Air Force Special Operations Command History and Heritage

Air Force Special Operations Command, with more than 30 years of formal history, celebrates an even longer heritage of men and women using air to perform a range of specialized missions. The command activated 22 May 1990 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, but it inherited a legacy from the World War II theaters in Europe and China-Burma-India; secret missions during the Korean War; and major expansion in Vietnam. The distinctly-AFSOC communities of Carpetbaggers, Air Commandos, and Special Tactics and their modern-day assets continue to execute the same mission sets of specialized air mobility, precision strike, battlefield air operations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aviation foreign internal defense, and command and control.

In this narrative, we explore the rich and varied past of today’s AFSOC. Our timeline features actions, people of significant importance, and weapons employed in combat and humanitarian operations.

The 1980s - Trials and Tribulations of Air Force Special Operation Forces

Despite Air Force special operation forces’ vital contributions to the air war in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, the conventional forces consistently underfunded and devalued the enterprise to detrimental levels. The starkest reminder of the danger in a weak specialized air capabilities came following the American hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.

Operation EAGLE CLAW - 1980

In a joint operation involving Air Force AC-130s, MC-130s, and EC-130s piloted by 8th Special Operations Squadron Airmen, and Navy RH-53 helicopters piloted by a Marine aircrew, the intricate mission intended to infiltrate the Iranian capital and offload a special operation assault team to rescue the hostages. To prepare the refueling point well outside of Tehran, also known as Desert One, Maj. John Carney infiltrated and surveyed the proposed site three weeks prior to the mission. Major Carney also hid infrared lights and strobes to guide aircraft to the landing zone.

Around sunset on 24 April 1980, the armada of C-130s and RH-53s took off from Masriah Island, Oman, and the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman. The fixed-wing aircraft arrived safely at Desert One, but the helicopters faced numerous challenges with only six of the eight making it – the absolute minimum number to continue the mission. But while at Desert One, another helicopter suffered a hydraulic system failure rendering it inoperable. They had to terminate the mission.

In repositioning aircraft for refueling, one of the helicopters struck the vertical stabilizer of an EC‑130. The fiery explosion claimed the lives of eight service members. Maj Richard Bakke, Maj Harold Lewis Jr., TSgt Joel C. Mayo, Maj Lyn McIntosh, and Capt Charles McMillian II of the 8th SOS perished in the struck EC-130. Marine Corps Sgt John Harvey, Cpl George Holmes Jr., and SSgt Dewey Johnson died in the RH-53. After the explosion, the remaining task force members evacuated the area. President Jimmy Carter publicly declared the mission a failure the following day. While EAGLE CLAW did not succeed, it exposed a large chasm in the Department of Defense to organize and train for joint operations, especially special operations. Pressure to reform would eventually lead to the reorganization and rebirth of American special operations forces and ultimately, AFSOC.

Operation URGENT FURY-1983

With the memories of the tragedy at Desert One still fresh on the minds of special operators, American medical students were stranded on the island nation of Grenada following a military coup over the popular government. Air Force special operation forces flew into action. During a seven-day operation, beginning on 25 October 1983, Twenty-Third Air Force furnished 8th SOS MC-130 aircraft and crews, and 16th SOS AC-130 gunships and crews to the Point Salines Airport in Grenada.

Early success of Air Force special operators’ skillset came on the first day. An AC-130H Spectre reconnaissance flight over the airport discovered the runway blocked by heavy equipment. This forced MC-130 aircrews’ to airdrop two U.S. Army Ranger battalions from the 75th Ranger Regiment – Joint Task Force 123 near the airport, instead of executing an airland insertion. The lead MC-130 came under fire while Rangers were exiting, and its pilot – Lt Col James Hobson (future AFSOC commander) – executed a maximum-performance turn away from ground fire as the last Ranger cleared the aircraft. A separate gunship aircrew engaged the small arms threat and anti-aircraft artillery. Colonel Hobson and his crew earned the MacKay Trophy for most meritorious flight of year, and the supporting Spectre gunship crew earned the Lt Gen William H. Tunner Award for their efforts on 25 October 1983. Additional air special operators from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 193rd Special Operations Group used the newly-upgraded EC-130 aircraft as an airborne radio station to inform Grenadians of the U.S. military actions, playing a significant role in psychological warfare. Those seven days of combat operations tested the emerging Air Force SOF capabilities and continued to demonstrate to the Defense Department a need for sustained joint operations as a formal entity.

