- The Air Force Special Operations Command has enjoyed two decades of success against terrorist groups.
- This prepared AFSOC for a “particularly difficult” transition to a new era of competition, according to its commander.
- “If it was easy, someone else would be able to do it,” AFSOC Commander Lieutenant-General James Slife said in February.
In February, Lt. Gen. James Slife, Commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), described the state of Air Force special operations and described how air commandos must adapt to stay relevant and effective.
The top air commando said its force faces a difficult transition from hunting down terrorists to a potential conflict with Russia or China.
“Now is the time for us to accelerate change,” Slife said, echoing the Air Force mantra for the new era of competition. “But I suggest to you that for AFSOC in particular, there is a difficulty with this that I think none of us should underestimate.”
AFSOC provides airlift, close air support, precision strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) functions to other special operations units.
Air commandos operate several aircraft, such as AC-130J Ghostrider combat helicopter, CV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft, MQ-9 Reaper drone, MC-130J Commando II transport.
In addition to its air assets, AFSOC deploys aviators to the battlefield – paratroopers, combat controllers, special reconnaissance operators and tactical air control group aviators – to augment Navy SEAL platoons, Green Beret detachments, Delta Force assault teams and other special operations units.
These air commandos are an integral part of the US special operations community, but often go unnoticed as they are usually attached individually to other units instead of functioning as dedicated Air Force teams.
New threats, new needs
Slife argued that US special operations forces are at what he called a third inflection point.
The first inflection point was the hostage crisis in Iran, a catastrophe that led American military leaders to create US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which revolutionized US special operations.
The second inflection point came in the post-9/11 wars, in which the Pentagon relied on commandos for almost everything, such as raids on high-value targets and training partner forces, and even to overthrow the Taliban.
With the advent of great power competition with China and Russia, comes the third inflection point, Slife said at the Air Force Association’s air warfare conference.
Slife acknowledged that this transition is likely to be “particularly difficult” as the circumstances are different.
“At our previous two inflection points… we were in the aftermath of failure,” Slife said. Today, however, AFSOC is emerging from 20 years of “virtually absolute success” against violent extremist groups.
Organizations may find it difficult to embrace change after being successful, but change is needed to cope with a new threat environment that comes with close peer competition. People often joke that the military is preparing for the last war, so structured change is prudent.
According to Slife, AFSOC will need to excel in four areas: crisis response, the fight against violent extremist organizations, competition from the great powers and war between peers.
To do this, AFSOC will need to re-examine the capabilities it can offer to the special operations community and to the conventional military.
New limits on defense budgets mean that AFSOC will have to choose its priorities carefully and avoid the temptation to find answers in expensive new programs and technologies – in other words, it needs to do more with what it does. he has already.
“We will not be able to buy our way out of the challenges that we will have in the future,” Slife said. “We need to better leverage the capabilities already present in the force and leverage the power of our Airmen to transform us for the future.”
The struggle for close air support
The provision of air support is likely to be an area of growing interest for AFSOC.
Air commandos currently operate a small fleet of aircraft that provide ISR to special ground operators. ISR aircraft in orbit can provide a live image of a target and its surroundings, an unmatched advantage over less technologically advanced enemies.
As the war on terror evolved, ISR capabilities became increasingly important. In some cases, ISR support was mandatory for an operation to be approved.
SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program – which aims to develop organic close air support aircraft and unleash sophisticated aircraft like the F-22s and F-35s for more advanced missions – is one of the biggest bets of AFSOC for the future.
There have been several US military attempts to find a commercially available propeller plane for support missions. The most recent is the Air Force Light Attack Experience, which has been closed early 2020.
The Air Force and members of Congress are either skeptical or openly opposed to the Armed Overwatch program, but SOCOM has made it clear that it wants the capability and is moving forward with a purchase program of 75 aircraft for AFSOC which would provide close air support. , precision strike and ISR in austere and permissive environments.
ISIS and Al Qaeda have been largely defeated in Iraq and Syria, but other groups are wreaking havoc in Africa and the Middle East, threatening to topple weak governments and spark regional crises.
Therefore, special operations forces will continue to deploy to low-intensity hotspots where U.S. interests are threatened, and they may need to call in close air support. The Armed Overwatch program is designed to support this ongoing fight.
SOCOM providing its own robust, cheaper to operate aircraft to support the commandos aligns perfectly with some of AFSOC’s transition objectives.
Although air commandos are trying to understand their future roles, they will certainly be called upon to perform difficult missions against multiple threats.
“If it was easy, someone else would be able to do it, but now is the time for us to transform for the future,” Slife said.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and graduate of Johns Hopkins University.