war on the rocks

Offsetting Air Superiority with Air Force Special Operations

November 3, 2016

On January 18, 1991, the second day of Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign, a single Army artillery vehicle succeeded in destroying an Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile in Kuwait.  The M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) accomplished this kill using a “hip-shot,” briefly stopping to fire two surface-to-surface missiles before continuing to maneuver.

We have much to re-learn from this seemingly minor historical footnote. U.S. adversaries are creating ever more capable systems that seek to deny the U.S. military the ability to project military power. Compounding this, domestic military spending constraints make it increasingly less likely the United States can spend its way out of these problems. Continuing to project power in a contested threat environment will instead require novel operational concepts that question the foundational assumptions that defined military force composition for several generations. During this time, the U.S. Air Force predominately invested in operationally symmetric capabilities to achieve air superiority — countering air threats via the air domain. It must expeditiously grow new organic and agile capabilities that directly support and enable the air component in asymmetric ways so it can then support and enable the joint force.

This imperative expands horizons by seeking new asymmetric advantages in force projection required to remain relevant and responsive in conflict today and tomorrow. Surprisingly, the place to start may be found in the unlikeliest of places: the Air Force special tactics community.

Special Tactics Image and Purpose

The Air Force special tactics community includes a variety of specialties that perform, terminal attack control of aircraft, personnel recovery, environmental reconnaissance, and airfield reconnaissance, assessment, and control. The community has grown significantly owing to the huge demands of post-9/11 close air support operations around the world. After 15 years of ground-centric conflict, they have continued a lineage of supporting operations in an air-permissive environment in which airpower is the supporting element.

If you were to imagine today’s special tactics operator, you might conjure an image of an airman embedded in an Army unit providing support to the ground commander. Yet this construct, relatively untouched since its birth in Vietnam, limits the potential impact that Air Force special tactics operators could provide. Instead, think about the purpose of the special tactics community. Collectively, these small forces enable airpower success. That’s why they are Air Force operators and not Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces.

The Air Force should use this large pool of human capital to evolve the special tactics mission into an entire new realm: ground maneuver in support of air operations. Recall that the scope of special tactics missions is currently limited to low-end conflict. But if we have fifth-generation fighters in the air, why shouldn’t we have fifth-generation battlefield airmen on the ground to enable and assist them? Instead of Army-embedded operators, picture these airmen operating in larger, indigenous, platoon-sized special tactics teams that perform land-based maneuver in support of a larger counter-air effort.

New Approach, New Mission

This “multi-domain approach” is championed in the Air Force’s Strategic Master Plan, though, admittedly, they probably didn’t have the land domain in mind when they wrote it. However, this concept of operations is consistent with the Army’s multi-domain battle approach and mirrors Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein’s comments at the recent Association of the United States Army conference. Given the significant potential of the special tactics community, its portfolio should expand to include a new mission: Suppression of Enemy Air Power (SEAP).

The Air Force special tactics community is better-suited than ground forces to assume the SEAP mission for several reasons. Principally, using Air Force special tactics for this mission would allow the Air Force to conduct SEAP rapidly and independently when it concluded its requests were lagging behind more traditional ground forces missions. Organized under the command of the air component (vice the land component), these units could be seamlessly integrated into the air operation’s center targeting structure. Tactically, Air Force special tactics operators would be free from two tactical restrictions that limit the advance of conventional ground forces: the forward line of troops (FLOT) and the fire support coordination line (FSCL). Air Force operators could employ beyond these coordination lines without affecting theater land battlespace coordination. There, they could engage targets that inhibit air superiority that typically reside well beyond the reach of land-based fires (the FSCL). These targets could be a fixed target such as an airfield or a dynamic target such as a mobile surface-to-air missile system. Since these units would be attached to air platforms, their rapid inter- and intra-theater mobility would exceed the command and control of a typical land-based unit. Lastly, these airmen bear an intricate knowledge of air operations that can be leveraged to become a fluid entity for package coordination and integration without conflicts between command hierarchies.

Offensive Counter Air vs Enemy Airfields

The Army has invested heavily in its multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), which has been used in Afghanistan since 2005. MLRS fires 12 GPS-guided rockets with a range exceeding 40 miles. Another Army rocket artillery system, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), provides half the firepower at half the weight and cost. Most importantly, HIMARS was designed to fit neatly inside a C-130 tactical transport aircraft.

For the past several years, training at Nellis Air Force Base during Weapons School and Red Flag has occasionally used Army HIMARS teams on Air Force C-130s in scenarios. Ingressing at low altitude, the C-130s land on austere dirt strips on the training range, and soldiers deploy the HIMARS equipment, fire the missiles, and quickly depart on the C-130.

It would seem obvious that an air-mobile capability that could suppress operations at an adversary airfield should exist with the Air Force, yet it does not. But think bigger — what if the C-130 never had to land?

Instead, imagine those HIMARS being air-delivered using GPS-guided parachutes. Upon landing, the parachute would report its exact location back to the aircraft and the HIMARS would make itself available for beyond-line-of-sight tasking from the theater air battle managers, including local joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs). GPS-guided parachutes aren’t some imagined capability from a movie. They’ve existed for ten years under the Army’s Precision and Extended Glide Airdrop System (PEGASYS), which forms the basis of the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) that the Air Force special tactics community uses today. Now imagine a team of special tactics airmen in a nearby insertion aircraft parachuting to that location. Using their expertise and equipment to communicate and coordinate aircraft, these airmen could plug into an airborne strike package to enable force projection in ways that are simply not considered today. They could be tasked just like aircraft for suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) or for offensive counter-air against an enemy’s power-projection air force.

