Air Force Special Operations Command has made significant changes to their deployment tempo that will allow Airmen to have designated time to build resiliency and work towards career and life goals. These changes should help them shift their focus from counter violent extremist missions to preparing for the great power competition.
Over the last two decades, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has had one of the highest deployment tempos in the Air Force. The thousands of missions and accomplishments resulting from these deployments remain largely in the shadows, as these Airmen take pride in being Quiet Professionals. However, pride and professionalism have a price.
Consistent deployments to execute counter-terrorism operations caused many Airmen within AFSOC to leave their personal lives and career ambitions on the back burner.
As the U.S. Air Force enters a new era of great power competition against China and Russia, the AFSOC commander is making unprecedented changes to the major command, including a renewed emphasis on mental health, resilience and deliberate development.
“What we found after 9/11 was that we had to become a force that could deploy and just stay deployed. AFSOC became the most deployed MAJCOM in the Air Force; the installations that are our power projection platforms at Hurlburt and Cannon are the most deployed installations in the Air Force,” said Lt. Gen Jim Slife, AFSOC commander. “When we look at the future and where we are today, we realize that the force that we built over the last 20 years, which has served us extraordinarily well, is not actually the force we’re going to need in the future operating environment.”
“When I say that, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to throw away all the airplanes and go buy new ones, that’s not what I’m talking about,” explained Slife, who had his first AFSOC related assignment in 1992. “The heart of our force is our Airmen. That is our competitive advantage in AFSOC. So, what we have to do is equip, develop and organize the Airmen of the command for that future operating environment. When I say we have to become something different, what I mean is we have to help our Airmen become what the nation is going to need them to be over the coming years.”
To fulfill its role in the National Defense Strategy and answer Gen. Charles Q. Brown’s call to Accelerate Change or Lose, the Air Force as a whole is moving towards the Air Force Force Generation model (AFFORGEN) that will change the way squadrons deploy. AFSOC has created a similar model that suits their unique mission.
“Force Generation is this concept of training and developing the next generation of AFSOC warriors and leaders to face the next challenges we’re going to have,” said Maj. Andy Chen, 34th Special Operations Squadron, Force Generation Professional Development assistant director of operations. “For the last 20 years we've been fighting a specific type of conflict, the counter violent extremism/counter-insurgency conflict and we're transitioning toward the great power competition. So, that takes not just a change in how we train people and get them ready, but also a change in mindset.
“SOFORGEN stands for Special Operations Forces Generation and the overall plan is basically to give more time back to the squadron teammates so they have time to pursue their personal and professional goals,” Chen explained. “Then, also give them more time to prepare for the next fight. It's basically a 20-month cycle broken down into four phases.”
The cycle begins post deployment with the RESET phase, where Airmen have the opportunity to focus on resilience and reintegrating into family life.
“This is the time for people to regroup, reconnect with themselves and their families and for them to pursue professional educational opportunities. When we say that human capital is our most important resource, the keyword there, I believe, is human,” Chen emphasized.
“We've been looking at our aircrews kind of like functional mission assets for a very long time. That's by necessity. We've been very busy for the last 20 years and people just come back from deployment and then get ready for the next one. Unfortunately, there has been a trade-off with a full spectrum of readiness. If we say that human capital is important, we have to focus on the holistic look at a human, not just the technical expertise, but their aspirations, their career ambitions and what they want for themselves and their families.”
After the RESET phase, Airmen train together during the PREPARE phase, orient themselves to conduct their mission globally during the READY phase and are certified and primed to deploy when they reach the COMMIT phase.
The 34th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) is the first to go through the new SOFORGEN cycle and is currently in the PREPARE phase. Capt. Rey Toledo, 34th SOS U-28 instructor pilot and assistant flight commander, ensures his squadron is properly trained up.
“We're in the middle of the PREPARE phase right now and we're gearing up to make sure that we're ready for the COMMIT phase,” Toledo illustrated. “What that looks like from the instructor core is that we are training everyone else in our flight to make sure they are proficient for those different skill sets that we advertise going down range. So, it's sort of a crawl, walk, run construct to where we start off with the easier mission sets and they get more and more complicated as we lead up to the validation and culmination exercise. What that looks like in the actual squadron, classrooms and flights is there's a lot more deliberate development from the top down as far as quantitative training objectives and how we measure ourselves from week to week.”
