The U.S. Air Force plans to double the number of Combat Aviation Advisors it sends to train partners on special operations missions at a time when the Defense Department's footprint in austere environments has come under scrutiny.
Under guidance in the National Defense Strategy, Air Force Special Operations Command is preparing to grow each of its teams, developing a planned total of 352 total force integration advisors over the next few years, officials said. The CAA mission, under Special Operations Command, has about half that now.
"This is really a second line of effort for [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis," said Lt. Col. Steve Hreczkosij, deputy director of Air Advisor operations at AFSOC.
Military.com spoke with Combat Aviation Advisors here during a trip to the base in May 2018, accompanying Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
"This is AFSOC's foreign internal defense force," Hreczkosij said, referring to the U.S. mission to provide support to other governments fighting internal threats such as terrorists, lawlessness or drug activity.
The goal is to sustain five year-round advisory sites around the world by fiscal 2023, Hreczkosij said.
"That might mean five countries, that might mean five major lines of effort … but that is our resourcing strategy goal to influence five locations," he said.
An elite unit
The expansion comes at a time when the U.S. military is operating in smaller teams in remote regions of the world such as Africa and Southeast Asia. But the move doesn't necessarily indicate plans to work in additional countries and the idea isn't to make the force permanent.
Still, officials know it takes time to train partners and allies, such as the Afghan National Security Forces, who are employing A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft as well as Pilatus PC-12NG planes converted into intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
Four A-29 Super Tucanos arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb)
While Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command work with partner nations in similar ways, Combat Aviation Advisors are the U.S. military's most advanced team to train foreign partners battling tough scenarios, said Lt. Col. Cheree Kochen, who is assigned to the Irregular Warfare Plans division at the Air Force Special Operations Warfare Center.
"This is the advanced flying — flying on night-vision goggles, airdrop, infiltration and exfiltration" as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, she said.
"We are authorized to get in partner nation aircraft and fly on their missions," Hreczkosij said. "We integrate, we embed. We live in their squadron building. Our approach is an enduring and integrated approach to make sure they really embed this technique, mission or equipment into how they do business."
The air commando unit also sets the agenda for how host nation troops should learn and equip themselves based on U.S. and host nation goals.
"We also do security force assistance, which is kind of the catch-all term for mil-to-mil partnerships," Hreczkosij said. "We provide that last tactical mile."
The support is "about SOF mobility, ISR advising and armed reconnaissance. We're certainly not dropping bombs," he said, adding, "it's not an attacking sort of mission. It's more of a 'target of opportunity,' then you can see it."
Why not contractors?
Not all partnerships are the same. NATO special operations forces and those in more austere environments vary in training, skill level and mission set, officials said.
Countries CAA troops regularly deal with include Afghanistan, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritania, Mali, Tunisia, Chad, and the Philippines.
"We don't care what type of airplane our partners are flying," Hreczkosij said.
The unit is, however, looking to acquire more C-208s, dubbed AC-208s when equipped with Hellfire missiles, here at Hurlburt to practice on and or take as trainer aircraft to countries eager to build a force of their own.
AGM-114N Hellfire missile (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Weston A. Mohr)
The unit commonly uses PC-6, C-208 and PC-12NG ISR aircraft; C-145/M-28, BT-67 and C-308 mobility aircraft; and AT-802, AC-235, and AC-208 armed recon aircraft.
Kochen said an upcoming project includes operations in Nepal, in which advisers are taking C-145 Skytrucks retired from nearby Duke Field in Florida and giving members maintenance training before aerial operations begin.
It isn't uncommon for contractors to have a role in host nation troops' basic pilot training either in the U.S. or overseas, she said.
But using contractors lacks "the integrated piece. It's why we try to partner with a ground SOF unit so we can tie the two together. Contractors don't necessarily have those relationships with the ground SOF that we do," Kochen said.
Hreczkosij agreed. "Contractors aren't in the current fight, so they don't get the current [tactics, techniques, and procedures] with other forces in the field, and they don't always have the trust of the partner nation," he said. "If I'm sitting across from, say, an airman in sub-Saharan Africa ... and we're both wearing a uniform, we have a common understanding."
Without naming the region, Kochen discussed a case in which contractors were overly bullish about their training, sometimes anticipating that the foreign trainees could learn faster on an aircraft than they actually could. It's led to a few crashes in recent years because "the country was doing tactics that were a little bit dangerous for them for their skill level," she said.
Hreczkosij added, "There's a place for contractors. It's just not in this place."
Standing on their own
AFSOC's 6th Special Operations Squadron, along with the Reserve's 711th Special Operations Squadron out of Duke Field, make up the only Combat Aviation Advisor mission in the Air Force.
There are 16 Air Force Specialty Codes within the mission, including instructors, pilots, maintainers, and Tactical Air Control Party airmen, among others. Team members can speak more than a dozen different languages.
While the job dates back to World War II, the unit's true genesis dates to Vietnam, Hreczkosij said, when the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron was dispatched to Southeast Asia to train the Vietnamese and Cambodian air forces to leverage older aircraft in counter-insurgency and military assistance during the war.
B-26B over Vietnam.
It wasn't until the 1990s when the Air Force would again start using air commandos as a foreign internal defense force for operations across the globe.
Both Hreczkosij and Kochen were part of the 6th SOS before moving to the Air Force Special Operations Warfare Center headquarters and have been in the mission for more than a decade.
Kochen said CAAs want to work with as many countries as they can, but are turning away work due to demand.
"We get a long list, and we can only do one-third of what we're being asked to do," she said.
The dwell-deployment rate, however, is on par with the Air Force's current deployment schedule, Hreczkosij said, adding the units are not overtasked at this time.
Kochen reiterated that their work goes only so far before the foreign partner has to step in and take over. "There's no point in sending guys over" to a country they've been working with for a while, such as Afghanistan, because "our guys would only be getting in their way," she said, referring to training the Afghan Special Mission Wing on PC-12NG ISR operations.
"Thirty months later here, they are doing 15 sorties per day and night, providing a combat effect to the organic larger Afghan air force," Hreczkosij said of the Afghan ISR unit.
"They're able to give their guys check rides without us being there anymore," Kochen said. "We give them a capability that we can just leave and hopefully they can just fight their own wars.
"That's the goal. That we don't have to send U.S. forces over there. The goal is to set up a sustaining, capable unit that can continue doing that same mission," she said.
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @military.com on Twitter.
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