Turning Airmen Into Air Commandos

By Lt Col Paul F. Geehreng, USAF Special Operations School

This article was first published the Fall of  2011 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 1, Issue 1 page 44.

AFSOC proudly bestows the title of Air Commando to its members, but what does it mean to be an Air Commando? How are we “made,” and what makes us so special? The last two Quadrennial Defense Reviews’ (QDRs) have emphasized growing SOF-like capabilities in the general purpose forces (GPF). Plus an increasing percentage of AFSOC accessions come straight from the Air Force’s initial entry pipeline. Therefore, these questions are drawing considerably more attention in recent years. While the SOF Truths remind us that we cannot mass produce special operations forces, AFSOC is in the process of absorbing 60% growth since 2005. With these factors pulling on the command’s core identity, we must identify and, more importantly, instill the essence of being an Air Commando into the next generation to assume that mantle.

The SOF Truths:
• Humans are more important than hardware
• Quality is better than quantity
• Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced
• Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur
• Most Special Operations require non-SOF assistance

In 2006, AFSOC published the 13 Critical Attributes to capture some keys to SOF success. While these characteristics are useful traits to encourage, they don’t quite sum up the nature of SOF that sets us apart from the GPF. Others point to specialized tools and training that make the difference. Again, I would argue these are critical foundations but only the beginning of building an effective Air Commando. Through numerous discussions with AFSOC squadron commanders and other SOF leaders, I would emphasize a couple significant distinctions: attitude and inherent joint mindedness.

The attitude to which I refer is one of confidence and dedication to the mission. It has nothing to do with career field and everything to do with getting the job done, no matter what it takes. Rather than look at a difficult mission task and list reasons why it cannot be accomplished, an Air Commando will seek out ways in which it can.

This attitude has sometimes been mistaken for arrogance or disregard for the rules, but it is the Air Commando’s skills, maturity, and judgment which allow him or her to independently analyze the situation and determine the acceptable level of risk. When Air Commandos are asked to perform a mission, they know it is important enough to have been sent their way in the first place. With full knowledge of the limits of personnel, equipment, and regulations, Air Commandos seek, construct, and present creative solutions to the appropriate level of command authority for execution. Simply put: Air Commandos apply tough critical thinking to evaluate the problem set against actual limitations rather than constraining themselves to procedures established for common denominator type situations.

AFSOC’s 13 Critical Attributes: Integrity, Self-Motivation, Intelligence, Self-Discipline, Perseverance, Adaptability, Maturity, Judgment, Selflessness, Leadership, Skilled, Physical Fitness, and Family Strength

It was this no-fail attitude that led to some of the most innovative missions in U.S. military history. Even before General Hap Arnold coined the term “Air Commando” in reference to the air support Lt Cols Cochran and Alison provided the Chindits in Burma, American Airmen answered the call to go above and beyond the normal line of duty. Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle displayed this attitude when he launched B-25s off the deck of an aircraft carrier to conduct his famous direct action against the Japanese mainland during World War II. This important mission carried strategic benefits for the nation – reward outweighed the risk. As the plan came together, many skeptics surely pointed out the limitations of launching 16 ground-based, medium bombers from a ship – for one thing, the crews couldn’t turn around and land! However, limitations couldn’t confine the imaginations of Doolittle’s crews. Focusing on what the crews, the aircraft tech orders, and the regs said could be done, Doolittle’s Raiders boosted American morale and drove the Japanese leadership to withdraw forces from other fronts to defend the home islands.

A no-fail attitude doesn’t mean there aren’t failures of course. As illustrated at Desert One and the raid on Sontay, no-fail missions don’t always produce the expected outcome. Air Commandos’ ability to recover from unexpected setbacks and continue the mission stems from the extensive training and education they receive. As its motto states, the Air Force Special Operations Training Center (AFSOTC) “turns Airmen into Air Commandos” by minimizing uncertainty and maximizing confidence for this very reason. Make no mistake, though, this is career-long education. Starting with lengthy initial qualification training in their respective weapon systems or specialty fields, Air Commandos begin building a knowledge toolkit to reach into during challenging operations. Expanding on training and operational experiences, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS) provides the strategic context – the “why” and “when” to complement the “what” and “how.” As Air Commandos gain experience on the battlefield, they return to AFSOTC for upgrade training and intermediate-level education to deepen and broaden their critical thinking and perspective beyond the tactical realm. Operational and academic experiences build an upward spiral of expertise, enhancing the Air Commando’s confidence to make informed choices at critical moments in the joint operating environment.