A Unified Special Operations Command- 1987

Following Operation EAGLE CLAW in 1980 and with the backdrop of URGENT FURY in 1983, the Pentagon convened the Holloway Commission to fully investigate what went wrong. The commission produced two major recommendations. First, the Department of Defense should establish a counterterrorism task force with a permanently assigned staff and forces. Second, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should consider forming a special operations panel. Conventional military forces, however, only applied window-dressing solutions to a deep-rooted issue of consistent underfunding practices for special operation forces.

Frustrated that the Services were not taking their unconventional capabilities seriously, Senators William Cohen (Maine) and Sam Nunn (Georgia) took matters into their own hands and pursued legislation that went much further than just forming a task force or advisory panel. By order of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 and Nunn-Cohen Amendment of 1987, the military activated the unified command as U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Shortly after USSOCOM’s activation, the Army and Navy established service components as major-command equivalents in the form of Army Special Operations Command (ARSOC) and Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM). 

Operation JUST CAUSE- 1989

The first test of USSOCOM came two years later. Concerns rose about Panamanian President Manuel Noriega’s democratic and human rights abuses and drug trafficking crimes posing a threat to American bases and citizens in Panama. U.S. forces invaded the country just after midnight on 20 December 1989. A total of 26,000 American forces executed a complex, joint operation between airborne and air assault troops with their on-the-ground U.S. Army and special operations units.

The predominant zones of operations were in Panama City and the surrounding countryside. The invasion forces demonstrated unprecedented levels of coordination between conventional and special operations forces. Air Force special operators were heavily involved in Operation JUST CAUSE. The 1st SOW and 919th SOG conducted AC-130H Spectre gunship missions, earning the MacKay Trophy and Tunner Award. The EC-130 of the 193rd SOG conducted psychological operations while the HC- and MC-130s supported refueling and infiltration missions for the rotary-winged aircrews flying MH-53J Pave Low and MH-60G Pave Hawks. Special Tactics combat controllers and pararescuemen provided crucial support throughout the operations, especially on the first night in seizing the Torrijios International Airport on a night parachute jump. To bring the Panamanian President to justice, 1st SOW MC-130 Combat Talons ferried Noriega to prison in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Activation of Air Force Special Operations Command-1990

Throughout the 1980s, the Air Force continued to reorganize its special operation forces with little attention on the need for sustained funding to train, equip, and support its specialized air assets. Originally assigned under Tactical Air Command, then transferred in 1983 to Military Airlift Command, 23rd AF had a laundry list of other mission sets and never fully focused on special operations. While the 23rd AF relocated from Scott Air Force Base, Illinois to Hurlburt Field, Florida, in August 1987, the 23rd AF still remained fully vested in multiple mission sets until 1989.

Tension between newly-activated USSOCOM commander U.S. Army Gen James J. Lindsay and Military Airlift Command commander Gen Hansford T. Johnson stalled any major reorganization efforts for a year. General Lindsay took his argument for a sustained and unified Air Force special operations capability to the Air Force Chief of Staff. On 22 May 1990, Chief of Staff General Larry D. Welch redesignated 23rd AF as Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The new major command included three wings – 1st, 39th, and 353rd Special Operations Wings – the 1720th Special Tactics Group, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS), and the Special Missions Operational Test and Evaluation Center. Its Reserve and National Guard components included the 919th Special Operations Group at Duke Field, Florida, and the 193rd Special Operations Group at Harrisburg International Airport, Pennsylvania. After nearly 50 years of Air Force special operations existing as temporary and disorganized units, the establishment of a major command to oversee all specialized air operations was complete.

The AFSOC Emblem

To honor the new command’s activation and its heritage with Air Commandos of World War II, Maj Henry “Scott” Murphy pulled inspiration from the Army Air Corps and Air Force emblems to create the major command’s new heraldry.

The design features the V-42 fighting knife – a modified Fairburn-Sykes dagger – as a tribute to the British Chindit special forces of the China-Burma-India theater and the Office of Strategic Services in WWII’s European theater. The stylized wings represents AFSOC’s swift and silent mobilization of its forces; the blue disc with star eludes to Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold’s Army Air Corps and the birth of the Air Commandos in WWII. The black background symbolizes clandestine operations conducted during periods of darkness. AFSOC became the only major command approved for this special deviation of background color. 