Since the 34th SOS is the test bed for SOFORGEN, this is Toledo’s first time experiencing it as a leader and a benefactor of the program. Toledo has deployed three separate times conducting the U-28 mission and commented on the kinks in the new system.
"Since we are the first squadron to do this, it comes with a set of challenges,” Toledo expounded. “I understand that there's manning issues and we're still trying to figure out how to get everyone through different upgrades while still balancing the individual side of the reset phase and taking leave. I think that moving forward with lessons learned between the four squadrons that we have, we'll be able to implement this a lot better.”
While recognizing that the SOFORGEN cycle has room for improvement; Toledo also commented on its value and some of the challenges that come with being a Quiet Professional.
“I think that the price of being a Quiet Professional is finding someone to talk to,” Toledo recalled. “A lot of the mission sets that are executed are not the easiest ones, but I think the squadrons and AFSOC as a whole have done a good job of making sure to support the individual, whether it's with mental health or with human performance. I think SOFORGEN specifically tailors the reset phase to take care of the individual more and I think it's facilitating it well.”
In addition to the emphasis on Airmen’s aspirations, AFSOC’s four-phase force generation cycle will aid Airmen by ensuring they’re mentally and tactically equipped to perform against near peer adversaries in austere environments.
“Over the last 20 years, I will say about only a couple years after 9/11, we started establishing big presences in several countries,” Chen explained. “We're used to going into established locations where we have nice runways and where we have established support.”
Agile Combat Employment
Chen explained that established support may not be available at the start of the great power competition. Airmen will be charged with laying the foundations at these locations to be culturally aware and sensitive because the environment they’re operating in may not be politically or diplomatically permissive.
Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, will help eliminate this concern by allowing Airmen to perform any operation anytime, anywhere. ACE is an operational concept that requires networks of well-established and austere air bases, multi-capable Airmen, pre-postured equipment, and airlift to rapidly deploy and maneuver combat capabilities throughout the theater of war.
“Traditionally, you have Airmen who are really technically proficient in their mission set and that is already a huge task. In the next fight, we may need to up their understanding of the battlespace even higher to a political and diplomatic level,” explained Chen, who also serves as a Foreign Area Officer. “What they do, what they say, how they act, how they carry out their mission, how they carry themselves, how they interact with our foreign partners in neutral or even hostile territories may have strategic and political impacts. That's why we need to train these leaders and Airmen to have that mindset, to be prepared, to handle themselves accordingly and have the knowledge, experience and expertise to still operate technically proficient, but also have that strategic diplomatic mindset; because those things have consequences.”
Chen explained his point of view that in the next era of great power competition there are nations that have not yet aligned with the U.S. or its adversaries but could be swayed to one side or the other through public discourse, not just military action.
"With the advent of social media and communications technology, we've realized that the actions of even people who are the average social media user, can have strategic impacts because what they do is broadcasted and shared around the world,” Chen illustrated. “Once that optic gets out it can be manipulated by our adversaries, or used by ourselves to bolster our message. So, it's definitely a double edged sword. Specifically for the U-28 or just AFSOC aircrews in general, as of right now I wouldn't say there is an overemphasis on that. I think we're probably at the nascent stage of learning about the strategic impact of individual Airmen's actions in the great power competition environment. “
Chen cited the reaction to a photo of hundreds of Afghanis inside a C-17 during the evacuation mission at Kabul Airport. Initial reactions were very mixed because while some people felt it wasn’t safe, others felt the U.S. was doing everything they could to ensure they would get everyone out ahead of the rapidly approaching deadline.
“I think the most striking part is sometimes our actions based on our best intentions can be spun by our adversaries or sometimes just the general public who are not on the U.S's side,” Chen elaborated. “There are always haters out there that just want to criticize. They will use that message and spin it how they want and so a lot of the double edged sword nature of this is based on intent of the actors and how they want to use this information.”
"I cannot imagine how difficult it was for those C-17 crews to make the decisions they did when both the lives of people and mission success were on the line and intertwined together,” Chen digressed. "Those are the moments I think training and education is crucial to mission success, because that's when the perception of how Airmen and military members representing the United States become very important. If not carefully managed, those can be seen in a bad light."
The Air Force is changing to ensure Airmen can thrive in these difficult and increasingly complicated scenarios.
For AFSOC, the implementation and execution of the SOFORGEN deployment cycle and updates to their tactics, technologies and procedures will aid every Airman in being ACE ready and relevant in the great power competition.