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Army special operations aviation is an integral part of special operations. The primary mission of ARSOA is to support joint and service-specific special operations across the operational continuum in any theater. ARSOA units have the capability to perform conventional aviation missions. However, because they are unique and limited assets, they should not be tasked for general aviation missions. To employ this force properly, commanders must understand the basic characteristics of SO in general and ARSOA in particular. This chapter discusses SO within the framework of the operational continuum and the SO application of the principles of war. It defines special operations and special operations forces and provides an ARSOA mission statement. It also describes the organization and essential mission tasks of ARSOA.


a. As part of SO, ARSOA conducts special operations throughout the operational continuum. The SOF's special training, regional and/or language orientation, ability to deploy in small units, and low profile make it the force of choice during operations short of war. During conventional operations, special operations forces are excellent force multipliers for theater commanders (Figure 1-1). Environment may change, but special operations remain basically the same regardless of when and where they occur. Basic C4I and planning requirements for SO do not change. Whatever the operational environment, special operations require detailed mission planning and effective C4I. They also require close coordination with other forces or agencies. Committing SOF anywhere along the continuum without proper planning and C2 increases mission risk and may jeopardize limited SOF assets.

b. The competition between states along the operational continuum is not a linear progression that starts with peace and ends in war. It is cyclic. It begins with peacetime rivalry and, ideally, returns to that state. Changes along the continuum involve actions that must be predicted, both before and after hostilities.

Figure 1-1. Special operations along the operational continuum


Special operations are high-value, high-payoff missions conducted by specially trained, equipped, and organized forces. SO targets are strategic, operational, or tactical in the pursuit of national military, political, economic, or psychological objectives. SOF may support conventional operations, but they operate independently when conventional operations are unsuitable.


a. The Secretary of Defense designates special operations forces. These forces are then organized, trained, and equipped to conduct or support SO missions. Some unique characteristics of SO forces are given below. These units--

  • Require a lengthy selection and qualification training process.

  • Are composed of small, high-caliber units of personally and professionally mature individuals.

  • Are task-organized to jointly plan and execute SO.

  • Continually train personnel in advanced specialized SO skills.

  • Possess state-of-the-art equipment designed for SO missions.

  • Conduct independent operations within the context of the overall theater campaign plan.

b. In some cases, conventional forces may possess the capabilities to conduct a specific SO. However, designated SOF are structured and trained to be the force of choice. Forces that are designated as core SOF are the--

  • US Army--Active and Reserve Component Special Forces, Ranger, Special Operations Aviation, and selected special mission and support units.

  • US Navy--Active and Reserve Component sea/air/land teams, special boat units, and SEAL delivery vehicle teams.

  • US Air Force--Active and Reserve Component forces that include fixed-wing and vertical-lift aircraft and aircrews. These forces also include composite special tactics teams. They are composed of combat control and pararescue forces and weather, communications, and other combat support units.

c. Some general-purpose forces may receive additional training and be specially equipped and organized to conduct SO-related missions. These forces include--

  • Designated Navy surface, subsurface, and aviation elements.

  • Designated Air Force airlift, strike, and tanker elements.

  • Designated Fleet Marine Forces assigned as elements of embarked, forward-deployed Marine air-ground task forces.

  • Designated Army Active and Reserve Component forces, including psychological operations and civil affairs forces.

d. Special operations are either primary missions or collateral activities (Figure 1-2). The primary SO missions are direct action, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and counterterrorism. The inherent capabilities of SO forces also make them suitable for collateral activities. These capabilities include security and humanitarian assistance and antiterrorism, counterdrug, personnel recovery, and special operations activities directed by Presidential authority. Because of their special training and capabilities, SOF are often given nonstandard missions that have been modified from standard mission profiles.

