Special Operations Airmen a 'Little Rusty' at Some Missions

By Dan Parsons
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — After a decade flying in high-mountain and arid conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force Special Operations pilots have lost some of the skills needed to fly in other environments, like the vast Pacific, said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
“Special tactics crews have a certain number of mental tasks you’re supposed to maintain proficiency in,” Fiel said. “If you’re only using a certain portion of them in Afghanistan and 85 percent of your force is going to Afghanistan, we need to adjust our training profile” to make sure the full spectrum of skills is covered, he said at the 2012 Air & Space symposium hosted by the Air Force Association.
“We do realize some of the things we’ve done in the past we’re a little rusty at,” he added.
Low-level flight, for instance, is not something often practiced in Afghanistan, so crews are being rotated back to their home bases to sharpen dulled skills, he said. Joint terminal attack controllers and specialists in weather also have seen some atrophy occur having worked for nearly a decade in a single environment, Fiel said. Those two areas, especially, will need retraining before AFSOC expands its presence in the Pacific theater.  
“It’s kind of like going to England and driving on the [left] side of the road,” he added. “When you come back, you have to think about which way to turn.”
The same trend has influenced the development of equipment used and flown by AFSOC airmen. For the past decade, 80 percent of all special operations activities have occurred in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only 20 percent of their work has been done elsewhere in the world, said Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
“Our systems are optimized for hot desert and high mountain,” Reid said at the conference. “We’ve got to think in the future, unless we get caught off guard, about contingencies in cold weather, contingencies in jungle environments.”
As the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, special operations units likely will not get much of a breather, Reid said. As part of a new “low-cost, small footprint” global strategy that emphasizes foreign military engagement and partnership building, special operators may be in higher demand than ever.
“We expect to be pretty busy in the future,” Reid said. “As the big force makes this transition [to the Pacific], we still have to stay engaged in  these other theaters.”
AFSOC is already pushing CV-22 Ospreys out to the Pacific theater, Fiel said. Half of the planned 50 tilt-rotor aircraft have been delivered. Following the stationing of 10 Ospreys at Royal Air Force Station Mildehall, in the U.K., another 10-aircraft wing will be established in the Pacific, he said. That plan should take shape within two years to coincide with the end of operations in Afghanistan, though no basing decisions have been made.
While Fiel agreed that special operations air mobility and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will be in high demand in the future, he  worried his force is showing strain after a decade of war. Some airmen supporting unmanned systems have been pulling 75-day rotations in and out of one of war zones non-stop for five years, he said. “I’m concerned about op[erational] tempo,” he said. “We have folks that have been over there [Afghanistan] 20 times.”
Photo Credits: Air Force, Yasmin Tadjdeh

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Training

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