Air Force special operations forces (AFSOF) have ebbed and flowed since they were established to support our World War II (WW II) Allies in the North African, Mediterranean, European, and China-India-Burma theaters. AFSOF forces were also very active in the Cold War, Korean War, and South East Asia (SEA) War.
The earliest missions involved the Special Flight Section of the 12th Air Force's 5th Bombardment Wing in North Africa in October 1943. This small adhoc unit operated highly modified and mission unique bombers into France and other parts of occupied Europe. Later they evolved into the 885th Bombardment Squadron (Special) and flew out of Brindisi, Italy, into Yugoslavia.
The largest Army AFSOF effort in Europe was conducted by the 801st Bombardment Group (S) nicknamed the "Carpetbaggers," and was based in England. They operated mostly long-range bombers backed up by medium bombers and transports.
The above units dropped supplies and parachutists to allied partisan and guerrilla units. They also air landed behind enemy lines to drop off personnel and supplies and recover hundreds of shot down allied aircrew.
In late 1943 the 1st Air Commando Group was organized and went into combat in March of 1944. Set up to perform a variety of conventional and unconventional combat and support missions deep behind enemy lines they used an array of aircraft including transports, fighters, bombers, light planes, gliders, and helicopters. They accomplished the first AAF behind the line night airfield seizure and combat rescue with a helicopter. All AFSOF units were disbanded at the end of WW II.
In the late 1940s, AFSOF units were regenerated to participate in a Foreign Internal Defense and Combat Advisory FID/CD role in the Philippines. During the Korean War in 1950-53, the Air Force regenerated adhoc special air support in multiple forms of air, land, and sea assets to support United Nations Command operations. This involved the use of transports, medium bombers, helicopters, and Air Rescue Service crash boats.
The USAF then activated three wings of the Air Resupply and Communication (ARC) Service specifically for unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations. They used a variety of aircraft such as transports, bombers, seaplanes, and helicopters. The 581 ARC wing saw combat in Korea but at the end of hostilities the USAF shut down its AFSOF units.
The Air National Guard gained the AFSOF mission in the mid to late 1950s and then the USAF reestablished the Air Commandos at Hurlburt Field in the early 1960s. The modern Air Commandos evolved into USAF Special Operations by 1968 as they operated world wide but fought for the most part in the South East Asia War. At the height of the Vietnam Conflict, AFSOF had 550 aircraft and 19 squadrons with USAF crews flying most of the combat missions. Following the SEA War, most of the AFSOF capability was shut down except for the 1 SOW at Hurlburt, the Reserve 919 SOG at nearby Duke Field, and a few active duty squadrons scattered overseas.
Following the failure of the Iranian hostage raid in April of 1980, United States special operations was reborn and rebuilt in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Soon upgraded AFSOF forces participated in Operation URGENT FURY in Grenada in 1983, and Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama in 1989-90.
AFSOC as we know it today was born on 22 May 1990 when the Air Force elevated 23 AF to major command (MAJCOM) status. In addition to the 1 SOW, the 352 and 353 wings were added overseas and the 193 SOG of the ANG was gained. Almost immediately after standup AFSOC participated in Operations DESERT SHIELD/STORM in the Middle East in 1990-91. After the Gulf War, AFSOC gained ownership of Hurlburt Field and participated in numerous personnel recovery alerts, humanitarian relief efforts, and actual combat. This included deployments to Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Turkey, Italy, Somalia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Africa.
Since 11 September 2001, AFSOC personnel and weapon systems have participated to the maximum in America's war on terrorism.
AFSOC deployed forces to southwest Asia for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM to help confront and remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, along with the Taliban-supported Al-Qaida terrorist organization headed by Osam Bin Laden, who were responsible for the attacks on the U.S. In addition to its support in Afghanistan, AFSOC personnel also deployed to the Philippines to help aid that country’s efforts against terrorism. Through 2002, SOF continued to lead the war on terrorism.
During the first quarter of 2003, AFSOC served as the point of the sword when it participated in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and the coalition invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Bath government in Iraq. Air Force SOF units continued to support military occupation operations throughout Iraq in 2003-04.
In October 2003, AFSOC also merged with the USAF Combat Rescue (CSAR) and grew by over a third in personnel, twice the number of weapon systems and gained ownership of Moody AFB, GA.