Early Actions As A Major Command

In its first decade, AFSOC conducted an array of mission sets that became standard operating procedures to provide swift and efficient responses across the globe to support conventional and special operations through its air power.

Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

The earliest explicit demonstration of AFSOC’s capabilities since its activation came in response to the unlawful invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces on 2 August 1990. The U.S. Government initiated Operation DESERT SHIELD on 6 August, and one week later, AFSOC forces arrived in theater first at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia then King Fahd International Airport. The fullest extent of AFSOC forces during DESERT SHIELD included 1st SOW Airmen with their AC-130s, HC-130s, MC-130s, MH-53 and HG-60s, 193rd SOG Guardsmen with EC-130s, Reservists of the 919 SOW with AC-130As and its squadron of HH-3 helicopters, and the Turkey-based 39 SOW’s HC-130s, MC-130s, and MH-53s. Special Tactics personnel operated throughout the theater, often attached as combat controller and pararescuemen.

Combat operations began the night of 17 January 1991 when MH-53 helicopter aircrews from the 1 SOW escorted Army Apache helicopters on a raid to destroy Iraqi radar sites near the border of Saudi Arabia, thus beginning Operation DESERT STORM. This escort mission, a true show of the MH‑53s specialized radar capabilities, earned its crews the Mackay Trophy.

MH-53 crews also conducted the first, and deepest, rescue mission of the war with the pick-up of U.S. Navy F-14 pilot Lt. Devon Jones, who was downed roughly 130 miles inside of Iraq. MC-130 Combat Talons dropped BLU-82s, the largest conventional bombs of the war, and, along with the HC-130 Combat Shadow aircrews who dropped the most psy-war leaflets. AC-130s provided critical fire support and armed reconnaissance, but they also suffered the single greatest combat loss of coalition air forces with the shoot down of Spirit 03 on 31 January 1991 – all 14 crewmembers, who belonged to the 16th SOS, perished. On 27 February 1991, Iraq agreed to Allies’ terms for a cease-fire, bringing an end to DESERT STORM combat operations.

Over the course of Operation DESERT STORM, special operations forces performed direct-action missions, combat search and rescue, infiltration, exfiltration, special reconnaissance, close air support, psychological operations, and helicopter air refueling.

Somalia - 1991-1995

When U.S. citizens needed evacuation during the Somali civil war, AFSOC forces supported Operation EASTERN EXIT on 3 January 1991. An AC-130H aircrew departed from King Fahd Airport, Saudi Arabia, to perform close air support missions over Mogadishu, Somalia.

In December 1992, Special Tactics and AFSOC intelligence Airmen returned to the country supporting Operation RESTORE HOPE, a protective mission for relief workers performing humanitarian service. Gunship aircrews followed in the spring of 1993 under Operation CONTINUE HOPE and CONTINUE HOPE II to stabilize the Somalian government and stifle militia activity. After two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters crashed 3 October 1993 in Mogadishu, AFSOC people responded with search and recovery efforts. TSgt Timothy A. Wilkinson supported Task Force Ranger during one of the longest sustained firefight by U.S. forces since Vietnam by providing medical support and treatment that saved three service members’ lives. Sergeant Wilkinson earned the Air Force Cross for his actions in Mogadishu.

During CONTINUING HOPE II, eight members of an AC-130H crew, call sign Jockey 14, paid the ultimate sacrifice. In March 1994, the aircraft experienced an in-flight explosion that forced the crew to ditch off the coast of Kenya. Six Airmen on that flight survived the crash. A year later, AFSOC forces returned in Somalia to support Operation UNITED SHIELD, the final United Nations mission in Somalia to stabilize the country following its civil war.

Haiti - 1994

In the fall of 1994, AFSOC units played an essential role in Operation UPHOLD DEMOCRACY in establishing security and assuring de facto public administration in rural Haiti. Most aircraft operated out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which included the largest gathering of MH-53s to participate in one action.