Figure 1-2. Special operations missions designated by the Secretary of Defense

e. The Secretary of Defense has not classified psychological and civil affairs forces as SOF; however, the Secretary of the Army considers PSYOP and CA forces elements of SOF. He has, therefore, placed them under the command and proponency of the US Army Special Operations Command.


a. Principles of War. The principles of war apply equally to SO. However, SOF commanders apply them from a different perspective than conventional force commanders. This perspective comes from the nature of the forces and the application methods. Normally, SOF are lightly armed and have little fire support. They maintain a high degree of mobility and remain undetected as long as possible. SOF are tasked at the theater or joint task force levels. The actions of very small units may have strategic implications. SOF commanders must know the effects of their operational environment and force capabilities on the application of the principles of war. With each principle, SOF commanders must consider the following components:

(1) Objective. Direct every operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. SOF objectives may be political, economic, or psychological, as well as military. During war, SO usually focus on enemy weaknesses upon which other forces cannot capitalize. In other situations, SOF may be assigned objectives that lead directly to achieving national or theater political, economic, or psychological objectives. As with other forces, ARSOA must have a clearly defined objective that supports the supported commander's intent.

(2) Offensive. Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. SO are inherently offensive actions. ARSOA, like all aviation, is offensive in nature and unencumbered by terrain and obstacles. It allows the supported SOF commander to conduct active operations in any direction on the battlefield, exploiting the dimensions of space and time.

(3) Mass. Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time. SOF are not employed as a group in the conventional sense. Even more so than conventional forces, SOF must avoid attrition or force-on-force battles. They must subtly and indirectly concentrate their combat power at decisive times and places. ARSOA efforts must not be fragmented against attractive targets that may be operationally or strategically irrelevant. Extensive SO planning and rehearsal are required to achieve temporary superiority of force or, conversely, to avoid enemy engagement. Concentration of force relies as much on the quality and focus of tactics, timing, and weaponry as it does on numerical strength. ARSOA delivers the supported force to the precise place and time and converges on the objective from many directions.

(4) Maneuver. Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage using the flexible application of combat power. During SO, maneuver implies the ability to clandestinely infiltrate and exfiltrate denied areas to exploit enemy weaknesses. When employed by ARSOA, maneuver implies the ability to concentrate (infiltrate) the supported SOF commander's elements, strike the enemy where and when it is most vulnerable, and disperse (exfiltrate) to avoid its strengths.

(5) Economy of force. Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. As a part of SOF, ARSOA assets are employed strategically as an economy-of-force measure to allow the concentration of other forces elsewhere. Many SO are specially designed to divert hostile forces into secondary theaters. This prevents hostile concentration against the friendly main effort.

(6) Unity of command. Ensure unity of effort under one commander for every objective. As part of the SOF, ARSOA is organized jointly with uncluttered chains of command that reduce the need to layer headquarters elements. The ARSOA task force may be under OPCON of the theater SO command, joint SO task force, Army SO task force, or joint SO air component commander.

(7) Security. Never let the enemy gain an unexpected advantage. Security is paramount to SO and often dominates all other considerations. Typically, planning is compartmented and planning staffs are small by design. However, within a compartmented activity, individuals must share information.

(a) To enhance security and achieve surprise, intelligence, counterintelligence, EW, and cover and deception are used throughout the planning and execution of SO. Ground and air planners are placed in isolation to provide security for the plan. Isolating planners also preserves the security of other planned operations. Special operations forces are constantly exposed to capture behind enemy lines during infiltration or exfiltration missions. As a result, they must be compartmented.

(b) ARSOA crews may be required to conduct follow on missions in the same areas; however, planners should not allow them to perform these missions if possible. To enhance operational security, ground forces normally will not discuss the ground tactical plan with ARSOA crews during the planning and coordination of air operations. This practice provides mutual protection for all SOF forces in the event of capture.

(8) Surprise. Strike the enemy at a time or place or in a way that it least expects. Achieving surprise is a principal tenet of SOF. Taking bold, imaginative action and making full use of SOF equipment and personnel, ARSOA surprises the enemy. It also surprises the enemy by using indirect approaches and doing the unexpected. These actions, however, must be tempered with patience, forethought, maturity, and risk management.

