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Air Force Special Operations looks to reinvent itself on the cheap

Lt. Gen. James Slife (US Air Force/Released)

Long known for supporting ground operations, Air Force Special Operations Command is now looking to plague adversaries in new ways—and to do it on the cheap, the force’s commander says.

That will mean creating new capabilities and finding new uses for things either already in the inventory of AFSOC or easily obtainable, Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife told the Global SOF Foundation’s Air Warfare Symposium in Florida last week.

By next year, for instance, AFSOC’s Commando II Amphibious Capability project aims to turn its signature C-130 airlifter into an amphibious plane that can take off and land on water.

“We’re in a good place with this,” Slife said.

AFSOC is also working with the Air Force Research Lab on Rapid Dragon, which will enable a cargo plane to drop a pallet of AGM-158 JASSM missiles from its back ramp, fire them off in midair, and put 450-kilogram warheads on targets more than a hundred miles away. C-130s will get packs of six JASSMs; C-17s, packs of nine. A successful test in December sank a barge in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why drop cruise missiles on pallets out of cargo planes when you can just shoot them off of the wings of fighter jets?

“You don’t have to plan to shoot cruise missiles out of C-130s and C-17s, but if your adversaries have to honor every cargo airplane as a potential high-volume, precision-fires platform, it creates different kinds of problems for our adversaries,” Slife said.

Silfe said that AFSOC will have to figure out how to create those new problems under tighter budget constraints. Unlike other parts of the U.S. military, and particularly research and engineering, the budget for Special Operations Command isn’t getting bigger as the military moves away from the use of special operators in places like the Middle East and looks to bulk up conventional service components to better deter China and Russia.

Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn, who leads the 1st Special Operations Wing, said AFSOC welcomes new technologies but must focus on adapting existing planes and gear.

“We will always need to advance and look at different technologies and how we employ them. And that will be a continuous theme. But anything that we have in the pantry has got to come out. We’ve got a limited budget and there’s only so much we can do so,” Schermerhorn said at the event.

Slife said all this will require a culture shift for pilots, maintainers, and crew. “In the force of today, there is nobody below the rank of colonel or chief master sergeant that has lived in an AFSOC that has done anything other than support missions on the ground,” he said.

But AFSOC’s future depends on allowing airmen to work with innovative platforms on their own and giving commanders more authority to implement solutions, Schermerhorn said.

She recalled watching maintainers at Joint Base Andrews improvise after dropping a single screw that slowed down an important repair job.

“They figured out a way to create their own wrench…and it’s a $1 part that enabled them to reduce the time it took to make those changes” from a half-hour to five minutes, she said.


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