During UPHOLD DEMOCRACY, 193rd SOG Commando Solo crews broadcasted radio messages to the Haitian people. To help ensure that the radio messages would get to the target audience, 10,000 radios were air dropped into Haiti, in order to substantially increase the listening audience. Messages from Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide broadcasted daily on three FM radio channels along with discussions by a panel of Haitian political experts. The purpose of these broadcasts was to educate the Haitian people on the basic theories and concepts of democracy and what benefits they could expect to see with the restoration of a democracy in Haiti. Operations in Haiti also saw the last deployment of AC-130A gunships by the 919th SOW.

The Balkans - 1992-1996

The security and humanitarian conditions rapidly deteriorated following ethnic clashes in the former republic of Yugoslavia. AFSOC units flew Operation PROVIDE PROMISE missions as part of U.S. support of United Nations humanitarian relief efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina from July 1992 through June 1996. In total, more than 4,000 U.S. airland sorties delivered over 60,000 tons of supplies to the capital city of Sarajevo.

As tensions escalated, AFSOC units participated in Operation DENY FLIGHT, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia. The command’s flights were part of over 40,000 sorties to protect the airspace from April 1993 through December 1995. Then NATO conducted air strikes against Bosnian Serbs in Operation DELIBERATE FORCE from August through September 1995 with AFSOC units in support. During these combat operations, Pave Low crewmembers received wounds while rescuing two French aviators shot down near Sarajevo. The rescue attempt earned the crew the 1995 Air Force Cheney Award for their act of valor and self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest.

AFSOC Airmen arrived first on scene following the CT-43 aircraft crash 3 April 1996 near Dubrovnik, Croatia, which claimed the life of U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others. Two MH-53Js and an MC-130P conducted search and rescue flights. Their efforts won the 1996 Air Force Cheney Award.

Stabilization efforts in the region continued in September 1997 with 193 SOG aircrews deploying three EC-130s in support of Operation JOINT GUARD to relay NATO information and counter Serb radio and television broadcasts seeking to hinder the Dayton Peace Accords. Search and rescue alert postures remained throughout JOINT GUARD with AFSOC aircraft and personnel routinely rotating from the Hurlburt Field and RAF Mildenhall, U.K., into San Vito, Italy. The missions in the Balkans transitioned to Operation ALLIED FORCE following the NATO air campaign to remove Serbian forces in Kosovo, beginning in March 1999. AFSOC MH-53s and MH-60 aircrews conducted two successful, low-level, combat search and rescue operations of downed American F-117 and F-16 pilots. The rescued F-16 pilot, then-Lt Col David L. Goldfein, commander of the 555th Fighter Squadron, became 21st Air Force Chief of Staff in July 2016. Other AFSOC missions during ALLIED FORCE included: the EC-130’s counter-radio and television broadcast, MC-130H leaflets drops, and AC-130U armed reconnaissance.   

Early Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations

In addition to evacuating U.S. citizens from Somalia in January 1991, AFSOC forces supported several high-profile non-combatant evacuation (NEO) operations in the 1990s on top of their support for other operations across the globe.

Liberia - 1996

As skirmishes between conflicting political factions in Liberia threatened American lives, AFSOC conducted dozens of evacuation flights in Operation ASSURED RESPONSE. MH-53J helicopters operated in a hostile environment to safely evacuate nearly 2,500 people. An AC-130H gunship crew provided fire support coverage to the evacuation efforts. The continuous evacuation flights earned MH-53 aircrews of the 21st SOS the 1996 Tunner Award as outstanding airlift crew of the year.

Democratic Republic of Congo - 1997

Following ethnic conflict in Rwanda, a large exodus of refugees and growth of militant ethnic groups created regional instability in Central Africa and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Many non-government organizations and private volunteer organizations provided aid and assistance in an attempt to ease the suffering of the refugees. Continued fighting between the various factions led to looting and pilfering of many villages in eastern Zaire endangering U.S. citizens. U.S. forces initiated Operation GUARDIAN RETRIEVAL 17 March 1997 to aid the Department of State in evacuating noncombatants and nonessential military personnel.

Republic of Congo - 1997

Civil unrest in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, led to Operation FIRM RESPONSE. An MC-130H crew from the 7th SOS, 352nd SOG delivered an American military assessment team and evacuated 30 Americans and 26 foreign nationals. The MC-130, flown by members of the 7th SOS, spend just 23 minutes on the ground 9 June 1997. The flight into the Congo included three in-flight refueling and earned them the 1997 Mackay Trophy.

