Ready, FIRE, Aim: Great Power Competition without Combat Aviation Advisors
By Ioannis Koskinas
In late 2022, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) quietly divested the combat aviation advisor (CAA) capability, the only unit in the Air Force specifically trained, organized, and equipped for irregular warfare (IW). Within a few months, AFSOC converted the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) from one uniquely suited for building partner capacity, security force assistance, and aviation foreign internal defense (AvFID) to another one of the multiple AFSOC squadrons flying the MC-130J airlift aircraft. For nearly 30 years, the 6th SOS was the Air Force’s only organization dedicated to IW and AvFID. But, contrary to the 2022 Defense Department Special Operations Vision and Strategy that aimed to bolster integrated deterrence by advancing partnerships and enhancing relationship with allies, partners, and the interagency, AFSOC scrapped the Air Force’s only IW capability. This has diminished U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) capacity to meet its national security objectives. Since August 2022, new commanders have taken the reins at USSOCOM and at AFSOC. This paper hopes that they take stock of the unforced error made by their predecessors and reinstitute the CAA mission in the Air Force and USSOCOM’s kit bags of asymmetric air power advantages.
In the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw and the failure to rescue the 52 hostages held in the U.S. embassy in Teheran, Iran, the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the Goldwater-Nichols Act mandated the creation of the USSOCOM. Throughout emerging terrorist actions overseas during the 1980s & 90s, USSOCOM expanded its capabilities in an attempt to balance resources between their counter-terrorism (CT) and irregular warfare (IW) missions and units. However, the post-Vietnam institutional neglect by the Services that led to the Eagle Claw disaster and Congressional intervention forcing the creation of USSOCOM meant that the majority of resources and command emphasis were allocated to the “no-fail” CT mission. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, USSOCOM’s CT emphasis grew tremendously. In a notable exception, however, in 1994, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) stood up the 6th SOS and created the combat aviation advisor (CAA) capability. These uniquely trained Air Commandos, like their Special Forces brethren, worked by, with, and through partners and allies to create deep relationships, integrate partner forces into multinational operations, and develop the capabilities of those partners’ air forces to help their nations resist aggression and subversion.
Building partner capacity to resist hybrid threats is at the heart of the IW mission set. USSOCOM’s Vision and Strategy uses strong language describing the need to “cultivate strong relationships with the [U.S.’s] global network of allies and partners to … illuminate irregular threats, foster partners’ resilience, and create dilemmas for our adversaries.” The primer also suggests that, in order to “protect and advance our national interests, SOF must adapt [its] formations, concepts, and capabilities, while strengthening our critical relationships with allies and partners,” and that “SOF will pursue agreements, partnerships – such as increased foreign internal defense, security assistance….” It is hard to imagine how USSOCOM will achieve these goals in the air domain without the specialized CAA capabilities that AFSOC recently divested.
Between the 6th SOS’s creation in 1994 and its demise in 2022, AFSOC only produced 900 qualified CAAs. There are many reasons for this lack of growth. A number of former CAAs related how during the three decades of the squadron’s existence, AFSOC requirements for the 6th SOS focused overly on the airplanes rather than the humans required to man the unit and deliver the unique air advising capability. This can be explained if one understands that the way the Air Force manages manpower for its flying squadrons is based on the number of fully qualified aircrews required to operate the unit’s assigned aircraft, called crew ratio. A crew ratio of one means the squadron is manned at one aircrew per primary assigned aircraft. In most squadrons, the crew ratio is about 1.5, providing the squadron extra humans to serve in overhead billets and allow for a full complement of personnel on station when sending people to training, and accounting for leave and other absences. The Air Force had a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that this specialized mission focused on specially selected, trained, and sustained CAAs that were not tied to the specific aircraft assigned.
