted men, with 20 years of service, up to $200,000 per year –- several times their military pay – according to an internal Air Force study.
To help stem the exodus, Congress authorized reenlistment bonuses of up to $156,000 for those with 20 years of service. That has encouraged “a few” of those to stay in the Air Force, he said.
Another reason that these jobs are hard to keep filled is that special tactics airmen must learn and maintain an array of technical skills throughout their careers.
All must become and remain competent in such military arts as free-fall parachuting, diving and survival in remote areas. Plus, combat controllers must become and remain experts in standard and battlefield air-traffic control. Pararescuemen specialize in treating emergency trauma before evacuation. Combat weathermen are as highly trained as other Air Force weathermen, but they often must make their forecasts on the battlefield.
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