U.S. Air Force Special Operators are slightly shifting tactical focus to prepare for major power warfare, raising interesting questions regarding the additional mission scope they will be picking up following fifteen years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The changing threat landscape, requiring some slight training adjustments and new preparation exercises, was cited by the U.S. Special Operations Commander, Army Gen. Richard Clarke during a visit to Joint Base San Antonio, Lackland, Texas.
“The realism and intensity of this training is vital because when these Airmen finish their training, they’ll need to address challenges we may not be able to predict,” Clarke said, according to an Air Force report. “AETC is training leaders who will be asked to address an ever-changing landscape where the fight we’ve engaged in since 9/11 may not resemble the threat our adversaries will present in the coming years. The physical toughness, intellectual capacity and ethical core these Airmen are developing during their training will help the Joint Force address the worldwide range of challenges each geographic combatant commander faces.”
Interestingly, much of the skill set Special Operators will need for great-power war does have many similarities to mission envelopes pursued in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special Operators would need to conduct pararescue missions behind enemy lines, engage in high-risk forward reconnaissance operations, perform tactical air controller targeting and even conduct direct attack air assault ambushes when needed.
Close-in attacks and hostage rescue operations could easily bring great value in the kind of close-quarter battle likely to unfold in any kind of large-scale mechanized force on force engagement. While there are of course many longer-range sensors and weapons to consider when it comes to the possibility of major rival combat, however, future warfare involving large armies by no means removes the need to close-up attack once initial battle formations are breached and attackers penetrate.
Laser painting, spotting or finding ground targets for fighter jets and bombers to attack is a mission arguably even more pressing and important for Special Operators should they be immersed in a major war campaign. Much of this might require the kind of intelligence mission expertise required of Special Operators because they may need to conduct these kinds of operations in secret. Forward-operating clandestine reconnaissance missions, to find targets, destroy supply lines, gather intelligence or launch targeting hit-and-run attacks on high value enemy areas, are all mission capabilities performed and practiced by Air Force Special Operators.
Air Force Special Tactics Squadron warriors painted Taliban targets for air attack assets in Afghanistan, and similar yet slightly more protected or hidden operations would likely be in great demand should there be massive, large-scale warfare.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.