Every branch of the US military, aside from the space force, has its own special operations forces, each with its own niche that further strengthens the diversification of US SOCOM (United States Special Operations Command).
While every Special Operations Force (SOF) has its own overlaps and similarities with one another, Air Force Special Operations is one of a kind.
Not every operator can do what an Air Force operator does, so much so that many of them are embedded in other Special Operations Forces (SOF) units to augment their capabilities.
This means that not only are Air Force operators trained in their own specialty, but they also learn how to execute the missions of various special operations units.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) personnel range from Special Reconnaissance, Pararescuemen, Combat Controllers, Special Operations Surgical Teams, and select Tactical Air Control Party personnel.
We’re going to go over each of these communities and highlight what they bring to the table in Air Force Special Operations, along with an honorable mention.
Let’s dive into our first Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) career field, Special Reconnaissance.
Air Force Special Reconnaissance (SR)
Air Force Special Reconnaissance (SR) might seem like a capability that other Special Operations Forces (SOF) have, but in the Air Force, this is actually its own career field. In fact, Special Reconnaissance (SR) happens to be the Air Force’s newest special operations job.
But it’s not like it came out of nowhere. The Air Force rebranded and expanded these Special Operations Weatherman Teams (SOWT) into the career field you see today.
In order for you to better understand Special Reconnaissance (SR), it’s important to learn about its origin.
Evolution from Special Operations Weather Teams
The Special Operations Weather Team’s (SOWT’s) main mission was to deploy into combat areas to collect and interpret meteorological data to provide air and ground forces commanders with timely, accurate intelligence.
So essentially, they were known as the weather guys in the Special Operations Forces (SOF) world. But in reality, Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWTs) did more than that, as they were often embedded in various Special Operations Forces (SOF) units like SEALs, MARSOC, and Army SF (Army Special Forces).
US Special Operations Forces
|Branch||Special Operations Force|
|Army||Army Special Forces|
|Marines||Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC)|
|Air Force||Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC)|
They supported counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, and direct action. However, the Air Force recognized a need for an expanded capability, and the SOWTs had the foundation for just that.
On May 13, 2019, the Air Force created Special Reconnaissance and expanded the SOWT’s mission to include Special Reconnaissance, enabling them to perform various missions by adding military freefall and combat diving to the Special Recon pipeline.
The ultimate shift was from a specialized, weather analysis-focused approach to one of multi domain reconnaissance and surveillance.
To sum up this career field, special recon airmen are operators with unique training to conduct multi domain reconnaissance and surveillance across the spectrum of conflict, focusing on lethal and non lethal air-to-ground integration of air power.
They deploy rapidly and undetected by any means, anytime and anywhere, to systematically obtain, transmit, exploit, and take action on time sensitive information. That takes care of special recon.
The next career field up is the legendary Air Force PJs.
Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs)
When a civilian needs rescue, they call 911. When a Navy Seal on a mission needs rescue, they call the Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs). But this doesn’t stop with the Navy Seals.
Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs) are the only specialty specifically trained and equipped to conduct conventional or unconventional rescue operations.
They bail out virtually anyone who needs help. It’s nice to know someone out there has your back.
Air Force PJs are officially known as pararescuemen. They’re the embodiment of their motto, These things we do, that others may live, willing to go anywhere at any time by whatever means necessary to retrieve and rescue those who need it.
Due to the nature of search and rescue operations, which often involve injured people needing medical care, their missions require them to have extensive expertise in medicine.
Every Air Force Pararescueman (PJ) is trained as a paramedic, learning minor field surgery, pharmacology, combat trauma management, advanced airway management, and military evacuation procedures.
All those fancy skills in the world of medicine have led PJs to be a prominent addition to other Special Operations Force (SOF) units, being embedded into them as the medical element.
These warriors have been involved in so many missions that they are, in fact, the Air Force’s most decorated and listed force.