(9) Simplicity. Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and orders. By nature, ARSOA missions normally are extremely complicated and multifaceted. Plans require and depend on precise timing and accuracy. Sophisticated and unorthodox methods and equipment are often used; therefore, the SO aviator is specifically selected and trained to conduct these missions. Although the missions are complex, detailed planning, in-depth briefings, and rehearsals help to simplify the mission and prepare the aircrews for every possible contingency.

b. Principles and Imperatives. ARSOA applies the tenets of AirLand Operations doctrine and specific SO principles and imperatives to mission planning and execution.

(1) Principles. Special operations principles are an important part of SO mission planning. The principles of SO are given below.

(a) Integrate supporting ARSOA assets from the time the mission is initially analyzed and the course of action is determined until the mission is completed.

(b) Increase ARSOA effectiveness by using the tactical and logistical capabilities of other services and nations.

(c) Use near-real-time, all-source intelligence products during mission planning, rehearsal, and execution.

(d) Suppress hostile acquisition means and weapon systems before and during the mission.

(e) Employ the element of surprise by--

  • Conducting operations at night and during periods of low ambient light.

  • Using deception measures.

  • Using terrain-following techniques.

  • Using the range capability to alter approaches.

  • Controlling or reducing electronic emissions during the mission.

(f) Move SOF throughout the operational area as the tactical situation changes.

(g) Concentrate SOF at the critical time by using precision timing and navigation.

(h) Displace forward elements frequently for security.

(i) Maintain the ability to operate continuously.

(2) Imperatives. Successful SO are characterized by the application of the principles of war and SO principles. The SO imperatives discussed below prescribe key operational requirements. To use their forces effectively, SOF commanders must incorporate these imperatives into their mission planning and execution.

(a) Understand the operational environment. Although ARSOA commanders cannot dominate the environment, they can influence it. Before doing so, they must study and assess all of its political, economic, sociological, psychological, geographic, and military aspects. They must determine who the friendly and the hostile decision makers are, their objectives and strategies, and how they interact. Commanders must also ensure that the friendly decision makers understand the implication of mission requirements and the impact if they do not support those requirements. ARSOA commanders must remain flexible and adapt their operations to changing situations. By expecting these changes, they can exploit fleeting opportunities.

(b) Facilitate interagency activities. When taking part in interagency or combined efforts, commanders must strive for a unified effort. In situations short of war, the country team, headed by the US ambassador, has final authority. To be successful, commanders must expect unclear missions and resolve conflicting interests and objectives. They must compartment activities and unify the command of multiagency operations. ARSOA commanders and other SOF simplify the unity effort by requesting clear mission statements and the intent of the decision makers. They must also continuously coordinate activities with all applicable agencies (US and non-US, military and nonmilitary).

(c) Engage the threat discriminately. ARSOA commanders have limited resources that are not easily replaced, and their missions often have sensitive political implications. Therefore, they must analyze the risk and advise the ground commander of the risk to the force and to the ARSOA assets. Together, the ARSOA commander and the ground commander carefully select when, where, and how to use ARSOA to achieve the desired results with the least risk.

(d) Consider long-term effects. ARSOA commanders must avoid strategic failure and achieve tactical success. To do this, they must place discrete problems in the broader political, military, and psychological context. This allows them to develop an approach to solve the problem. It also allows them to accept any legal or political constraints such as less-than-optimal rules of engagement. ARSOA commanders must not risk the success of national and theater long-term objectives for their desire for immediate or short-term effects. Polices, plans, and procedures must be consistent with the national and theater priorities and objectives they support. Inconsistency can lead to loss of legitimacy and credibility at the national level.

(e) Ensure legitimacy and credibility. Many SO have significant legal and policy considerations, particularly in situations short of war. In modern international relationships, legitimacy is the most crucial factor in developing and maintaining national and international support. Without legitimacy, the United States cannot sustain its foreign assistance. Without legitimacy and credibility, SO will not receive the support of the host nation, host-nation military or paramilitary forces, the US population, or the world community. Ultimately, these two aspects are the theater commander's and ambassador's responsibilities. ARSOA commanders, however, must ensure that legal advisors review all sensitive areas of SO mission planning and execution.

