How U.S. Air Force Special Warfare Units Are Preparing for the Future

How U.S. Air Force Special Warfare Units Are Preparing for the Future

They are focusing on the human aspect of readiness in addition to having good, reliable technology.

Rescuing hostages under enemy fire, jumping out of planes into “hot” combat zones, rappelling from helicopters down into rough seas or conducting high-risk clandestine reconnaissance missions in enemy territory are all missions Air Force Special Warfare forces are expected to perform. 

The idea is to not merely “perform” a mission of this kind but rather “excel” at the highest attainable human performance level to optimize lethality, mental acuity and physical strength, among other things. Such goals are the focus of the Air Force’s Special Warfare Training Wing, a unit which is now making a more decided push to emphasize, refine and massively enhance human performance.

“We take care of our aircraft in a comprehensive way and now we are looking more human weapons systems as well, exploring how we fuel the body and perform better to be elite,” Lt. Col. Shawnee Williams, Commander, Air Force Special Warfare Human Performance Squadron, told reporters during a special event.

The overall strategy is what trainers call holistic, meaning it focuses on physical conditioning, mental focus and nutrition as well as less tangible variables such as human psychology, emotional stability and, perhaps most of all, resilience, stress management response and adaptability. 

“We need Special Warfare Officers to be adaptable in the operational environment. We want to give them a skill set they can use to increase critical thinking on the fly in the field,” Williams said. 

While upon initial consideration one might not instantly equate the idea of a human being as a weapons system, yet that is entirely the point. What is the mix of dynamics, factors and variables, across the entire spectrum, necessary to train elite warriors to excel for careers as long as twenty-years or more?

Optimizing human performance, Air Force developers and trainers explained, involves a need to effectively blend in technology and weave impactful innovations throughout the training process to enhance man-machine interfaces. Part of this specifically involves exposing trainees to high levels of stress as a way to train warfare behavior. 

“We constantly interface with technology to adjust to algorithms to improve operational capability,” Williams said. 

Building optimal human performance characteristics is naturally fundamental to both counterinsurgency or low-intensity conflict as well as applicable to major power warfare. Forward Air Controllers, or Special Tactics Squadron officers need exceptional mental sharpness as well as an ability to integrate cognitive focus with fast-emerging new technologies. Finding and “lighting up” or “laser painting” targets from ground areas less visible from the air is a high-risk mission closely associated with the scope of Special Warfare Officers, who often perform clandestine targeting missions from within hostile, highly dangerous areas. These skills would be greatly needed in any kind of great power war given that adversaries may deliberately use terrain features or other tactics to obscure overhead detection from cameras or electronic sensors. 

“These Airmen integrate air, space, and cyber power with special operations and conventional forces to provide global access, precision strike, and personnel recovery capabilities,” an Air Force statement said. 

Kris Osborn is the 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.

Image: Reuters