By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“I am an American Airman. I am a Warrior…My nation’s sword and shield, its sentry and avenger…I will never falter, and I will not fail.”
— The Airman’s Creed, 2007.
On June 17, 2021, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) held its very first graduation ceremony at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, for an all-new, enlisted career field, Special Reconnaissance (SR), awarding the distinctive, pewter-gray beret with its new, Special Reconnaissance crest. The Air Force officially states that, “Special Reconnaissance operators are experts in advanced surveillance and reconnaissance, to include multi-domain, electronic warfare (EW), small, unmanned aircraft systems (mini-drones), long-range marksmanship, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), maritime operations (SCUBA), and alternate, infiltration/exfiltration tactics, techniques, and procedures. SRs are worldwide-deployable, special operators.”
The SR operator career field was created on April 30, 2019, to replace Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWTs), who also wore gray berets, since technological advances in computerization and satellites for weather forecasting have reduced the requirement for human, meteorological assessments. The new emphasis of Special Reconnaissance teams is to provide clandestine infiltration, ground-reconnaissance and surveillance, human intelligence collection, demolitions, long-range marksmanship, short-term, weather forecasting, and advanced, special tactics. They may also carry out direct action (DA), unconventional warfare (UW), and guerilla operations.
SR operators are among the most highly-trained in the U.S. Armed Forces, with training so lengthy, demanding, and arduous that 93 percent of all applicants are eliminated during the complex process. Their various, mandatory courses include:
U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training (BMT): Eight weeks at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. This is just initial, military training for all enlisted personnel.
Special Warfare Preparatory Course (SW PREP): Eight more weeks at Lackland. This prepares candidates both physically and mentally for the rigors of future, special operations duty.
Special Warfare Assessment and Selection (SW A&S): Four additional weeks at Lackland. This is intensive training in field operations, teamwork, swimming, obstacle courses, running, calisthenics, and psychological testing, to select only those candidates most-suitable for further, special operations training.
Special Warfare Pre-Dive (SW Pre-Dive): Four further weeks at Lackland. This is designed to prepare all remaining candidates for the Special Warfare Combat Diver Course, and this course usually eliminates about 30 percent of potential recruits.
Special Warfare Combat Diver Course (NDSTC): Eight weeks at Panama City, Florida. Candidates will learn to use SCUBA gear, and become combat divers, in order to covertly infiltrate into enemy territory.
U.S. Army Airborne School: Three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they complete five static-line, parachute jumps and earn their basic, parachutist rating and badge.
Military Freefall School: Four weeks at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, to learn military freefall parachutist techniques, completing 30 HALO (High-Altitude, Low-Opening) and HAHO (High-Altitude, High-Opening) jumps, and earning their Military Freefall Parachutist Badge.
USAF Combat Survival School: Three weeks at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. This teaches students basic navigation and survival techniques, field evasion, and resistance-to-interrogation techniques.
Underwater Egress: Two days at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, to learn how to escape from a submerged and rotating helicopter in case of a real-world crash over water.
Special Reconnaissance Course: Eight weeks at Keesler Air Force Base Mississippi, to learn the introductory fundamentals of surveillance and reconnaissance, including associated infiltration, environmental (weather) reconnaissance, data collection and transmission, and exfiltration tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Special Reconnaissance Apprentice Course (SRAC): Six months at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina. This is where candidate will learn the field applications of reconnaissance, surveillance, long-range marksmanship, demolitions, communications and signaling, human intelligence gathering, and other combat tasks. Upon completion of this course, they earn the basic, SR skill rating, and the pewter-gray beret with SR crest.
Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training: Six to 12 months at Hurlburt Field, Florida. SR airmen will undergo comprehensive and advanced training on weapons, demolitions training, advanced surveillance and reconnaissance, to include electronic warfare, small, unmanned aircraft systems, long-range marksmanship, all-terrain vehicles, maritime operations, and alternate infiltration/exfiltration tactics, techniques and procedures. Special Reconnaissance graduates are worldwide-deployable, special operators.
Additional Training: Multiple additional courses exist, which continue the advanced development of Special Reconnaissance airmen. Optional training opportunities may later include:
Static-Line Jumpmaster School: Three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Military Freefall Jumpmaster School: Three weeks at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona.
U.S. Army Pathfinder School: Three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia.
U.S. Army Air Assault School: Two weeks, in various locations.
U.S. Army Sniper School: Two months at Fort Benning, Georgia.
U.S. Army Ranger School: Five weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Following all of this extensive, costly, and highly-specialized training, Special Reconnaissance operators are then assigned to one of the eight AFSOC Special Tactics Squadrons (STSs), which are based in Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Washington state, England, and Japan. There are also two Air National Guard STSs, in Kentucky and Oregon.
