“Let’s face it: U.S. special operations forces in general are going to be engaged with violent extremist organizations for some time,” Lieutenant General Bradley Heithold, the new commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) told a small group of reporters recently.
That statement seemed to be reinforced at the Pentagon last week, when General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that U.S. special operations forces may be needed to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their battle with ISIS in Anbar Province. U.S. teams are currently based out of Baghdad and Irbil. And while U.S. SOF ground forces are involved in advising and assisting the Iraqi forces, Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunships are among the combat aircraft striking ISIS in support of those Iraqi Security Forces.
In fact, Lt. Gen. Heithold said as much at the Air Force Association in late September, when asked how much AFSOC was involved in the conflict with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“Well, I can’t say specifically. I don’t want to divulge operations like types of aircraft and numbers of aircraft and people, but suffice it to say, when you have a campaign against a violent extremist organization — which this is — when you think of the nature of that conflict over there and you think about special operations forces, you’ve got to think that we have a piece of the action,” Heithold said.
“Air Force Special Operations Command is involved, but for me to share specifics is probably not smart for any of us. The capabilities that I bring to the fight are applicable to this particular effort against ISIL,” Heithold added.
According to CENTCOM — the combatant command whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — special operations forces are not currently engaged in combat operations on the ground, with Iraqi Security Forces calling in close air support (CAS). There is no special operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) with them directing air strikes.
“There are small numbers of advise and assist teams, but they are not in a direct combat role on the frontlines with ISF calling in airstrikes, they are based out of Baghdad and Irbil,” Major Curtis Kellogg, a CENTCOM Public Affairs Officer said.
As of Nov. 6, there have been 452 air strikes against ISIS in support of Iraqi Security Force operations began August 8th. Of that number, 385 were U.S. strikes, and 67 were by coalition members. AC-130 gunships are among the assets participating in the air campaign in Iraq; and they are a favorite of special operators.
“We have a family of penetrating aircraft. If you think back to the history of special operations, our job is to infiltrate and exfiltrate — we get behind the enemy. One of our primary roles is to infiltrate and exfiltrate special operations teams,” Heithold said.
There is a reason why Special Forces, Delta, and other government agencies — like the CIA — use AC-130 gunships more than anyone else: their missions are mainly direct action with short goals, during the night. The Vietnam-era aircraft is the premier platform for surgical close air support of special operations forces on the ground. Or, as one special operations combat controller who asked that his name not be used, told me during one mission in Afghanistan: “AC-130s are really good at tracking ground movements and increasing situational awareness. That means: you can kill shit faster, with less risk to friendlies.”
But the aircraft has been showing its age, and going through a series of upgrades recently. AFSOC just fitted Hellfire missiles and laser-guided small diameter bombs onto the AC-130.
In June, I asked then-AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel about the upgrades to the platform beloved by special operators on the ground. Members of Green Beret A-Teams, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs told me that they worried about the new platform having the same battle impact.
“It was a learning curve for the ground forces, because you’re used to having a bank, of you know munitions, mostly bullets. And we started putting precision munitions on it, and they said, ‘Well it’s not a gunship anymore.’ Well, the task is to provide fire support, so it doesn’t matter if it’s bullets or precision munitions. In the past it used to take a lot of rounds to kill our target,” Fiel said.
Fiel explained with an example from the air campaign in Libya in 2011, saying there was no “hard-target kill capability” on two of the aircraft models, the H and U model.
“In Libya we put U-models in there — they’re using the 105 to take out hits on tanks, and all they did was bounce off,” Fiel said. AFSOC is now fielding the aircraft with Hellfires and the laser-guided small diameter bombs.
“So, it’ a gunship plus. So there’’ a lot more firepower now on the gunship than there ever was in the past,” Fiel told me.
AFSOC’s roadmap is to replace 37 legacy AC-130H, U and W models with 37 AC-130J Ghostriders in a single configuration with an advanced suite of sensors and precision weapons, which will provide a menu of scalable effects on the battlefield. SOCOM, AFSOC’s combatant command, has determined that the additional capabilities of the AC-130J fleet will meet the requirements of the future.
“We have to upgrade and advance in technology where it is needed, while also taking advantage of what we have and sustaining it well into the future,” Lt. Gen. Heithold clarified.
“As we transition from the legacy gunships, we will maintain our combat capability by ensuring the new AC-130Js possess the appropriate weapons systems and the necessary self-protection systems. Additionally, we will equip our new MC-130J Commando II’s with the ability to conduct terrain following operations and the defensive systems necessary to penetrate, operate, and survive in challenging environments,” Heithold added.
Editor’s note: War reporter Alex Quade has embedded with special operations forces on several combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan during which AC-130s provided close air support and cover fire. In the attached video report, Quade brings you along for a ride onboard a Spectre Gunship live fire mission; it is the gunship and air crew which took care of the teams Quade was with during the fatal downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan in 2007, by a Taliban surface to air missile. That AC-130 mission, that night in Helmand Province between Kajaki and Sangin, is cited as one of the most challenging and dangerous combat search and rescue missions in Operation Enduring Freedom history. The 9-hour mission began with the AC-130 crew assuming tactical control of 17-separate combat aircraft while clearing a pathway for SOF troops pinned down by small arms and RPG fire to secure the crash site. The AC-130 crew stayed in position to silence both anti-aircraft artillery and enemy forces engaging the SOF rescue team within meters of each other. For their actions, the crew received the Jolly Green Rescue Mission of the Year award in 2007.