In the beginning...

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) marks its 33rd anniversary on May 22, 2023. It will celebrate over three decades of dedicated service providing specialized airpower for the nation’s defense.

Established in 1990, AFSOC emerged as a vital component of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

With headquarters located at Hurlburt Field, Florida, AFSOC is one of the ten major Air Force commands and plays a crucial role as the Air Force component of USSOCOM, which is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Let’s talk a little about AFSOC History – but first, a disclaimer. This article overviews everything AFSOC has done in the last 33 years that is a mile wide and an inch deep. If there are pieces of the story we need to highlight but haven’t yet, email me at christopher@midbaynews.com. We’ll get to work to make this a better article together!

a woman with a wrench in front of a military plane.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Hazel Fuentes, a crew chief from the 1st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, poses in front of an AC-130U Spooky at the flightline on Hurlburt Field, Fla., March 20, 2012. Crew chiefs approve whether or not their most technically advanced mission assets meet standards set forth by Air Force Special Operations Command. :📸Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway
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Pivotal Moments: A Short History of AFSOC

A Costly Beginning

For the longest time – there was a touch of animosity between the larger military branches and the special operations components. Throw poor working relationships between the military’s different departments as the United States entered the 1980s – the idea of joint special operations between various units seemed impossible.

That was, until Operation Eagle Claw.

Also known as the Iranian hostage crisis rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw highlighted the deficiencies the services had when working together publicly and forced commanders to rethink how special operations would work together in the future.

The ill-fated mission, conducted by a joint force of U.S. military personnel, was sent to Iran by then-President Jimmy Carter (a former Naval Officer) to rescue American hostages held by the revolutionary government in Iran. The mission failed to address several logistical and communications problems, ultimately failing to meet minimum force requirements at the first rendezvous site and the op to be aborted. As a Marine Corps helicopter attempted to leave the area, it became disoriented in the dust and crushed into a parked Air Force MC-130, costing 8 service members their lives and turning an operational failure into outright tragedy.

The failed rescue attempt underscored the need for specialized air assets and capabilities explicitly tailored for supporting special operations forces.

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a man in Air Force uniform.
Col. Sean Farrell, the commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, provides remarks during a ceremony for the 36th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw at Hurlburt Field, Fla., April 25, 2016. Operation Eagle Claw, conducted April 24, 1980, was a joint-services mission to rescue Americans who were being held hostage by a mob in Tehran, Iran, since Nov. 4, 1979. Tragically, the attempt ended in the death of eight service members, including five Air Commandos from the 1st Special Operations Wing, 8th Special Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo Airman 1st Class Kai White)

Growth

After Eagle Claw’s public and painful failure – the military and Congress acted to forge cohesion between special operations branches of the military. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 brought about significant changes in the organization and command structure of the U.S. military. It emphasized joint operations and enhanced the coordination and integration of all service branches. The act recognized the growing importance of special operations and established the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as a unified combatant command. AFSOC was subsequently created as the Air Force component of USSOCOM to provide specialized air support for special operations.

Throughout the 1980s, the role of special operations forces expanded, as seen in operations such as Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada (1983), Operation Just Cause in Panama (1989), and Operation Acid Gambit in Colombia (1989). These operations highlighted the unique abilities special operations could bring to the battlefield and promoted a new doctrine that used special forces from different branches together with great effectiveness.

Increased prominence and success of special operations missions reinforced the need for a dedicated command focused on providing specialized airpower. The military got the unit to fill that void at the dawn of the 90s.

US soldiers with a Grenadian Army Banner
Personnel with the United States invasion force during Operation Urgent Fury display a Grenadian Army flag captured in battle.

The 90s

On May 22, 1990, AFSOC officially stood up as a command.

Since its activation, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has played a crucial role in several dozen conflicts and responses to natural disasters.

One of the earliest displays of AFSOC’s capabilities came during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in response to Iraqi forces’ unlawful invasion of Kuwait in 1990. AFSOC forces arrived in the Middle East to fight in response to the Iraqi Dictator’s invasion.

During Operation Desert Storm, AFSOC forces conducted various missions, including combat search and rescue, close air support, special reconnaissance, and psychological operations. Airmen in this unit saw significant combat and suffered some of the heaviest American losses of the conflict. This included the shootdown of Spirit 03, an AC-130 aircraft, resulting in the death of all 14 crewmembers aboard.

Additionally, the members of AFSOC, in Task Force Normandy, served as a shining example of joint operations success. Air Force MH-53 Helicopters escorted Army Apache Helicopters into Iraq to destroy key air defense locations in the opening shots of the conflict to weaken Saddam’s army’s fighting capabilities.

AFSOC’s involvement extended beyond the Middle East. AFSOC supported Operations Eastern Exit, Restore Hope, Continue Hope, and United Shield in Somalia between 1991 and 1995.

AFSOC units provided close air support, conducted search and recovery efforts, and supported stabilization missions following the civil war.

During Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti in 1994, AFSOC played a vital role in establishing security and assuring public administration.

The Balkans also saw AFSOC’s involvement from 1992 to 1996. AFSOC units flew Operation Provide Promise missions, delivering supplies to Bosnia-Herzegovina during the United Nations’ humanitarian relief efforts.

They also participated in Operation Deny Flight, enforcing a no-fly zone, and Operation Deliberate Force, conducting air strikes against Bosnian Serbs.

AFSOC aircrews performed combat search and rescue operations and provided counter-radio and television broadcasts.

