Air Force commandos practice new airfield operations

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  • The US military is preparing for a potential conflict for a capable adversary, namely Russia and China.
  • Part of this preparation is finding ways to distribute the forces so that they can continue to operate if the fighting begins.
  • For the air force, this means using new airfields, and its special operators have been crucial in this regard.

In a conflict with a power close to its peers, such as China and Russia, the US military would be challenged by the size of its rivals’ arsenal and the range of their weapons.

China is now seen as the “stimulus threat” of the United States and the sheer size of its troops and arsenal demands a careful distribution of forces to avoid a nightmarish scenario in which a single strike wipes out a large number of troops or weapons.

Thus, the air force has trained to disperse its forces to non-traditional and sometimes improvised airfields. Air Force special operations forces played a critical role in this preparation.

American air commandos

US Air Force paratroopers aboard the US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter

US Air Force Para-rescuers board a US Army CH-47F helicopter after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018.

US Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook


As an air component of the United States Special Operations Command, the Air Force Special Operations Command provides air transport; close air support; precision strike; and intelligence, surveillance, global access and reconnaissance capabilities to special operations units.

AFSOC also oversees highly skilled battlefield commandos who team up with other special operations teams, merging air and ground power.

These battlefield commandos work in four main career areas: pararescuemen, who are elite medics and personnel recovery experts; Combat controllers, who coordinate aerodrome operations and close air support; The aviators of the Tactical Air Control Party, the commandos specializing in air strikes; and Special Reconnaissance Operators, the newest career field specializing in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

Although they are an important part of SOCOM, air commandos are often overlooked as they support other special operations units. Combat controllers and paratroopers are often attached to Navy SEAL platoons or army special forces detachments. They operate in their own teams, but not as often.

However, AFSOC is also active in the air. It operates multiple rotary and fixed-wing platforms, such as the MC-130 Commando II transport aircraft, the AC-130 Spooky combat helicopter, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and the MQ- drone. 9 Reaper.

Winds of change

C-146A lands on Michigan freeway

A C-146A Wolfhound prepares to land on a freeway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021.

US Air Force / Master Sgt. Scott thompson


Air Commandos recently conducted a unique exercise that reflects the evolution of thinking about military operations.

During Exercise Northern Strike 21 in northern Michigan in early August, air commandos facilitated the first landing of a modern aircraft on a US public highway. The objective was to prepare pilots and commandos for impromptu operations in austere places.

During the exercise, air commandos trained to infiltrate and secure the highway, then configure it to function as an airfield.

The A-10 and C-146A planes then landed and took off from the roadway. In a real-life scenario, particularly during expeditionary operations, the airfield-transformed highway would ideally be close to the front lines to provide fast and accurate close logistic and air support to conventional and special operations troops.

“We are working on concepts of employment in agile combat, which make the force more flexible, more manageable and create challenges for our adversaries in different environments”, Lt. Col. Jeff Falcone, the air commando in charge of the exercise , noted in a press release.

“It also increases the survivability of US forces, as we can move to more unpredictable places to resupply, resupply or whatever we might need,” Falcone added.

In addition to the combat controllers who performed air traffic control, the Pararescuemen were on standby to provide medical care to forces on and near the highway, as they would be in an actual operation.

An A-10 on the freeway in Michigan

An A-10 lands on a freeway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021.

US Air Force / Master Sgt. Scott thompson


The US military is not alone in training for such eventualities. The Taiwanese military operates planes on a specially designed public highway as part of simulation exercises in defense against a Chinese invasion.

In such an invasion, the Chinese military would already know where Taiwan’s military and civilian airports are located and would target them accordingly. Conducting air operations in non-traditional and austere environments makes it more difficult for an enemy to target your aircraft.

Combat controllers’ airfield operations “bread and butter,” a former combat controller told Insider.

“People often mistakenly think that our only job is to sit next to the SF [Army Special Forces] Where [Navy] land force commander SEAL and call in airstrikes on the bad guys, but in fact it’s a very small part of our job, ”said the former controller, adding that not all combat controllers are qualified. joint terminal attack controllers, which allows them to call. Air strikes

“A main aspect of our work is airfield operations: identifying, assessing, marking and operating airfields, often in harsh environments. We are the first to establish the conditions for the follow-up forces. It takes years of training to achieve this. place, ”added the former combat controller.

This exercise in Michigan showed that AFSOC is adapting to the new challenges of competition from the great powers.

AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. James Slife recognized earlier this year that air commandos must adapt and evolve in order to remain relevant, calling the current period a “inflection point” for command.

ACE and FARP

Air Force F-35 C-130J Guam

F-35s wait to refuel a C-130J during agile combat employment training at Northwest Field in Guam on February 16, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo


For example, in a war with China, instead of relying on a group of F-35s – two squadrons with around 50 planes – to operate from a large island, the Air Force would deploy a single squadron. or even a half squadron to a smaller island.

Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, and Forward Arming and Refueling Points, or FARP, are not entirely new operations, but AFSOC is investing more in them as tensions have increased with Russia and China.

ACE seeks to enable larger operational-level air forces to function in smaller tactical-level units in the event of peer conflict. By doing this, the Air Force makes it more difficult for opponents to target its planes and personnel.

ACE operations also make it a more unpredictable and therefore more effective force.

Air Force F-22 refueling in Alaska

Special operations Airmen refuel an F-22 from an MC-130J during training at the Forward Zone Refueling Point in Alaska, Jan. 30, 2020.

US Air Force / Sgt. Shan of the ridge


The F-35s conducted such an exercise earlier this year, deploying from their main base in Alaska to the main U.S. base in Guam, from where they redeployed to an austere airfield on the small island nation of Palau to se refuel.

FARP goes hand in hand with ACE. Aircraft must be refueled and rearmed wherever they are, especially if they are to deploy quickly to remote and austere bases.

The Nightstalkers of the US Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the US Special Operations community at large have used FARP for decades to support operations in hostile territory or behind enemy lines . In early 2020, Special Tactics Airmen first trained to refuel fighter jets in the extreme cold of Alaska.

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 a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.


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