(f) Anticipate and control psychological effects. All SO have potential psychological effects. Some SO may be conducted specifically to produce psychological effects. ARSOA commanders must be prepared to integrate psychological operations into all of their activities.

(g) Apply capabilities indirectly. During combined operations with US special operations forces, ARSOA may assist local military and paramilitary forces. With minimum visibility, risk, and cost to the United States, these non-US forces can pursue national security objectives by serving as force multipliers. When supporting a host nation or foreign group, ARSOA commanders must not appear to be taking charge. The host nation must feel that it is primarily responsible for the success or failure of the combined effort.

(h) Develop multiple options. ARSOA commanders maintain operational flexibility by developing a broad range of options and contingency plans. This may require a shift from one option to another before and during mission execution.

(i) Ensure long-term sustainment. This SOF imperative directs US advisors and trainers to supply training and equipment that can be sustained by host-nation forces after US presence and support has ceased. This imperative normally does not apply to ARSOA because it does not train or provide equipment to host-nation forces.

(j) Provide sufficient intelligence. ARSOA has neither the combat power nor the reinforcement and support of conventional forces to deal with unexpected enemy actions. The success of ARSOA in support of SO missions often depends on detailed, near-real-time, all-source intelligence that focuses on specific mission requirements. This need for national and theater intelligence at all levels is particularly important to SOF. ARSOA intelligence requirements are critical to mission success and impose great demands on the capabilities of supporting intelligence. ARSOA commanders must identify and prioritize their intelligence requirements. They must also note which are mission-essential and which are not.

(k) Balance security and synchronization. Security concerns control SO; however, excessive compartmentalization can exclude key personnel from the planning process. ARSOA commanders must resolve these conflicting demands on mission planning and execution. While insufficient security can compromise a mission, excessive security jeopardizes it when plans are not coordinated effectively.


a. Background. The Army's only SO aviation regiment, formed from elements of the 101st Aviation Group, originated in the early 1980s. It was originally called Task Force 158 and was formed from elements of the 158th Aviation Battalion and attachments from the 101st, 159th, and 229th Aviation Battalions. Renamed Task Force 160, the unit entered a period of intensive night flying. It quickly became the Army's most experienced night-fighting aviation force. Presently designated the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), it is headquartered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

b. Organization.

(1) US Army special operations aviation consists of an Army special operations aviation regiment (Figure 1-3). A headquarters and headquarters company, three aviation battalions, a selection and training detachment, and the systems integration and maintenance office make up the unit. The ARSOA regiment has special operations rotary-wing aircraft including the AH/MH-6, MH-60, and MH-47.

(a) Regimental headquarters. The regimental headquarters provides command, control, communications, and staff planning for all units organic to or attached to the SOAR. It provides logistical, administrative, and health services support for the separate, organic SOAR companies and recruits and trains Army personnel for ARSOA units. The SOAR also manages its own command operating budget and develops the program objective memorandum documents.

(b) Special operations aviation training company. The SOATC recruits, assesses, and trains Army personnel for ARSOA units. The selection and training course involves physical, psychological, and aviation skill evaluations. The course varies from 4 weeks for enlisted personnel to over 12 weeks for aviators. After they complete the course, personnel are integrated into the ARSOA units as basic mission qualified.

Figure 1-3. ARSOA organization

(c) Systems integration and maintenance office. The SIMO designs, integrates, and maintains aviation systems and support equipment in SO aircraft. Along with the regimental comptroller, the SIMO establishes a systematic budget process for the COB and the POM to ensure that program funds are properly managed and executed. The SIMO is also responsible for the regimental maintenance program and oversees both military and contracted logistical support.

(d) Battalions and companies. The primary mission of the ARSOA battalion is to provide tactical air mobility of supplies, equipment, and personnel. They provide limited aerial attack for Army and joint SOF units in an operational area. They also conduct progressive continuation training to develop fully mission-qualified and flight-lead qualified aircrews and/or aviators. Assault companies are equipped with MH-60 aircraft. The medium lift helicopter companies have MH-47 aircraft; the light attack and assault companies have AH-6 and MH-6 aircraft.