There are several stories and accounts of PJs heroically saving personnel and sacrificing themselves, affirming their dedication and commitment to saving lives and self sacrifice.
Air Force PJs speak for themselves.
Let’s take on the next career field: combat controllers.
Air Force Combat Controllers
Are you familiar with air traffic controllers? The people who direct aircraft: well, imagine one that can breach and clear a room, infiltrate an area by sea, air, or land, and may or may not have a fantastic beard.
That would be an Air Force Combat Controller Team (CCT). Legendary by nature and holding the title of the first Medal of Honor ever recorded, CCTs are not to be taken lightly.
The story of John A. Chapman, a CCT, sums up what we’re trying to say perfectly. In 2002, despite being mortally wounded and alone, Chapman held his ground against two dozen enemy combatants in one of the bravest one man stands ever witnessed.
His actions and self sacrifice would save 23 lives that day and is one of the most courageous acts of heroism the world has ever seen.
John A. Chapman lived up to the CCT’s motto until his last breath. First, there is reaffirming the combat controller’s commitment to undertaking the most dangerous missions behind enemy lines by leading the way for other forces to follow. And think about it—that’s just one story.
Imagine what the community has done and continues to do as a whole. Air Force Combat Controller Teams (CCTs) are jacks of all trades.
While their main mission is to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, they also conduct fire support, command and control, direct action, counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, and special reconnaissance.
From that list of capabilities we just gave you, Air Force Combat Controller Teams (CCTs) are some of the most capable operators out there, and it doesn’t stop there. They are also trained in combat, diving, and freefall.
Believe us, we could go on and on. Anyway, like their Air Force Pararescuemen (PJ) counterparts, CCTs are also embedded in various Special Operations Forces (SOF) units to improve those units’ fighting capabilities, making them extremely versatile.
They can be molded to fit in with whatever unit requires their skills and expertise.
For example, if an Air Force Combat Controller Team (CCT) needs to be embedded in a ranger battalion, they will be able to integrate seamlessly to augment the ranger’s capabilities.
The same thing goes with a Steel Platoon or an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha). The CCTs do what they do best, and no other operator can step in their shoes and do a CCT’s job like an Air Force CCT can.
With the CCTs covered, let’s jump into the special operations surgical teams.
Air Force Special Operations Surgical Teams (SOST)
This is a picture of a doctor at a hospital, and this is a picture of a doctor on a Special Operations Surgical Team, SOST. This guy can do everything this guy can do, and then some. Let me explain.
Remember how we said the Air Force PJs are the 911 of the military? Well, SOST is like the hospital for special operators. In some circumstances, the PJs might just take you to these guys after they pull you out of a sticky situation.
The Air Force Special Operations Surgical Teams (SOST) isn’t your typical special operations unit. When most people think of special operations, they think of Navy Seals, Army Rangers, or even MARSOC.
But no one really thinks about Air Force SOST, a team of highly capable doctors and medical professionals who can treat an entire spectrum of injuries in a special operations capacity. That’s not something you see every day.
The Air Force Special Operations Surgical Teams (SOST) are teams of lightweight, mobile surgical specialists with advanced medical and tactical training to save lives anywhere and anytime.
They deploy with specialized surgical and critical care response equipment and can be fully operational within 15 minutes of infiltration or arrival.
Their equipment can be contained in as small a space as their backpacks, which allows them to have a much smaller footprint than that of other Special Operations Forces (SOF) or conventional medical assets.
So basically, imagine a group of people rushing into an abandoned room and turning it into a full fledged operating room similar to a hospital at a moment’s notice.
The Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team (SOST) Airmen consists of emergency physicians, surgeons, PAs, nurse anesthetists, critical care nurses, surgical techs, and respiratory therapists, all of whom have undergone a strict selection process and have years of experience under their belts in their respective professions.
The Air Force basically takes the best of the best of these professions, screens them through an arduous selection process, and then builds them up from a foundation that allows them to seamlessly work together to render proper care to those who need it most.
