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Special Operations Aviation

In the US military's Mission Design Series (MDS) designation system for aerospace vehicles, the modified mission prefix letter "M" stands for Multi-mission. With regards to specific airframes, variants designated with the M prefix range from helicopters capable of performing multiple utility missions to those designed specifically to support special operations forces.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) aviation units are trained, equipped, and manned to support both special and conventional operating forces. Special operations cover a series of unique primary, collateral, and emerging missions that directly support a theater combatant commander. These assets are dedicated to conducting special operations missions across the full range of military operations. They provide a mix of short, medium, and long-range lift, and limited attack capabilities. They support all principal, collateral, and emerging mission areas; they can conduct autonomous special reconnaissance and direct action missions.

Special Operations (SO) are operations conducted by specially organized, trained, and equipped military and paramilitary forces to achieve military, political, economic, or psychological objectives by unconventional military means in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas. These operations are conducted during peacetime competition, conflict, and war, independently or in coordination with operations of conventional, nonspecial operations forces. Political-military considerations frequently shape special operations, requiring clandestine, covert, or low visibility techniques and oversight at the national level. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.

SOF are not substitutes for strong conventional forces but are complementary to conventional capabilities. Depending on mission requirements, SOF may operate in place of, or in addition to, conventional forces throughout the range of military operations. The small size, special equipment, and area-oriented training which characterizes SOF make them useful in situations and areas where use of conventional military forces might be less feasible operationally or politically.

In special operations, it is essential to get in, accomplish the objective, and withdraw as quickly as possible. Any delay increases vulnerability and decreases chances for success. The longer a given mission lasts, the more the friction of war works against SOF. In order to maximize speed and surprise, SOF are relatively small in number and lightly armed. Because of this, SOF cannot sustain action against a large defending force for very long. SOF achieve relative superiority by moving so quickly that the enemy doesnt have time to react in force.

These highly trained active and reserve aircrews operate uniquely equipped, fixed-wing and vertical-lift aircraft to provide combat airpower any time, any place. As the Air Force element of SOF, AFSOF are structured to provide denied territory mobility, surgical firepower, special tactics units, and aviation advisory interface with foreign organizations. They normally act in concert with Army and Navy SOF, including Army special forces, Rangers, and special operations aviation, Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) teams, PSYOP forces, and civil affairs units, but AFSOF are also capable of acting as part of an Air Force component in a larger joint structure. AFSOF are prepared to support activities ranging from limited duration combat operations to long term materiel and advisory support of foreign governments and military services.

The SOF mobility mission area includes the rapid, global airlift of personnel and equipment through hostile airspace to conduct special operations. AFSOF are an integral part of a joint SOF team during mission planning, rehearsal, and execution, and may provide unique capability to conventional force commanders. SOF mobility includes covert, clandestine, or overt tasks. AFSOF capabilities must accommodate all operational and physical environments, especially conditions of adverse weather and darkness. Operations may be conducted with a single aircraft, as part of a SOF task force or as part of a larger force package.

The SOF precision employment/strike mission area includes precise and responsive support to SOF or conventional forces. AFSOF precision employment/ strike ground elements and airborne platforms provide all-weather weapons delivery and SOF support (target designation, air traffic control, and drop zone and landing zone operations) across the full spectrum of conflict. The ability of aerospace forces to deploy globally and strike precisely provides force multiplication, minimizes collateral damage, allows the discriminate employment of asymmetric force, and permits freedom of maneuver for supported forces.

Special activities are governed by executive order and require presidential approval and congressional oversight. These are activities conducted abroad in support of national foreign policy objectives. They are normally conducted in such a manner that US Government participation is neither apparent nor publicly acknowledged. When supporting or conducting a special activity, AFSOF can perform any of their traditional missions, subject to the limitations imposed on special activities. Such activities are normally compartmented and centrally controlled.

Unconventional Warfare [UW] includes guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, evasion and escape, and other activities of a low visibility, covert or clandestine nature. UW is principally the responsibility of Army special forces (SF). AFSOF aircraft support UW by conducting special air operations to provide covert, clandestine, or low- visibility infiltration, exfiltration, resupply, surveillance, and fire support for other SOF elements.