(2) Force structure limitations and contingency requirements do not allow the regiment to operate as a single unit. When they are formed, ARSOA company teams and battalion task forces are specifically organized and tailored for the assigned mission. When the mission is completed, task force units return to their parent organizations. Figure 1-4 shows an example of an ARSOA battalion task force.

Figure 1-4. Example of an ARSOA battalion task force

(3) A task force routinely operates under OPCON of the SO command, joint SO task force, joint force SO air component commander, or Army SO task force commander. It may deploy and collocate with the supported SOF unit, such as the ARSOTF, or with an Air Force SO detachment. Small ARSOA force teams (two to four aircraft) may deploy forward to launch and recovery sites for limited periods or for a specific operation. However, ARSOA operations and sustainment are not normally decentralized below platoon level.


a. Mission. ARSOA's mission is to plan, support, and conduct special air operations in any operational environment and across the operational continuum by clandestinely penetrating hostile and denied airspace.

b. Tasks. Specific ARSOA tasks are conducted in support of SO missions. These tasks are discussed below.

(1) ARSOA units conduct battle tasks--

  • To insert, resupply, and extract US special operations forces and other designated personnel.

  • To conduct special reconnaissance missions unilaterally or with other SOF.

  • To conduct direct action using aerial firepower and terminal guidance for precision munitions (unilaterally or with other SOF).

  • To conduct electronic, photographic, and visual reconnaissance.

  • To recover personnel or selected materiel.

  • To conduct assisted E&E when dedicated CSAR assets are not available.

  • To perform emergency air evacuation of personnel.

  • To support and facilitate C3.

  • To provide assistance for US and allied CAS and indirect fires.

  • To provide C2 of expanding Army aviation assets.

  • To conduct joint maritime operations.

  • To conduct strategic self-deployment of all capable helicopters.

  • To conduct water insertion and recovery operations.

  • To conduct EW support measures and ECM operations when configured to do so.

  • To provide the joint SO air component commander, when designated.

  • To conduct external load insertion and/or extraction of SOF land and maritime assault vehicles and vessels.

(2) Supporting tasks. ARSOA units conduct supporting tasks--

  • To design, integrate, and maintain aviation systems and support equipment unique to SO aircraft and mission capability.

  • To ensure that ARSOA program funds are properly managed and executed by establishing a systematic budget process for the development of the COB and the POM.

  • To establish and maintain a program to recruit, select, and train Army personnel for assignment to ARSOA units.

  • To establish and maintain LO positions to conduct liaison, planning, and coordination with other SOF.

c. Operational Examples.

(1) Flying against Cuban and Grenadan forces, the 160th SOAR's first combat operations were during Operation Urgent Fury. During this operation, the 160th SOAR rescued American students from the island of Grenada.

(2) The 160th SOAR also conducted operations in the Persian Gulf during Operation Ernest Will/Prime Chance. This operation, conducted under unusually difficult and hazardous conditions, supported a joint military task force. Using night vision devices, aircrews operated in a hostile environment at night 30 feet above the water to help keep sea lanes open. This operation was the first night combat engagement to neutralize a threat while aircrews used NVG and FLIR devices.

(3) The 160th SOAR was also involved in Operation Just Cause, the liberation of Panama. Operation Just Cause proved the 160th's ability to conduct complicated night and sustained combat operations against a determined enemy.

(4) In September 1990, elements of the 160th deployed to Saudi Arabia to support SO missions in the Kuwait theater of operations. From bases near the Iraqi border, the 160th infiltrated and exfiltrated numerous special forces teams deep within Iraq. The 160th also flew personnel recovery missions deep into Iraq. It also conducted the only successful rescue of a downed aviator using NVG. Near the end of the conflict, the 160th played a major role in clearing and securing the American embassy in Kuwait City.

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