Special Tactics Squadrons consist of Special Tactics Officers (STOs), Combat Rescue Officers (CROs), Air Liaison Officers (ALOs), Combat Control Teams (CCTs), Pararescue Jumpers (PJs), Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen, and Special Reconnaissance (SR) operators. Interestingly enough, these various career fields wear different color berets, all within the same squadrons. STOs and CCTs wear scarlet (bright-red) berets, CROs and PJs wear maroon berets, ALOs and TACPs wear black berets, and SR operators wear pewter-gray berets. (Note that their British counterparts, the ultra-secret, Special Reconnaissance Regiment, or SRR, wears “emerald-gray” berets. See my three-part, Gunpowder Magazine article on the SRR from August 18th, 25th, and September 1st, 2019, for more-detailed information.)
The 24th STS at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, is the Air Force’s most highly-decorated, ground-combat unit. According to Wikipedia, “The 24th STS provides special operations airmen for the Joint Special Operations Command, including Pararescuemen, Combat Controllers, Special Reconnaissance, and Tactical Air Control Party personnel. They are the Air Force’s Tier-One unit…provided as enablers to…Delta Force and…SEAL Team Six…also trained in conducting classified and clandestine operations, such as direct action, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, hostage rescue, and special reconnaissance.”
One notable member of the 24th STS was Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman (Callsign “Mako-30”), age 36, an Air Force combat controller attached to a six-man, recon team from SEAL Team Six during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, on March 4, 2002. At three o’clock in the morning, Chapman found himself high up on an 11,000-foot-tall mountain, now on foot after their MH-47E Chinook helicopter was badly damaged by enemy ground fire, and coordinating airstrikes against 200 to 300 deeply-entrenched, al-Qa’ida terrorists nearby.
By five AM, the fighting was very close, and literally hand-to-hand, with only Chapman and the SEAL team leader nearby, as they engaged the enemy at point-blank range, and cleared out a small bunker before Chapman was hit by multiple gunshots. MQ-1L Predator-drone, video imagery taken of the incident, and finally released in 2016, showed that John Chapman amazingly survived these initial wounds, even after the SEALs thought that he was dead and departed from the area. Between 5:25 and 6:00 AM, John rose up from unconsciousness, alone on the mountain, and fought off al-Qa’ida attackers, killing at least one with a rifle shot, and another one in hand-to-hand action. Then, he was struck twice in the chest by machine gun bullets, killing him instantly.
He was originally awarded the Air Force Cross, the service’s second-highest decoration for valor, posthumously in 2003, for his combat heroism while the SEALs were still eyewitnesses to his courage, before being mistakenly thought to be dead, and was abandoned on the high mountain top. After a close review of the drone footage, however, Chapman’s posthumous award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2018, and he was posthumously promoted to master sergeant.
His medal citation reads, in part: “Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism…conducting reconnaissance operations in Takur Ghar, Afghanistan…despite coming under heavy fire from multiple directions. He fearlessly charged an enemy bunker, up a steep incline in thigh-deep snow and into hostile fire, directly engaging the enemy…Sergeant Chapman assaulted and cleared the position, killing all enemy occupants. With complete disregard for his own life, Sergeant Chapman deliberately…exposed himself once again to attack a second bunker, from which an emplaced machine gun was firing on his team. During this assault…Sergeant Chapman was struck and injured by enemy fire.
“Despite severe, mortal wounds, he continued to fight relentlessly, sustaining a violent engagement with multiple enemy personnel before making the ultimate sacrifice. By his heroic actions and extraordinary valor, sacrificing his life for the lives of his teammates, Technical Sergeant Chapman upheld the highest traditions of military service and reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
Since September 11, 2001, the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, Air Force STS airmen have received one Medal of Honor (Chapman’s), 12 Air Force Crosses (including STO Captain Barry F. Crawford on May 4, 2010), and 50 Silver Star medals. The latest of these was the Air Force Cross awarded to Staff Sergeant (although he was a senior airman at the time of the incident) Alaxey Germanovich, a combat controller from the 26th STS, on December 10, 2020, for actions above and beyond the call of duty while directing AC-130W Stinger II gunship airstrikes for a U.S. Special Forces team while under intense, hostile fire in Afghanistan on April 8, 2017.
So, just in case you were wondering which of the services is the “toughest,” most of the Air Force jobs within Special Tactics units have a washout rate of about 92 to 96 percent, and yes, that’s higher than U.S. Army Special Forces, or Navy SEALs, or Marine Force Recon, or pretty much anything else you can name. But they’re not as well-advertised, so fewer people know about Air Force special operations, and for the most part, they require a very skillful balance of brains as well as brawn.
