Air Transportation: August 14, 2002
U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC)- The most recently created of the American special operations units, air force special ops grew out of pilot rescue units that have always been a part of U.S. Air Force. During the Vietnam war, more special aircraft were added (like the fixed wing gun ships) and in 1987 all these units were combined into the 23rd Air Force. This outfit, in turn, was upgraded in 1990 to become AFSOC. Total strength is some 12,500 men and women (active and reserve military, plus civilians.) The main contribution are over a hundred customized C-130 transports (and crews trained to use them.) These include 21 AC-130 "Specter" gunships and 24 MC-130 long range transports. There are also 40 modified MH-53 heavy helicopters and a small number of customized Blackhawks. All the C-130s and MH-53s can be refueled in the air and train to deliver commandos at night in all kinds of weather. When you have to get some SEALs, Rangers or Special Forces to some out of the way place like Afghanistan, and do it in a hurry, you move via AFSOC aircraft. Also provided are transports capable of dropping the special 15,000 pound BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" bombs and carrying the flying radio and TV broadcasting equipment.
The air force also has several hundred men trained to fight on the ground, in addition to their specialized air force duties (rescuing injured air crews, air traffic control, calling in air strikes, or setting up weather monitoring equipment.) The air force actually has a large force of light infantry. These are the people who guard air bases and actually look like infantry some of the time (when they wear their camouflage uniforms and carry assault rifles.) In fact, the air force has more of these security personnel than the army has infantry, but that's another story. Many of the elite air force operators go through the US Army Ranger school. Because of the large number of aircraft and helicopters available to assist ground troops, the "air commandos" and their special equipment are a welcome addition to any special operations mission. Army Special Forces troops or SEALs can also direct air strikes, but the air commandos practice that all the time and also practice more complex uses of the aircraft overhead (supply drops, stacking up many aircraft so everyone can unload their bombs, Etc.)
The primary function of the air force special ops people remains the recovery of downed air crew who end up in hostile territory. This is how the air commandos started in World War II and none of the current AFSOC operators ever forget it. All the services will cooperate on any mission involving the recovery of lost aircrew. It's always been that way, for all the services have pilots and knowing someone will come in after you does wonders for crew morale.
Most of the air force "operators" are the crews of the special ops aircraft. Training takes place constantly at night, in bad weather and at low altitudes. It's dangerous work and only the competent survive. During the 1990s, often as a result of Gulf War experience, it was realized that the Special Forces could use qualified (that is, commando quality) air force specialists on the ground with the army operators. So a training program was created that sent air force commando air controllers and other specialists to the Special Forces for evaluations. A six day evaluation program was developed. The air force guys that passed that were qualified to operate with the Special Forces in combat. These are the air force troops sometimes mentioned in reports on the fighting in Afghanistan. The program worked. There was only one case of friendly fire in Afghanistan involving an air force controller, and in that case it was a hardware problem (changing batteries in the air force ground controller radio changed some data in the radio, causing the bomb to hit where the radio was, not where the target was.)
The elite of the ground based air force operators that are pararescue teams. These are basically airborne medics, who have trained to parachute into any terrain, in any weather, in order to provide medical aid for downed air crew. In practice, the pararescue teams have been used to support Special Forces and other commando missions. If you have wounded men way out there, the medical personnel most likely to reach them first are the AFSOC pararescue teams. The six or seven men in a pararescue team usually include a doctor. The selection process for pararescue service about the same as for Special Forces. When rangers, SEALs, Special Forces or Delta Force get hurt, it's often air force pararescue that goes in to treat and evacuate them.
The main operating bases for AFSOC are in Florida, Britain and Japan. The AFSOC schools and headquarters are in Florida. AFSOC units practice regularly with army and navy special operations units, as everyone assumes a world crises could occur at any time. In the special operations business, every war is a come as you are war.