Air Force Special Operations: Tactics & Equipment

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So power rescue men don’t get as much attention as other SF units. But I’ll tell you this, when the Navy SEALs dial 911, PJs are the ones that come to their aid. In this episode, we’re going to find out how the Air Force special forces operates during combat, how they train, and how they conduct peacetime operations. From setting up drop zones, coordinating close air support, and capturing airfields behind enemy lines, air force power rescuemen are on the front lines in dropping bombs on enemy heads and saving surrounded allies. Sure, the seals get all the book deals and the movie deals, but that’s because power rescue is too busy saving their asses.

Pararescue has one of the longest training regimens of any military job in the world. It’s almost two years long, and it has an 80% attrition rate. Very few of those who start training will actually become PJs because of their strict training regimen, as well as the whole jumping out of planes thing. They call it the Superman school. So if you’re a proficient swimmer and get at least 100 points on your physical ability and stanma test, then congratulations, you’re in for a pretty terrible two years.

A ten week PJ candidate course is followed by airborne school, combat diver school, underwater egress training, Sears training, and free fall parachuteist school. So basically you’ll be pushed underwater, pushed out a plane, push it to the limit, to the 80s montage. And even then, you’re only about halfway through your training. So this is where the PJs and the combat controllers training splits. PJs at this point, learn to be combat medics and recovery specialists, while the combat controllers get trained as air traffic controllers, ultimately getting FAA certified.

In addition to combat control and special tactics training, Air Force Special Operations Command has two roles. Underneath it, you have power rescuemen who ride in on helicopters and save wounded from impossible to reach locations. Then you have combat controllers who guide precision munitions from the aircraft above onto enemy on the ground. These two roles are often assigned to help out other special operations units in different branches. After their training, combat controllers are often sent individually to augment a special operations team.

Before operations, they frequently drop into hostile territory to establish drop zones, like capturing airfields and making sure, the airfield is good to go for friendly aircraft. They provide combat support in preparation for their fellow troops to arrive. They’re basically the ones tapping the keg and prepping the house for the big party.

In 2004, Robert Boliger was a tech sergeant for the Air Force combat controllers. He was in the first squad of american troops to combat jump into Afghanistan, and he explained the PJ role like this. Quote, we’re the air to ground link. We talk Air Force language to Navy SEALs and to the soldiers on the ground. It allows us to get more air power into theater of operations in a shorter amount of time.

It was a combination of precision guided munitions and a guy on the ground telling them where they need to go, end quote. So I would argue combat controllers are the most important role in the military, and here’s why. In 2001 in Afghanistan, combat controller master Sergeant Bart Decker was attached to a special forces a team. True to their sf improvising ways, they arrived on their objective by riding a pony. There, Master Sergeant Decker used a small gps device to plot the enemy location and their movements, and then relayed this information to a B 52 bomber overhead that was armed with 1000 pound JBU 32 JDAM pgms.

The special forces team’s call sign was triple nickel, and they had gotten pinned down in a firefight and were about to be overrun. The combat controller team helped get aircraft overhead to drop danger close munitions, which saved triple nickel. Combat controllers carry M four S pistols and grenades, but their true weapon is the An PeC one Soflam, which is a laser designator designed to locate and mark enemy targets for precision guided munitions. It weighs eleven pounds, and it has a range of over 10. Thing looks like an old slide projector, but it’s actually one of the biggest game changers in military history.

Precision laser guided munitions from aircraft lock onto the laser signal sent out by the combat controller, and it takes a lot of the guesswork and confusion out of coordinating bombings. Combat controllers do exactly what their name suggests. They’re the ones who are often letting the a ten or the Apache helicopters know which weapon system they should use and which flight path is safe for them to take when attacking the enemy. If you become Air Force special forces, then you get access to a bunch of great perks, like being able to rock this out of regulation beard. Yeah, this isn’t a shaving profile.

It’s an SF rite of passage. Around 85% of all airstrikes made during operation and during freedom were called in by Air Force combat controllers. You’ll also get the opportunity to blur out your face in all your cool guy photos you post to instagram. You might be wondering what makes Air Force special ops different from other branches. Air Force special forces teams have grown by over 60% since 2001, largely because of new technologies which require a highly trained link between ground forces and air assets.

Technology has recently advanced to the point where the aircraft hovering above can send their surveillance video feed directly to the combat controllers. They often parachute, scuba dive, or even snowmobile to hostile locations. If I’ve even done one of those things, it’s a pretty big year for me. If the CCTs are the starting pitchers, then the power jumpers are the closers. There are only 500 elite power jumpers in the air force.

Pjs are called on when troops need to be rescued or need medical treatment in a hostile area or an area that’s unreachable by anyone else. If an aircraft goes down, they’re the first ones on the scene to answer any need. They’re like if Siri came with firepower and medical supplies here. To clear up some confusion about terms, combat controllers technically refer to troops who are qualified to guide aircraft to take off and land in denied areas and on new airfields. Joint terminal attack controllers are also qualified to call in close air support.

So combat controllers out there might get JTAC certified, but they might just be combat controllers. If I use some of these terms interchangeably in the video, it’s only because I’m a filthy, casual, average soldier.

There was a situation in Afghanistan where the enemy had captured a police headquarters in the Anar d’Arar district. Parajumper Swenson was embedded with a special forces, a team tasked with a helicopter assault on that location. When they arrived on the objective, the enemy ambushed them, wounded the paratrooper and five other SF troops. Swanson, who was wounded, returned fire and ran through intense incoming fire to rescue a severely wounded, incapacitated soldier. He then directed the helicopter to a safe landing zone.

While carrying the soldier on his shoulders, the helicopter landed and retrieved the injured soldier. Swanson stayed behind to make sure the other four wounded were treated. He helped save the lives of nine special forces soldiers that day and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Swenson had this to say, quote, it’s weird to receive so much attention for something that I feel anyone would have done on the battlefield that day. I’m honored.

My peers think I deserve this medal. All over the world, whenever an aircraft goes down and rescue operations are needed in hard to reach environments, the PJs are always there. Their responsibility and willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to rescue their fellow soldiers and countrymen is what gave them their motto that others may live, which is pretty similar to my motto. I’m going to hang back. Looks like they got a handle on it.

Anybody going through this program will join a long legacy that started in World War II. While flying over China, a c 46 engine failed and dropped dozens of airmen into an isolated area that could only be reached by the air. Two members of the medical corps dropped in, tended to injuries, and stayed with those airmen until they could all reach safety. From there, that need grew, and by Vietnam War power, rescuemen became a mainstay of military operations. That tradition continues to this day.

Pjs and combat controllers have completed 2000 rescue missions. Since 911 alone, they’ve rescued over 5000 civilians from natural disasters and other non combat circumstances. They’re also the most highly decorated division in the entire air force with 105 Silver Stars, twelve Air Force crosses and a Medal of honor. They wear the maroon beret to signify the special training and responsibility that these airmen carry on, which is different from the black beret, which signifies you’re in a terrible college jazz band. So a special thanks to the power rescuement everywhere and the work that they continue to do to protect our country and civilians around the world.

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