For example, STOs and CCTs must be fully-qualified air traffic controllers, a difficult-enough job, mentally, all by itself, even before they learn their elite, special tactics skills. And CROs and PJs must be fully-certified, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and HH-60G/W Pave Hawk rescue helicopter crewmen, even before their extremely hazardous, special operations duties.
Furthermore, in actual, combat action, they’ve been earning more medals for heroism, at a faster rate than any other group of U.S. military members. But again, no one seems to know about them, because most of their missions are highly classified. And, Air Force STS operators also carry the meanest, toughest, most-powerful carbine in service, the FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H CQC battle carbine (tied for first place, alongside the HK417, as the “World’s Most-Powerful Assault Rifle”) with 13-inch barrel, in hard-hitting 7.62mm NATO. (See my Gunpowder Magazine article on the FN Mk. 17, dated February 22, 2021, for more information.)
Much like the Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWTs) that preceded them, SR operators will likely operate in two-to-three-man (no women), SR teams, attached to eight-to-nine-man, Special Tactics Teams (STTs), serving alongside CCT and PJ personnel in combat. They’ve been carefully trained to operate behind enemy lines, independently, autonomously, with little or no supervision, conducting their clandestine missions with the utmost of stealth and secrecy.
AFSOC SR operators typically wear Crye Precision MultiCam field uniforms and related gear, with the pewter-gray beret in garrison, and the Gentex Ops-Core FAST MT Special Operations Forces ballistic helmet on operations. Their preferred footwear includes Merrell Moab-2 (#J06051 Earth) hiking boots (also worn daily by this author for many, many miles), or similar, lightweight, water-resistant boots from other manufacturers.
They’re also equipped with the very latest in secure, tactical radios, modular, ruggedized, computer systems (such as those from Black Diamond Advanced Technology), GPS modules, tactical displays, and other state-of-the-art, electronics gear.
The standard-issue handgun for all AFSOC ground troops is the Glock-19, or Mk. 27, in 9mm Luger. Much has already been written about the Glock-17/19/26 series in 9mm, which are currently used by military forces and police in at least 68 nations worldwide, initially by the Austrian armed forces, but also now by British, Czech, French, German, Icelandic, Indian, Lebanese, Pakistani, Russian, and Slovak Special Forces units. Here in the United States, the compact Glock-19 Gen. 4/5 is now the top choice of U.S. Army Special Forces, Delta Force, Army Rangers, CIA paramilitary operatives, AFSOC, Marine Corps Special Operations Command, Navy SEALs, and the U.S. Secret Service.
The standard carbine has been the Colt M4A1 in 5.56mm for quite some time, often with a SureFire suppressor attached at the muzzle, but recent, combat photographs taken in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria clearly showed a marked preference for the harder-hitting, FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H CQC in 7.62mm NATO, with 13-inch barrel. Sniper rifles have included the FN Mk. 20 and Mk. 20S in 7.62mm NATO.
In 2019, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), including AFSOC, selected the FN Mk. 20S(SCAR 20S) rifle, usually suppressed, in 6.5mm Creedmoor (6.5x48mm) as its new, long-range, sniper rifle. During extensive testing, the 6.5mm Creedmoor, compared to the 7.62mm NATO round, had less recoil, one-third longer, effective range, and at a range of 1,000 meters, it had 30-percent more energy, 40-percent less wind drift, and double the hit probability, so for special operations sniper rifles, at least, it appears to be the wave of the future.
Special Reconnaissance members may carry a wide variety of knifes, usually privately purchased and
owned, into action. The most-common are Leatherman multi-tools and Swiss Army Knives, used strictly as tools, and not for fighting. Daniel Winkler Knives, of Boone, North Carolina, are also quite popular, and expensive. These may include the WK (Winkler Knives) Operator, WK Utility Knife, WK Recon, or WK Tactical Dagger. The Cold Steel SRK (Survival-Rescue Knife) has also been seen with AFSOC special operators, particularly with pararescue (PJ) personnel.
AFSOC STS members also employ various all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles in the course of their duties.
In conclusion, the brand-new, Special Reconnaissance career field is a stellar addition to the Air Force Special Tactics Squadrons, providing highly-trained experts in clandestine, ground-reconnaissance and surveillance, intelligence collection, weather forecasting, demolitions, unconventional warfare, and precision marksmanship for targeting high-value, enemy combatants. This offers Air Force special operators a higher degree of independence and autonomy on the battlefield, enhancing unique, AFSOC contributions to the overall war effort.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.