Vietnam Flood Relief - 1999

Severe flooding in six provinces of November 1999 led the Vietnamese government to request humanitarian relief. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance arranged relief supplies for delivery. On 11 November, two MC-130s from the 353 SOG airlifted 10 pallets with 22,000 pounds of plastic sheeting, 3,600 blankets, and 5,000 water containers into Hue, Vietnam.

Foreign Internal Defense Mission Set 

In April 1994, the 6th SOS activated in Hurlburt Field, Florida, to perform the aviation foreign internal defense (AvFID) mission. Its roots lay in Vietnam-era air special operation forces training partisan fighters against insurgents. By 2000, the 6 SOS received qualification training on diverse, non-standard aircraft to support training foreign nation aviators. The 6th SOS supported the national security policy by helping foreign friends and allies to defend their own countries and to function as viable coalition partners. The reach of AvFID expanded across the globe to support U.S. allies with AFSOC as the primary conduit for training foreign air forces.

The Counter-Violent Extremist Organization Mission of the 21st Century

Operation ENDURING FREEDOM - 2001-2014

Terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., pushed the nation's special operations forces to the forefront of a war against terrorism. Within weeks, AFSOC deployed forces to Southwest Asia for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM to help confront and remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy al Qaeda terrorist group, which was responsible for the 2001 attacks and led by Osama bin Laden.

 

During the initial months of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, AFSOC Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC)-qualified combat controllers (CCT) played a significant role in the campaign as the U.S. Air Force airpower relied on their expertise for coordinated airstrikes. These strikes were critical in the support to the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

 

The AFSOC CCTs were instrumental in the first major gain of the conflict, leveraging airpower leading to the capture of Afghan city Mazar-e-Sharif on 9 November 2001 – a major breakthrough in the conflict.

 

Airpower – provided by AFSOC AC-130s, MC-130s, MH-53s, CV-22s, unmanned aerial vehicles, and Special Tactics – significantly diminished the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s capabilities in Afghanistan. In addition, AFSOC personnel deployed to the Philippines and, later, to the Horn of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean, and Central America to aid partner nation's efforts in combatting terrorism.

John Chapman Medal of Honor- 2018

The Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to TSgt John A. Chapman on 22 August 2018. In a White house ceremony, President Donald J. Trump presented the medal to Chapman’s widow, Valerie Nessel, recognizing the Special Tactics combat controller’s conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in 2002.

 

During an insertion onto Afghanistan’s Takur Ghar mountaintop in March 2002, the MH-47 helicopter carrying Chapman and a joint special operations reconnaissance team flew into an ambush. Intense enemy small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire damaged the helicopter, throwing Navy SEAL Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts from the helicopter into a “hornets’ nest” of enemies. Following a controlled crash landing a few miles away, the team volunteered to return to rescue Roberts.

 

During the rescue attempt, Chapman’s team received heavy enemy fire. He charged upward through thigh-deep snow to assault an enemy position. He zeroed in on an enemy bunker and killed the enemy fighters in it. Then, with complete disregard for his own life, Chapman attacked a second bunker where a machine gun was firing on the rescue team. During his attack, enemy fire struck and temporarily incapacitated Chapman. Despite his wounds, Chapman regained his faculties and continued to engage multiple enemy fighters before paying the ultimate sacrifice when he, once again, stepped out from cover to protect the incoming helicopter carrying the quick reaction force.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM- 2003-2011

In March 2003, AFSOC deployed forces to Southwest Asia, this time in support Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. They focused on the removal of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of the Iraqi people from his ruthless Ba’athist regime.

 

The command's personnel and aircraft teamed with joint SOF and conventional forces to quickly bring down Saddam Hussein's government by May 2003. AFSOC forces continued to conduct operations throughout the rest of the decade and beyond in support of the new Iraqi government against insurgents and terrorists, whose aim it was to destabilize the country. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM officially concluded in 2011. Over the course of that eight-year period, AFSOC aircraft and Air Commandos remained at the forefront of operations that included the first-ever combat deployment of the CV‑22 tiltrotor aircraft and the last combat mission of the venerable MH-53 helicopter.

