AFSOC Uses ‘Dagger’ Teams as its Pointy Tip of the Spear
Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway
In its recently released “Strategic Guidance” document, Air Force Special Operations Command leadership articulates the principle that “AFSOC’s human capital is our competitive advantage.”
One set of tactical organizations where that human capital stands in the spotlight are AFSOC’s deployed aircraft ground response element, or DAGRE — small teams within the Air Force’s security forces that receive specialized training to support the command’s assets and personnel in austere locations around the globe.
The DAGRE program was implemented in 2008, and reflected the realization that security for AFSOC assets was not being properly protected under the previous force protection plan set forth by anti-terrorism officers.
Prior to the implementation of DAGRE — pronounced “dagger” — most of the command’s platforms were expected to be protected by users, who were generally the same personnel operating and maintaining the asset. However, planners assessed that security could not be just an extra duty for pilots and maintainers. A dedicated, highly trained team of security specialists was needed so that aircrew members and other personnel could give the utmost attention to their critical primary duties.
The implementation and expansion of the DAGRE program over the last decade has reflected the need to maintain security as a high priority for transitioning AFSOC aircraft and personnel.
DAGRE operations currently fall under AFSOC headquarters. Units in the Continental United States belong to a security forces squadron while at home station but continue to meet the requirements of headquarters and supported overseas units while deployed.
Although unable to discuss units’ specific “deployed structure” due to operational security issues, members of one DAGRE team associated with the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, recently explained to National Defense that the structure of DAGRE teams generally includes a non-commissioned officer in charge, serving as team leader, along with an assistant team leader and “remaining team members.”
According to a team leader, Technical Sgt. Cory Irvin, DAGRE is a specialty within Air Force security forces, or military police.
The program is open to all security forces airmen within the ranks of senior airman to master sergeant who meet the AFSOC physical and professional standards. Once qualified, team members have the ability to stay within the DAGRE sections for an extended period of time. Alternately, they can also go back to the broader security forces community.
The “DAGRE pipeline” is located at Hurlburt Field, Florida, under the 371st Special Operations Combat Training Squadron. While at Hurlburt, members learn different skill trades, including tactical casualty combat care, defensive driving, tactical communications, tactical security details, land navigation and a wide variety of firing courses.
Additional training courses and qualifications that DAGRE personnel are able to obtain range from air assault to certain leadership courses like Ranger school.
“As a DAGRE team leader, I look for individuals that are highly competent, critical thinkers who have great communication skills and have the flexibility/adaptability to execute any task that may be required in a multitude of environments,” Irvin said. “They must be skilled shooters who always increase their abilities and strive for perfection. They must be physically fit, since all DAGREs must maintain above a 90 percent [Air Force physical fitness test] score to be considered deployment eligible.”
Physical fitness not only enables DAGREs to endure the strains and pressures of the job, but a physically fit team presents a psychological security deterrent, he added.
“Ultimately, a security forces member who wants to be DAGRE needs to do so for the right reasons. With the high tempo and strenuous training, the member must be selfless and a great team player who is always looking out for the men and women they work with and protect,” he said.
Irvin reiterated that the DAGRE core mission is security, elaborating, “That equates to protecting AFSOC aircraft or personnel on the ground safely by ensuring proper force protection measures are met when aircraft are transiting through austere locations.”
DAGRE teams can be tasked to perform fly-away security, which involves protecting aircraft on the ground. While there, they also can perform “site security and conduct airfield threat assessments for future planning.”
Asked to elaborate on some past scenarios, one team member said some recent fly-away security missions have involved “protecting high profile individuals” in multiple countries as these members traversed from different airfields. Additionally, in austere locations, they noted that DAGRE teams have previously provided security for detainee transfers and have taken part in voting ballet transfers during critical elections within some countries.
Acknowledging the broad skill sets required for such diverse operational profiles, Irvin said that team proficiency is maintained by the fact that DAGREs are in a state of constant training.
“One of the biggest differences between DAGRE and conventional security forces is the required need of ever-revolving training cycles that enable us to keep our core skill set that consists of mandatory evaluated tasks current,” he said. “Through communication with [AFSOC headquarters], a basic framework is developed of what future operations may exist and training is constantly tailored to meet the needs of the area of operations that we will be in.”
The training also includes participation in a wide range of exercises, including multiple Special Operations Command humanitarian assistance/disaster relief events, combat search-and-rescue scenarios, and joint services recovery operations.
Recent exercise involvement has included the Jaded Thunder joint service exercise, Exercise Flintlock in Africa, and the annual Emerald Warrior — a Defense Department event focusing on irregular warfare and designed to hone special operations forces air and ground combat skills.
Describing team activities and host nation interaction in “the deployed environment,” Irvin said, “It is essential for the DAGRE team leader to develop priorities of work and work-rest cycles for his/her team,” adding that “assessing the level of host nation security available as well as building rapport with the host nation’s forces enables a more tailored security posture.”
A host nation’s security forces might have the capability of providing physical barriers — such as fencing, jersey barriers, ropes or cones — or lighting to the team, which could enhance and extend the DAGRE’s security posture, he said.
In terms of their own equipment, DAGRE teams use a variety of materiel solutions not necessarily found in broader Air Force inventories.
“DAGREs are outfitted to be more of a lighter, leaner and lethal asset,” said one team member. “The main goal is to continuously improve DAGRE’s equipment based off evolving technology and modernized mission changes. Communications equipment will include multiband handheld radios. We also use night vision equipment. As for mobility platforms, DAGREs have been known to operate off-road vehicles and light armored vehicles.”
Irvin highlighted the teams’ impact as potential force multipliers.
“DAGREs are experts at their trade and are able to adapt to any situation that might arise,” he said. “Being flexible has always been a key mindset within DAGRE operations.
With security always being a necessity, DAGREs bring a unique perspective and have the ability to work with all special operations forces.”
Meanwhile, recent incidents around the world, like the January 2020 Islamist extremist attack on a small military base in Africa used by U.S. and Kenyan troops, is likely to prompt a greater appreciation in some circles for the teams and their capabilities.
DAGREs are responsible for conducting defensive operations, enhancing force movement, providing operational force protection, providing security for operational forces, sustaining deployed forces and protecting the force, Irvin said.
“They are ‘tip of the spear’ security forces subject matter experts that bring anti-terrorism/force protection advisement to deployed mission commanders,” he said. “Their ability to tailor security to any environment and mission set is second to none and would be of great benefit to any SOF command across the Department of Defense.”
Asked how he envisions the DAGRE program might evolve over the next five years, Irvin said, “I see the program focusing their training to near-peer adversaries. As the demand for DAGREs grow, I also see the selection and training process becoming more metrics based and selective in nature to ensure that quality DAGREs continue to be developed in line with the SOF truths that ‘quality is better than quantity’ and that ‘SOF can’t be mass produced.’”