There’s a thing called the golden hour in medicine, which essentially means that in the first hour after a major traumatic injury, it is the most critical window of time for successful emergency treatment.
The Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team (SOST) closes the gap on the golden hour and boasts upwards of a 98 % success rate in their treatments. SOST lives up to their motto, Those who care for the Warriors.
With SOST out of the way, let’s move on to TACP (Tactical Air Control Party).
Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP)
TACP stands for Tactical Air Control Party. If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you might have noticed at the beginning of the article that we said we’d cover select tactical air control party personnel.
Around 10% of TACP’s work in Special Operations Forces (SOF), so while the majority of the community works conventionally, for purposes of this article I am going to be focusing on those who work in SOF.
SOF TACPs have all the aspects of conventional TACPs, like being JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) qualified and getting bombs on target at the right time, but with some added skill sets and capabilities.
Not only have they undergone the selection process to even be a TACP, but they also go through an additional one if they want to work in Special Operation Forces (SOF). Any SOF TACP is worth their salt as a TACP.
Don’t expect to sign up and join as a Special Operations Forces TACP. A TACP must earn the right to SOF by excelling in the conventional career field first.
Once a TACP has done their time in the career field, they then must be nominated in order to join SOF (Special Operation Forces) and then undergo a lengthy training process to put them up to speed to be able to work in various Special Operations Forces (SOF) units that require their expertise and knowledge in the world of JTAC and beyond.
SOF TACPs integrate air combat power and surface fire into the ground scheme of maneuver, allowing for effective and lethal firepower on the battlefield.
You might be thinking that CCTs and SOF TACPs seem quite similar. The thing is, CCTs like to control, and TACPs like to party.
All jokes aside, like their SR (Special Reconnaissance), PJ (Pararescuemen), and CCT (Combat Control Team) counterparts, select Special Operations Force (SOF) TACPs have the ability to get freefall and Combat Diver qualified, along with any requisite training that’s expected of an operator.
Make no mistake, there is no guarantee for an Air Force TACP to wind up in AFSOC. Their motto, 100 % and then some, showcases just how much they expect their community to give if they wish to work in SOF. And that’s it for TACP.
Next up on our list is our honorable mention, the US Air Force SERE Specialists.
US Air Force SERE Specialists
SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. Virtually all operators attend some SERE course.
But who are the ones teaching them these skills? SERE Specialists. They are one of the Air Force’s smallest career fields while also being one of its most misunderstood and undermanned.
While SERE specialists are not considered special operations, a lot of what they do encompasses and revolves around the world of special operations. For example, they have considerable input into the training and exercises conducted by SOF.
While they may not be the ones kicking down the doors or going into the battlefield, they are preparing and ensuring that those who do are as capable as possible.
And in the event things go south, they train up personnel to be able to survive on their own and evade the enemy until they can be rescued and brought home, including building shelters, procuring water, land navigation, and evasion techniques.
SERE specialists are highway train experts who teach virtually anything survival related to those who may need it. Everything they teach, they’ve done themselves, and then some.
They’re held to a high standard and are tested to make sure that they’re subject matter experts when it comes to SERE.
A vast majority of those who attempt to become SERE specialists fail out. Despite the difficulties, it is a very rewarding career field and presents multiple opportunities.
Aside from everything we mentioned, they get opportunities to go to jump school and, in some circumstances, the Navy’s dive school.
And with Air Force SERE specialists covered, did you know there’s a Tier 1 unit in the Air Force? That would be the 24th Special Tactic Squadron (STS). Imagine the best of the best of the personnel we cover today all in one unit.
If you’re interested in learning more about the 24th STS and other Tier 1 units, check out our post where we cover all of them.
Well, that is the down and dirty of Air Force special operations. If you learned something from this video, make sure to give us a like and share. As always, thank you for reading.