 

Operation INHERENT RESOLVE - 2014-ongoing

Combined Joint Task Force - Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (CJTF-OIR) was comprised of U.S. military and international coalition forces to support Iraqi security forces operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). CJTF-OIR started on 8 August 2014 and continues to work by, with, and through regional partners to militarily defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in order to enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions to increase regional stability.

 

Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL - 2015-2021

Operation ENDURING FREEDOM ended on 31 December 2014 and transitioned to Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL (OFS) on 1 January 2015 as a contingency operation in Afghanistan. This transition came after a surge in U.S. troop strength from 30,000 in early 2009 to approximately 100,000 from 2010 to 2011. The surge reversed Taliban momentum and enabled a gradual reduction of U.S. forces to 16,100 by 31 December 2014, when the NATO-led, combat mission ended and OFS began. With continued focus on counterterrorism and internal security forces capabilities, AFSOC provided forces in support of Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

 

Operation ALLIES REFUGE - 2021

Upholding a February 2020-agreement between former President Donald J. Trump and Taliban leadership, President Joseph R. Biden ordered the withdrawal of all American service members from Afghanistan and an end to Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL. As Taliban fighters quickly re‑took areas formerly secured by U.S. and Afghan forces, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the capital of Kabul and U.S forces evacuated the embassy on 15 August 2021. President Biden deployed 6,000 troops to support the evacuation efforts of U.S. and allied forces, employees and citizens, and Afghan personnel who qualified for special immigrant visas (SIV) for their employment with the U.S. government and potential life-threatening risks they faced in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

 

Under a rapidly deteriorating security situation, AFSOC assets supported the safe evacuation of over 124,000 people – the largest non-combatant evacuation to date – by providing reconnaissance and command and control. The last U.S. service members left Afghanistan just before midnight 30 August, concluding 20 years of war that employed AFSOC service members in counter-violent extremist organization operations in the country. While relocating Afghan personnel to the United States, AFSOC members supported Operation ALLIES REFUGE/WELCOME – the State and Defense departments’ joint operations to integrate SIV holders into the United States.

Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief Mission

AFSOC Airmen frequently applied their contingency mission skills in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) missions across the globe. As HA/DR missions often require rapid response time to austere environments, the AFSOC capabilities in command and control, specialized air mobility, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance provide crucial support in time of humanitarian need.

Operation UNIFIED ASSISTANCE - 2004

When a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck 26 December 2004 off the eastern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, a massive tsunami fanned across the Indian Ocean. It devastated coastal regions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, the Maldives, Myanmar, and Malaysia with a death toll totaling over 300,000.

The 353rd SOG, as the centralized location for Air Force special operations in the Indo-Pacific theater, deployed aircrews, Special Tactics, and support personnel to provide aid to the region. In total, the 353rd SOG delivered over 796,500 pounds of HA/DR supplies, conducted 32 casualty evacuations, and opened four airfields previously rendered inoperable by the tsunami.

Joint Task Force Katrina - 2005

Early in the morning 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. It caused catastrophic damage and flooding which displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. AFSOC’s 347th Rescue Wing, 1st SOW, and 720th Special Tactics Group sent Airmen and aircraft for Joint Task Force Katrina recovery efforts. From 30 August to 17 September 2005, AFSOC units saved 4,283 displaced individuals while flying 528 sorties, accumulating 1,677 flying hours.

Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE - 2010

When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Haiti on 12 January 2010, AFSOC units deployed to established air traffic control at Toussaint Louverture International Airport. During the initial 12 days of Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE, Special Tactics Airmen controlled 2,222 fixed wing and 800 rotary wing aircraft of 50 nations using handheld radios from a card table set up next to the only working runway. AFSOC pararescuemen executed 14 high-risk, collapsed-structure rescues, and they treated 25 patients.

Over the course of the humanitarian mission, the 1 SOW, 27 SOW, 193 SOW, and 919 SOW delivered 414 passengers and 396 short tons of supplies to the island. Special Tactics teams surveyed landing sites and controlled multiple aerial delivery operations that distributed 150,000 pounds of humanitarian aid to the Haitian people.