The Global War on Terror

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, AFSOC deployed forces to Southwest Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. AFSOC combat controllers coordinated airstrikes, supported the Northern Alliance, and captured vital positions. AFSOC airpower, including AC-130s, MC-130s, MH-53s, CV-22s, and unmanned aerial vehicles, destroyed the fighting capabilities of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

In 2018, AFSOC combat controller TSgt John A. Chapman posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions during a mission in Afghanistan in 2002. His bravery and self-sacrifice exemplify the dedication of AFSOC personnel in the face of danger.
AFSOC also contributed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and assisting in the stabilization efforts in Iraq.

a cv-22 on the ground
U.S. Air Force Gen. Arnold Bunch, commander of Air Force Material Command, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, and other AFMC and AFSOC senior leaders, disembark from a CV-22 Osprey at Austere Field #6, Florida, July 21, 2021. With service support and investments in key technologies, AFSOC creates innovative solutions for the joint force and multiplies dilemmas for adversaries. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Miranda Mahoney)

Who is in AFSOC? What Does AFSOC Do Now?

AFSOC employs small groups – called special tactics units – which consist of combat controllers, tactical air control party members, special operations meteorologists, and pararescuemen – along with pilots, maintainers and other airmen you’d find in other commands of the Air Force.

These airmen work closely with other military special operations units to form versatile joint special operations teams. AFSOC ensures that these special tactics forces receive the necessary training, equipment, and support to perform their critical roles in special operations.

Military commanders placed AFSOC in charge of readiness to execute global special operations, innovate to keep up with potential enemies like China or Russia, and ensure that the special forces members in AFSOC are ready to fight when the country needs them.

AFSOC’s personnel consist of highly trained and rapidly deployable Airmen, undertaking a wide range of global special operations missions. These missions encompass precision applications of firepower, infiltration, exfiltration, resupply, and refueling of Special Operations Forces (SOF) operational elements.

The command’s core missions include battlefield air operations, agile combat support, aviation foreign internal defense, information operations/military support operations, precision strike, specialized air mobility, command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. AFSOC is equipped with unique capabilities such as airborne radio and television broadcasts for psychological operations and aviation foreign internal defense instructors who provide military expertise to other nations for their internal development.

Almost 20,000 airmen in the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian personnel make up AFSOC. The command’s active duty and Reserve component flying units operate an array of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the CV-22B Osprey, AC-130 gunships, EC-130 Commando Solo, MC-130 variants, MQ-9 Reaper, U-28, C-145A, and C-146A Wolfhound.

AFSOC’s forces are organized under five active-duty wings, one Reserve wing, two National Guard wings, one overseas group, and several direct reporting units. The 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field and the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, house specialized aircraft supporting special operations worldwide. These wings operate AC-130J/W, MC-130H, CV-22, U-28A, MQ-9, and C-146A aircraft.
Based at Hurlburt Field, the 24th Special Operations Wing provides special tactics forces for rapid global deployment, playing a vital role in enabling airpower success. It is the only special tactics wing in the Air Force, highlighting the command’s dedication to elite special operations capabilities.

Furthermore, the 352nd Special Operations Wing stationed at RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, serves as the Air Force component for Special Operations Command Europe. This wing employs advanced aircraft, tactics, air refueling techniques, and special tactics operators to transport, resupply, and support military special forces. With six squadrons and two different types of aircraft, the MC-130J Commando II and the CV-22B Osprey, the 352nd SOW plays a pivotal role in enhancing the global reach and effectiveness of AFSOC.

Based at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the 492nd Special Operations Wing (492nd SOW) is a crucial component of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The wing’s primary responsibilities encompass organizing, training, educating, and equipping forces to conduct special operations missions. It also leads Major Command (MAJCOM) Irregular Warfare activities, executes special operations tests and evaluation, and oversees lessons learned programs. Furthermore, the 492nd SOW is responsible for developing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures for Air Force Special Operations Forces (SOF).

What Wars and Battles Has AFSOC Served In?

What wars did AFSOC fight in? Plenty. Since its founding in 1990. According to Air Force Records, they have participated in the following missions.

1990 | Saudi Arabia, Kuwait | Desert Shield/Storm
1991 | Somalia | Eastern Exit
1991-2003 | Turkey/Iraq | Provide Comfort and Northern Watch
1991 | Bangledesh | Sea Angel
1991 | Saudi Arabia | Desert Calm
1991-2003 | Saudi Arabia/Kuwait | Southern Watch/Vigilant Warrior
1992-1994 | Italy/Yugoslavia | Provide Promise
1992 | Somalia | Restore Hope
1993 | Somalia | Continue Hope
1993 | Yugoslavia | Deny Flight
1994 | Haiti | Restore Democracy/Uphold Democracy
1994 | Rwanda | Support Hope
1995 | Somalia | United Shield
1995 | Italy/Yugoslavia/Bosnia | Deliberate Force
1995 | Italy/Yugoslavia/Bosnia | Joint Endeavor
1996 | Liberia | Assured Response
1997 | Albania | Silver Wake
1997 | Republic of Congo | Guardian Retrieval
1999 | Serbia/Kosovo | Allied Force
2000 | Mozambique | Atlas Response
2001-2014 | Afghanistan | Enduring Freedom
2003-2010 | Iraq | Iraqi Freedom
2010 | Haiti | Unified Response
2010-2011 | Iraq | New Dawn
2011 | Japan | Tomodachi
2011 | Libya | Odyssey Dawn
2011 | Pakistan | Neptune Spear
2013 | Philippines | Damayan
2014 | Iraq/Syria | Inherent Resolve
2015-2021 | Afghanistan | Freedom’s Sentinel 
2021 | Afghanistan | Allies Refuge

Map of AFSOC Missions

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