Air Force Special Operations Command was formed by renaming USAF's rescue units and adding Special Ops "snake-eater" duties to their rescue mission. After the 1991 Gulf War, downed Air Force pilots were not happy with the responsiveness of the Special Ops helos who seemed preoccupied with "snake-eater" missions. Rather than addressing these perceptions or adding resources to meet both needs, the Air Force created new rescue squadrons, nearly from scratch, to keep the promise of return to downed pilots.
The Air Force announced recently that it will be transferring its rescue forces from Air Combat Command to Air Force Special Operation Command. This transfer will include 32 HH-60 helicopters, 11 HC-130 tankers and Moody AFB, GA, which will become a AFSOC-owned base. About fifty personnel will be reassigned from ACC headquarters at Langley AFB, VA to Hurlburt Field, FL. About 3,400 personnel will "change patches," most from the 347th Rescue Wing. Since the rescue role and the mandate of Air Force Special Ops helicopters, insertion and extraction of commandos, is similar, savings will come from common logistics and training. Recent experience has shown that the Air Force's dedicated rescue troops are used interchangeably with Army and Air Force Special Ops helicopters. Marines were used for the Scott O'Grady rescue in Bosnia in the 1990s. If they've been doing the same mission for all these years, why didn't a merger come about sooner?
Ten years later, why the change of heart? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has made his fondness for the Special Operations well known, but the Air Force's own experience is most compelling. Air Force leaders know their work in Afghanistan depended on a close relationship with Special Operations troops on the ground. The airmen, like most of the conventional military, have a new respect for Special Ops. An important bridge was built. For a rescue behind enemy lines to be successful, the right people have to be in the right place at the right time. Now that past perceptions are gone and trust has been restored, pooling resources in a place with support from the Defense Secretary might just better those odds. -AJ Wagner