Operation TOMODACHI - 2011

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a massive tsunami 11 March 2011 off the northeastern coast of Japan. Personnel from the 353 SOG supported Operation TOMODACHI – Japanese for ‘friend’ – two days later using MC-130P, MC-130H, and PC-12 aircraft. The MC-130s provided forward air refueling capabilities to the area and transportation of AFSOC Special Tactics personnel. The PC-12 ferried 2,160 pounds of cargo and 70 passengers into remote locations to relieve the overtaxed MC-130 aircrews. In the first two weeks after the tsunami, two Special Tactics teams from the 320 STS controlled 170 relief flights carrying over 2.5 million pounds of supplies and 618 passengers.

Tham Luang Cave Rescue - 2018

Monsoon rains flooded the Tham Luang Cave complex near Chang Rai, Thailand, trapping a youth soccer team 23 June 2018. Thai authorities sent an international plea for assistance to rescue the 13 people trapped in the labyrinth. Special Tactics Airmen from the 320 STS and support personnel at Kadena Air Base, Japan, responded to Chang Rai to provide behind-the-scenes command, control, and coordination during the rescue. After 18 days, the soccer team was safely retrieved after effective planning, rehearsal, and execution. Pararescuemen TSgt Ken O’Brien was selected as one of 2019 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for his leadership and medical expertise during the extractions.

Hurricane Michael - 2018

Hurricane Michael made landfall on 10 October 2018 as a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 161 mph, at Mexico Beach, Florida – only 15 miles southeast of Tyndall Air Force Base. Tyndall’s weather station recorded a wind gust of 139 mph and sustained winds of 86 mph before its equipment was rendered inoperable. The base suffered “widespread catastrophic damage” from Hurricane Michael. For AFSOC, support for recovery and relief sorties amounted to seven MC-130 sorties, four C-146 sorties, and eight CV-22 sorties. Together, those flights delivered 82,000 pounds of cargo, including a communications suite, tarps, 553 cases of water, fuel cans, uniform items, and 83 cases of packaged meals. Medical assistance from Hurlburt Field stood at the ready, and they filled urgent pharmacy requests and assisted with patients. Aircrews from the 8 SOS provided airlift support to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff Air Force Gen David L. Goldfein, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright as they surveyed the destruction at Tyndall and Panama City.

Joint Task Force Haiti - 2021

AFSOC personnel responded after a pair of natural disasters in Haiti. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck 14 August 2021 and Tropical Storm Grace devastated the island two days later. As part of Joint Task Force Haiti, Airmen from the 24 SOW, 492 SOW, and 919 SOW arrived on 18 August, 36 hours after they were alerted. From 18 August to 2 September, they organized medical evacuations from remote and mountainous areas, landed a C-146 on a previously inoperable airfield, and provided air traffic control assistance for humanitarian aid delivery into 10 remote locations. In total, 587,950 pounds of aid was transported. 

Strategic Inflection Point

AFSOC stands at a strategic inflection point to meet the challenges of tomorrow, today.
"If we're going to operate in more austere areas, in more contested regions, in smaller, more disaggregated teams, what does the force look like that will execute mission command in that environment?" asked Lt. Gen. James C. Slife, commander of AFSOC. "We've built the AFSOC that we have today for efficiency and economy of scale, knowing we could always rely on all that fixed base infrastructure when we deploy. Now we've got to pack it up and carry it with us."

For the command to sustain its operational readiness, investing in AFSOC's number one priority - our people - will provide its forces the competitive advantage in future combat and contingencies missions.

Currently, after major redesignations and reorganizations, AFSOC's primary subordinate units include the 1st SOW, 
24th SOW and 492nd SOW at Hurlburt Field; the 27th SOW at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico; the 352nd SOW at RAF Mildenhall, U.K.; and the 353rd SOW at Kadena Air Base, Japan. These units are manned by more than 16,000 military personnel and civilians. Additionally, AFSOC receives direct support from its Reserve and National Guard units at the 
919th SOW at Duke Field, Florida; 137th SOW at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma; and 193rd SOW at Harrisburg International Airport, Pennsylvania. In total, AFSOC's force is more than 21,000 people.

Major Contingency Operations Supported by AFSOC since 1990

Former AFSOC Commanders

Former AFSOC Command Chiefs

AFSOC History Office

100 Bartley St.
Hurlburt Field, Fl 32544 
(850) 884-2209
 

Contact email: afsoc.ho.commandhistorian@us.af.mil