Direct Action [DA] operations are short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive operations principally taken by SOF to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage on designated personnel or materiel. Unlike UW, DA operations are normally limited in scope and duration and usually incorporate a planned withdrawal from the immediate objective area.

Under most circumstances, US Air Force AFSOF are integral to a joint SOF package for DA missions. Only AC-130 aircraft train extensively for DA fire support. MC-130 COMBAT TALON aircraft train for delivery of gravity-employed munitions. MH-53J PAVE LOW and NH-60 PAVE HAWK helicopters, primarily armed for self-defense, can provide limited fire support to SOF ground elements. Special tactics teams routinely provide their unique capabilities to joint DA forces. AFSOF airborne PSYOP dissemination assets may be employed as force multipliers for military actions, electronic combat measures, or support of tactical cover and deception activities.

The tactical commander may control the mission from an airborne command and control center (ABCCC) aircraft. This option provides effective, redundant communications systems and places the tactical commander and battle staff in close proximity to the operation. However, it also places the tactical commander at great risk in a high-threat environment and may increase the likelihood of early mission compromise.

DA missions often depend on the application of concentrated combat power by a small force in the narrowly circumscribed time and space of the actual actions in the objective area, followed by a rapid withdrawal before the enemy can retaliate by introducing superior combat power into the local area. Unlike conventional military forces that use mass to accomplish these goals, SOF minimize force levels and instead rely on stealth and unconventional tactics and techniques to achieve them. The size of a DA force should be as large as the nature of the target requires and transportation restraints permit, but small enough not to significantly increase the risks of early detection and massive reaction by the enemy once the action occurs.

Surprise is an absolute precondition in DA missions. Overall force ratios are usually so unfavorable that there is no chance of success if the enemy is alerted in time to concentrate a reaction force. Loss of surprise is normally a valid abort criteria to cancel, delay, or redirect the operation to an alternate target. For this reason, strict operations security (OPSEC) is vital and cover and deception activities are essential. The most successful DA missions treat cover and deception not as complementary activities but as an integral part of the mission planning process.

Special Reconnaissance [SR] includes a wide variety of information-gathering activities of strategic or operational significance. AC-130 gunships can perform SR missions with their FLIR sensors, radar, and low light and infrared imaging and have imagery recording capability. MC-130 Combat Talons have FLIR sensors and imagery recording capability. Special tactics teams can perform SR and possess unique airfield assessment capabilities. AFSOF airborne PSYOP assets may be employed to monitor and record electronic communications information.

Counterterrorism [CT] is a highly specialized, resource-intensive mission. Certain SOF units maintain a high state of readiness to conduct CT operations and possess a full range of CT capabilities. Theater combatant commanders maintain designated CT contingency forces to respond to CT situations when national assets are not immediately available.

The Joint Forces Special Operations Component Commander [JFSOCC] may choose to organize functional components in lieu of or in combination with Service components. The most common SO functional organization is the JSOAC [Joint Special Operations Air Component]. The JSOACC is the subordinate commander within a SOC or JSOTF responsible for planning and executing joint special air operations and for coordinating and deconflicting those operations with conventional air operations. The JSOACC normally will be the SOF aviation commander providing the preponderance of air assets or most capable of controlling special air operations in a specific situation.

SO aircraft normally traverse multiple zones of airspace control and may overfly conventional surface operations while inserting, resupplying, or extracting SOF elements. Because joint air forces and SOF routinely operate in the deep battle area, their operations must be fully integrated to create opportunities for synergistic attack and deconflicted to prevent fratricide.

Commanders may employ virtually any aerospace forces in SO, and SOF may require support from conventional assets to suppress enemy air defenses, cause diversions, increase airlift capability or ensure the air and ground defense security of their landing strips or forward arming and refueling points. These augmenting forces provide capabilities beyond those found in SO aviation forces. The JFSOCC normally requests conventional air support sorties to support SOF on a mission-by-mission and priority availability basis, but the JFC may direct a transfer of control to the JSOACC or COMAFSOC for a specified and usually short period of time. Regardless of command relationships, integrating non-SOA assets into special air operations requires advance planning and extensive coordination.

