2nd Special Operations Squadron
By Maj Amanda Reeves, 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
From a non-descript building on Hurlburt Field, FL, a group of Air Force Reserve Citizen Air Commandos carry out a unique 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission for Air Force Special Operations Command. As part of the Air Force Reserve’s only special operations wing, the 2nd Special Operations Squadron (SOS) operates the MQ-9 Reaper in support of warfighters across the globe. Executing a unique mission for the Reserves, the 2nd SOS has overcome great obstacles and proven itself to be a lethal force on the battlefield.
Boasting a unit legacy and heritage dating back to 1917, the 2nd SOS has provided ISR to commanders and warfighters since World War I. Then, they were the US Army’s 2nd Balloon Squadron, using observation balloons over the battlefields of France to help commanders on the ground identify enemy composition, positions, and movements. Although the unit has been de- and re-activated several times in the last century, since March 2009, the 2nd SOS has delivered consistent, timely, and accurate ISR support and capabilities to the greater special operations enterprise.
In its current form, the 2nd SOS was initially activated to operate the MQ-1B Predator at Nellis AFB, NV. Five years later, in 2014, the unit was hit with two major changes simultaneously: changing platforms to operate the MQ-9, and moving to Hurlburt Field, FL. “We didn’t miss a single day of operations,” said a 2nd SOS senior intelligence officer. “What’s even better is the majority of our people chose to move with us as well. That’s rare in the Reserves.”
Indeed, most things about the 2nd SOS are rare in both the Reserves and the Air Force in general. Many traditional AF Reserve units are hindered by restraints on their manning and resources – it is often difficult to support a non-stop mission with people who are only present a total of one month per year. The 2nd SOS, however, has been blessed with a cadre of people who are dedicated to their mission and consistently go above and beyond the minimum requirements.
“Being a part of AFSOC, we’re on the leading edge of the weapon systems coming out,” said the 2nd SOS superintendent, a senior enlisted member assigned to the unit. “We’re always using the newest software and executing the newest capabilities. This requires constant training, and most of our traditional Reservists are working 120 plus days per year.”
As an AF Reserve unit, the 2nd SOS has been able to take advantage of the diversity of its Citizen Air Commandos by tapping into their varied experiences.
“Our diversity makes stronger,” said Lt Col Brian Diehl, 2nd SOS commander. “It provides strategic depth, and more importantly, it makes us lethal. The mighty 2nd SOS is stitched together with seasoned Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, National Guard, and Regular Air Force veterans. We have seen it, we have done it, and we are ready for more!”
In addition to bringing a wealth of knowledge, the 2nd SOS’s composition allows it another strategic advantage—every member of the unit is a volunteer who wants to be there and is completely dedicated to the mission.
In a recent command climate survey, respondents had a 97 percent job satisfaction level, with a 94 percent commitment rate. Satisfaction levels that high are nearly unheard of in any work environment, let alone in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPA enterprise, which has historically been plagued by resiliency issues.
For the mission, this translates to incredible longevity and expertise in the 2nd SOS. On average, the unit’s pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence coordinators each have approximately 3,000 flying hours under their belts. In a recent ceremony, the squadron marked both its tenth anniversary since being re-activated and its achievement of 100,000 flying hours.
Maj Gen Vincent Becklund, the deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, spoke at the ceremony and highlighted the squadron’s contributions to the AFSOC mission. “To be great, a unit needs three critical things: professionalism, technical proficiency, and esprit de corps,” said Becklund. “The 2nd SOS has all three in spades. You truly are a great unit.”
The 2nd SOS works around the clock to support AFSOC’s global operations. Since 2009, it has operated in every named operation in which the US has been engaged, encompassing six different areas of operation (AOR). The resulting intelligence from thousands of different targets assisted in countless raids and detentions, while also neutralizing numerous high-value individuals wishing to do the US harm.
“You are a critical part of our team,” said Gen Becklund. “I have never once heard someone say that a mission was so critical that they would rather not have the 2nd SOS handle it.”
As an integral part of the Total Force, the 2nd SOS has also supported its active duty counterparts in untraditional ways. In 2017, when its sister unit, the active duty 65th Special Operations Squadron, underwent its own move, the 2nd SOS mobilized to support the move to ensure operations did not stop. Once the move was complete, the 2nd SOS continued to provide intelligence support for nearly a full year. Additionally, the 2nd SOS runs the operations center for both the Reserve and active duty components at Hurlburt Field. Since they opened in 2014, they have never closed their doors and have maintained steady-state, 24/7/365 operations. “This unit works so seamlessly with the active duty component that I would never know you were a Reserve unit if you didn’t tell me — you’re that good,” said Gen Becklund.
That professionalism and expertise is a direct result of each member’s dedication to the mission. The squadron is comprised of a mix of full-time Active Guard Reserve positions and traditional Reservist positions. Significant system upgrades occurring every six months and the mix of full-time and part-time schedules require true personal commitment to stay proficient.
“Our traditional Reservist crew members come in, and with minimal spin-up are ready to fly any mission in any AOR,” said a senior master sergeant assigned to the unit. “It might be a new system, it might be a new AOR. It’s a really unique and challenging situation for us, but our people thrive.”
In October 2018, the 2nd SOS demonstrated just how good they are when they faced a Category 5 hurricane head-on. Projected to make landfall just 80 miles east of Hurlburt Field, Hurricane Michael was the first Cat 5 to hit Florida since 1992. The storm’s rapid change in intensity forced the 2nd SOS to act quickly, informing numerous global players of the situation, ensuring troops on the ground had the critical air support they required thousands of miles away, and keeping local crews safe from the storm’s path in Florida.
The 2nd SOS operations center remained operational throughout the storm to coordinate aircrews and missions and to maintain personnel accountability. For safety, they moved to minimum manning, and for about 48 hours, the operations center was manned by the unit’s commander, senior intelligence officer, flight operations supervisor, and senior mission intelligence coordinator.
The hurricane ride-out crews served as a hub of communication between several interested wings, squadron members and their families, and the deployed controlling agencies. In addition to command and control duties, the ride-out crew also ensured generators and air handlers operated at full capacity in order to protect the irreplaceable computer servers and equipment required to operate aircraft halfway around the world. The squadron’s leadership carefully monitored the storm’s path, weighing the decision of whether or not to evacuate. This was as close as the 2nd SOS had come to ceasing operations since it relocated to Hurlburt Field in 2014. Once the hurricane’s path shifted slightly to the east and the squadron had 100 percent accountability, the operations center returned their focus to their normal operations, recalling aircrew and flying combat missions again.
The 24/7/365 no-fail mission of the 2nd SOS persisted, despite the threat from an unpredictable hurricane, because its people believed in it and committed to uphold it. The unit’s members make those same decisions day-in and day-out, providing continuous, superior support to the nation’s warfighters on the ground.
To ensure the fast pace doesn’t take a toll on its people, the 2nd SOS works closely with its wing’s Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) representatives. They hold monthly family events for the members and take resiliency seriously from the moment each member is gained to the unit.
We address the nature of our mission in our initial interviews,” said Diehl. “Everyone who comes here knows what to expect and has decided this is what they want to do. I think that, combined with the exceptional support we receive from POTFF, is why we have such a high job satisfaction rate.”
Looking to the future, the 2nd SOS has no intention of slowing down and is eager to meet its next milestones. “Make no mistake: while looking forward, we will remain fully engaged in our current fights,” said Diehl. “We will leverage all of our experience to lead our community, not only in restoring our near peer proficiency, but in expanding the envelope of capability.”
Editor’s Note: Last names of 2nd SOS personnel are withheld for security reasons.
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