During its nearly 30-year history, the 6th SOS struggled to get mission need statements approved, in no small part because of arguments at both USSOCOM and AFSOC over which airplanes the unit should operate. As such, even though the 6th SOS mission was to advise and assist partner nations’ aircrews and support personnel, AFSOC struggled to come to grips with the notion that the 6th SOS would have to operate off-the-shelf, inexpensive, low-tech airplanes, analogous to partner nations’ aircraft. The reality is, the air and aviation forces found in those nations most susceptible to Chinese, Russian, or Iranian subversion and hybrid threats are also those least able to procure, operate, and maintain advanced technology aircraft. As early as 1991, the program element manager at USSOCOM who was leading the creation of what became the 6th SOS told me that he struggled to make the case that the squadron needed to procure or lease aircraft tailored to the missions its aircrews and support teams would be asked to conduct.
This was an anathema to many at AFSOC and USSOCOM, with some accusing the 6th SOS designers of attempting to create a "flying club,” an accusation that was not without merit. Despite warning signs coming from USSOCOM that AFSOC needed to tone down their demands for assigning non-standard aircraft to the unit and instead focus on the human capabilities necessary for working by, with, and through partner nation air forces, the rhetoric continued. It was as if the “means” (aircraft) had become the “ends.” In 1993, USSOCOM signed the operational concept authorizing the creation of the 6th SOS, but with the caveat it would have no assigned aircraft. USSOCOM did insert a line item in its budget giving the unit $1.4 million per year to enable aircrews to stay current by renting, leasing, or paying for flying time on civilian and military aircraft. For reasons not appropriate for this article, most of that money never reached the squadron and CAAs in the early days ended up taking creative, but also risky, measures to regain flying currency before stepping into partner nations’ aircraft.
The stories that 6th SOS operators could recount about the growth opportunities lost over the years go far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that most CAA personnel I spoke to mark 2018-2019 as the last opportunity for realizing the unit’s true potential. After years of falling short of meeting the Geographical Combatant Commanders’ requirements to build partner aviation capacity, by 2018 it seemed as if AFSOC was going to double the CAA enterprise. Finding a new home at Duke Field, under the newly created 492nd Special Operations Wing, which included another non-standard aviation unit the 524th SOS (intra-theater specialized mobility support, flying the C-146A Wolfhound). Highlighting the importance of this mission in Congressional testimony, the AFSOC commander at the time, Lt Gen Brad Webb, called the 6th SOS CAAs “the vanguard of AFSOC's irregular warfare force.” According to AFSOC plans, the command was trying to grow the unit by roughly an additional 180 CAAs, doubling the size of the squadron. The increasing requirements for qualified CAAs from the theater special operations commands suggested the need for a second and likely a third CAA squadron, to better align the CAAs regionally, much like the Army’s Special Forces Groups are regionally aligned. Unfortunately, General Webb’s vision never came to fruition. Four years later, the unit furled its guidon and AFSOC divested the CAA capabilities that had proven so successful irregular conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Jordan, Colombia, and elsewhere.
Like all other large military organizations, USSOCOM and AFSOC exist in a resource challenged environment with competing priorities. Looking ahead, however, it is hard to consider how the U.S. military is going to deter peer and near-peer adversaries engaging in strategic competition, that is irregular and hybrid conflicts short of war, without building aviation partners’ capacities. When SOF counts on allies and partners to fight shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of our shared common goals and objectives, developing specialized aviation capabilities was a key and proven capability that USSOCOM had to offering. Additionally, one cannot ignore the critical role CAAs played in assessing and providing an accurate picture of partner air and aviation forces’ capabilities, developing nuanced understandings of far-flung and austere operational environments, and building trust relationships through shared experiences, cultural acumen, and professional respect—intangible assets Combatant Commanders will need in the next, most likely theater of conflict.
USSOCOM and AFSOC have both gained new commanders in the last six months. I respectfully suggest that both commanders revisit the CAA construct and immediately reverse course, before the capability becomes a distant memory and SOF has to reinvent the CAA “wheel,” at greater cost.
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