This can-do attitude leads directly into the second Air Commando distinction: a deep personal connection to the joint special operations team. AFSOC’s sister components within USSOCOM share this same attitude to get the job done. All bring distinct skills to the table and none wish to be the weak link. AFSOTC indoctrinates this attitude into new accessions within their first six months in the command through the USAFSOS Introduction to Special Operations Course (ISOC). The course explores the composition, capabilities and mission sets of each SOCOM component and their reliance on one another to accomplish national taskings. The ISOC provides the starter kit for credibility in the joint SOF community.

Training, education, and operational experience all build on each other. Chances are, soon after initial qualification, young Air Commandos will find themselves training, fighting, and living alongside their joint SOF brethren. Common experiences such as Joint/Combined Exchange Training (JCET) or other bilateral/multilateral exercises build the bonds that at some point down the road, in a non-descript compound in a remote hinterland, will pay dividends through well-rehearsed teamwork. In contrast, the GP Air Force supports joint missions in a far more generic fashion, whether as a unit or with “any Airmen” deployments – no repetitive relationship is built. AFSOF operators, on the other hand, typically know the SF, SEAL, or other SOF unit they support down to the individual – e.g. C Company, 1/1 SFG with MAJ So-and-so commanding — because of the habitual working relationship they’ve forged with the members of those units. The greatest result of this relationship is trust in each other’s skills and knowledge which encourages a greater willingness to go the extra mile for the joint team to succeed.

In truth, the joint-minded nature of SOF goes beyond the DoD, and increasingly includes other agencies within the US government. As Admiral Olson, the USSOCOM Commander, recently stressed, today’s special operators must embody the 3-D Warrior concept – that is, to be proficient not only in defense, but in development and diplomacy as well. These skills require a solid working knowledge of the “interagency.” For instance, the Haiti earthquake relief operation was officially run by USAID and the hit on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was officially run by the CIA. It is entirely appropriate for civilian agencies to direct operations in their fields of expertise. However, no other organization can provide the rapid, decisive, and – when necessary – lethal elements that SOF delivers at a moment’s notice. It’s therefore critical for special operators to fully understand their dynamic operating environment and all the players involved.

Again, building on experience in the field, AFSOTC draws Air Commandos back to the classroom to deepen their awareness with intermediate-level USAFSOS courses on topics such as regionally tailored theater engagement, air command and control, and insurgent warfare. More than the average Airman, Air Commandos realize the potentially strategic impact of every tactical action. With this depth of operational context, Air Commandos display a savvy flexibility to adjust between defense, development, and diplomacy as the mission dictates. Whether in a high-stakes direct action or the patient, strategic indirect approach, the no-fail attitude and joint interconnections go hand in hand.

Clearly, making an Air Commando takes more than handing someone an AFSOC patch. In fact, training, indoctrination, and education alone are not sufficient to build the proper mind set of success in special ops. It takes months, if not years of building on that foundation with operational experience as part of the joint SOF team, along with cycling back through the training center at the right times to expand one’s spiral of expertise. When you wake up feeling the unquenchable desire to take on a new mission, no matter the cost, you’ve become an Air Commando!

While these conversations were too numerous to list individually, I must give particular credit to two PME theses: Lt Col Mike Jackson, “AFSOF, Integration, and Joint Warfighting: Closing the Training Loop to Force Multiply and Succeed,” Joint Advanced Warfighting School, 4 Apr 2008; and Lt Col Mark “Buck” Haberichter, “How to Make An Air Commando,” Air War College, 16 Feb 2011

This article was first published the Fall of  2011 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 1, Issue 1 page 44.

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