Additionally, a new modular system could be capable of launching multiple different types of rockets (surface-to-air and surface-to-surface) and hunter-killer anti-personnel unmanned aerial systems (UAS) based on the Army’s massive RQ-11 Raven, RQ-12A Wasp III, and RQ-20 Puma fleet. These forward area recon systems could also be used as explosives-laden covert guided weapons, just like the Switchblade. Certainly, this system could also be constructed to adapt onto an indigenous vehicle or delivery truck to lend itself to covert movement and concealment — a camouflaged disguise.

Penetrating Ground-Based Air Denial

The Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot missiles systems often make headlines with their contribution to regional and theater defense. However, these Cold War designs are anything but agile or mobile. The mission essential package for a single Patriot battery (one radar and two launchers) to assume a 24-hour posture for 15 days without resupply is seven C-17s. THAAD easily trumps that demand signal with an astounding 26 C-17 requirement.

The only other currently fielded system for the Army and Marine Corps is the Avenger Air Defense System — a Humvee with a Stinger missile turret. This system is optimized for low-altitude defense, not to protect from medium altitude attack. The ballistics of a medium altitude bomb release well out-ranges this type of system. This colossal capability gap has been largely ignored until it was highlighted by the recent Russian escalation in the Baltics and the concerns of American forces being bombed in Syria. America desperately needs a highly mobile short range air defense (SHORAD) system.

Previous efforts to rebuild this mission area failed with the cancellation of the Marine Corps’ Complementary Low Altitude Weapon System (CLAWS) in 2006 and the Army’s Surfaced-Launched Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (SLAMRAAM) in 2011. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller recently made headlines when he wondered aloud: “So what capability do we have to defend ourselves from enemy air?” The Army has a high-profile push for to rejuvenate its air defense capability with hyper velocity projectiles and directed-energy systems, but that is several years (or more) from fruition.

Surprisingly, current Air Force special operators don’t have a means to protect themselves from aerial attack, either. Why can’t these airmen engage (defensively or offensively) the same threats as our $100+ million fighter platforms? After all, that’s how both Russia and China approach air superiority — primarily from the ground, not the air. Over the past decade, both countries have invested primarily in asymmetric ways to negate all of the advantages the Air Force has invested in to achieve air superiority. The biggest threat to the F-22 and F-35 will never be an aircraft because that’s the most ineffective and inefficient way to go about countering those aircraft. Adopting this premise inverts the cost exchange ratio and provides a complementing approach that also imposes multi-domain confusion on the enemy, which is difficult to negate.

The requirement considered here is a surface-to-air missile system small enough to be agile and expeditious, but still capable enough to be meaningful. Once again, this already exists in the U.S. inventory. The National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) is a ground-based system that uses the same AIM-120 missiles used by U.S. fighters and previously cancelled SHORAD programs. It’s been discreetly deployed to protect the U.S. national capital region since 2005, and it’s been exported to eight other countries for military use. Even better, the system is designed to fit on the same platform as HIMARS.

This could transform currently static mission sets such as defensive counter-air, and it would also create dozens of new tactical concepts — a worthy return on investment. This could be expanded even more by incorporating a mobile radar capable of detecting stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and even small unmanned aerial vehicles. As you can imagine by now, this too exists: the Marine Corps’ developmental Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) program.

Anticipating a rapid onset of hostilities, the previously proposed indigenous, agile systems could be expeditiously deployed to provide base defense with a single C-17 airlift mission.

Such an effort aligns almost perfectly with the premise of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office, the brainchild of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. In his own words, the office was envisioned “to help us to re-imagine existing DOD and intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies — the emphasis here was on rapidity of fielding, not 10 and 15-year programs.”

The Counter-Air Task Force: Creating Holes in the Walls of Bureaucracy

We have available to us already existing systems that could be used in novel, asymmetric ways for an air superiority campaign. But we must also consider how those tools should be organized to ensure they constitute an agile force.

Within the Air Force, there is a cultural wall between conventional and special operations. They are led by different generals, reside in different major commands, and even have different acquisition statutes. Left unchanged, this construct will stifle any meaningful synergy between the organizations and fail to seize on their asymmetric advantage potential.

The organizational kingdoms do not need to be razed; they merely need connections between them to generate the relevant components to perform a mission. This forms the principle of the military task force. The Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct is probably the most widely successful and commonly used form of task forces today. Given the breadth of Air Force hierarchy, why should there not be a similarly designed Counter-Air Task Force to bridge the wide spans of bureaucracy and expeditiously align organizational task and purpose?

The Counter-Air Task Force would connect special operations with conventional counter-air, SEAD, and interdiction units to conduct functional training and availability as a warfighting element. This should also include a mobility aspect to accommodate the rapid global mobility of C-130s and C-17s, bringing in yet another major command.


At a time when adversaries are hard at work to make power projection increasingly difficult for the Air Force, its special tactics community represents a substantial human capital investment that cannot remain marginalized in the strategic cul-de-sac of merely supporting land operations. They can be re-imagined as a cross-domain force to accomplish L-SEAD, penetrating counter-air, and penetrating air denial. Mature systems already make this possible, and the Air Force should procure these existing systems and organize them into a rapidly deployable force to confound potential enemies. We can grow our special tactics community to have a greater role in full-spectrum operations, and we need to. It’s time to seize the initiative. Building an air-deployed expeditionary combined-arms element will ensure we are prepared to meet the challenges of today, and in the future.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. 

Lt Col. Peter Garretson is an instructor of Joint Warfare at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. He leads Air University’s Space Horizons initiative, which seeks to re-imagine space power in the age of space industrialization.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force