In most threat environments, SOF can provide stealth and precision attack as an alternative to air power. The JFACC can therefore request the use of SOF as an economy of force measure to destroy certain targets, freeing air assets to concentrate against other targets more suitable for air attack. For example, SOF attacked Iraqi early warning sites in the initial phase of Operation DESERT STORM, allowing the JFACC to employ the entire F-117 force to strike Baghdad.

The JFACC may have targets that require specific damage effects (or the limitation of collateral damage) beyond the capabilities of precision-guided munitions. Some examples include the destruction or incapacitation of weapons of mass destruction or their production facilities without the spread of deadly contaminants. The JFC may want to neutralize a target without destroying its vital components. SOF may also be employed to locate and attack concealed, perishable, or mobile targets that are difficult for conventional air and surface forces to attack.

SOF can contribute directly to joint air operations by conducting asymmetrical DA strikes against airfields, ground radars, and other high-value counterair targets. SOF can also locate and identify mobile targets and then designate them visually, electronically, or optically for conventional air attack. SOF can also perform poststrike reconnaissance missions after conventional air strikes.

SOF have unique capabilities that can enhance joint air operations. For example, SOF aircraft can deliver the 15,000 pound BLU-82 bomb for psychological effect or to create an instant helicopter landing zone. SOF can also conduct certain personnel recovery missions beyond the capabilities of conventional CSAR forces.

SOF normally operate from one or more main operations bases (MOBs) and a variable number of forward operations bases (FOBs) and advanced operations bases (AOBs).

A main operations base (MOB) is a base established by a JFSOCC or a subordinate SOF component commander in friendly territory to provide sustained command and control, administration, and logistic support to SO activities in designated areas. The MOB is normally the location of an ARSOTF, AFSOC, or NSWTG. The SF Group calls its MOB the Special Forces operations base. The AFSOC calls its MOB the Air Force special operations base.

A forward operations base (FOB) is a base usually located in friendly territory or afloat that is established to extend the command and control or communications of a MOB or to provide support for training and tactical operations. The FOB may be established for temporary or longer duration operations and may include an airfield or an unimproved airstrip, an anchorage, or a pier. The FOB is normally the location of a SOF battalion, squadron, or task unit controlled and/or supported by the SOF component commander at a MOB.

An advanced operations base (AOB) is a small temporary base established near or within a JSOA to command, control, and/or support training or tactical operations. Facilities are normally austere. The base may be ashore or afloat. If ashore, it may include an airfield or unimproved airstrip, a pier, or an anchorage. An AOB is normally the location of a SOF company or smaller element controlled and/or supported by an MOB or FOB.

Certain conventional forces receive enhanced training and special equipment that make them uniquely qualified to support SO. Some may be earmarked to support SOF by command agreement arrangements or documented as augmenting forces in plans. They are not designated as SOF by the SecDef, although the Marine Corps designates the MEU as "SO-capable." On a mission-specific basis these units may be assigned to support SO or participate in joint SO training. In some cases, these supporting forces augment existing SOF capabilities.

Special Operations Low-Level SOLL II C-130, C-141 and C-5 aircraft, by virtue of special aircrew training and/or aircraft modification, can quickly augment core SOF for the conduct and support of selected SO. They frequently practice single-ship tactical operations along SO profiles, maintain proficiency with night vision goggles, and participate in joint SOF exercises. The SOLL I program has been converted into the conventional Pathfinder program.

The Air Mobility Command and Air Combat Command maintain a limited number of strategic tanker crews trained to support the often unique refueling requirements of SO fixed-wing aircraft.

Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadrons 4 and 5 of the Naval Reserve operate HH-60H aircraft for either extended remote site operations ashore or extended shipboard operations. The aircraft are configured to support SOF infiltration and exfiltration.

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