The withdrawal from Afghanistan marks a pivotal moment in the U.S. shift toward Strategic Competition. As an era of nation building ends, a new one begins - with Airmen as Air Force Special Operations Command’s strategic advantage.
The withdrawal of over 120,000 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan during 2021 marked a pivotal moment in the U.S. ongoing transition from combating violent extremism organizations in the Middle East to Strategic Competition with Russia and China. While the Air Force continues to shift its focus away from counterterrorism, China has been fixed on replacing the U.S. in the world order by making strategic investments in rapid innovation of new technologies.
Technology can sometimes give competitors an edge, but the 2015 Human Capital Annex developed by the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force emphasized that for the Air Force to stay the dominant air power of the world, it needs to develop an agile, diverse, and inclusive workforce of Airmen.
Air Force Special Operations Command is investing in their people by empowering critical thinking and creativity to form a new generation of Air Commandos; Airmen that can adapt in unfamiliar and austere locations and who have a range of specific skill sets to contribute towards Strategic Competition.
“A weapons system is only as effective as the person employing it,” said Col. Jocelyn J. Schermerhorn, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing. “It really comes back to, how does that Airman who employs that weapon system see their battlespace, understands how to protect their weapon system and also enables that capability to support the overall efforts of the joint force.”
Recognizing that Airmen are the key asset in maximizing weapons system efficacy to execute AFSOC results that matter most, AFSOC is giving Airmen an opportunity to participate in strategic competitions of their own.
Operationalizing Innovative Thinking
The Evil Genius Competition is one of the ways Airmen are being encouraged to think in terms of a new era of warfare that presents its own unique challenges.
“Our Airmen came back with a number of really clever and disruptive ideas about things that we do to create dilemmas and uncertainty for our adversaries,” said Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Commander of AFSOC. “We ended up with five finalists that the assistant secretary of the Air Force and I sat down and listened to, and we decided to apply funding and advocacy to each one of those five to actually continue to develop the ideas and make them operational.”
In addition to funding competition, the Air Force is also leveraging private sector collaborations to give Airmen the opportunity to create solutions to anticipated problems during Strategic Competition.
Innovation hubs are spaces near installations that allow Airmen to partner with industry. The HSU Innovation Institute, located outside Hurlburt Field, Florida, is an example of a hub that is developing new skills in AFSOC Airmen by allowing them access to private sector resources.
“They learn about things like coding and drones and artificial intelligence. They have this space for additive manufacturing, 3D printing, and Airmen can go over there, learn these skills and essentially solve problems that they may be dealing with in their own workplace,” said Slife. “It’s essentially an empowering tool for our Airmen to use modern technologies to solve their own problems. It's a really fascinating case study in a public-private partnership.”
Through the HSU Innovation Institute, AFSOC Airmen were able to 3-D print personal protective equipment for military and local community members during the beginning stages of COVID-19 mitigation as well as develop full replicas of aircraft weapons systems.
“The full replica of one of our aircraft weapon systems allowed one of our maintenance teams to take apart and reassemble that weapon system without actually taking it offline. So, we were able to continue the training needed operationally while also providing a training capability for our maintenance team,” said Schermerhorn. “That’s just a small example of where our Airmen are taking these capabilities.”
In addition to enhancing the strategic skill sets of Airmen who already serve, AFSOC sets out to recruit new members using AI to determine what attributes and skill sets will be most valuable in the next fight.
Attribution Based Recruiting
“One of the things that we're really focused on at AFSOC is moving more towards an attributes-based recruiting model that allows us to get the Airmen that are going to be most successful in the future operating environment,” said Slife. “The current recruiting model has let us achieve notable successes in the past, but I don't want a recruiting model that recruits more of me if I am not what's going to be successful in the future.”
With the future operating environment shifting geographically, AFSOC is putting emphasis on its need to develop leaders who have the expertise to deploy in small teams to potentially establish new bases and execute missions in austere fields without robust aviation structures.
The Need for Adaptive Leaders
“That’s why there’s this push toward training more adaptive leaders, more independent leaders, so that we don’t have to have a huge support network necessarily, that we can send out small teams and get the same impact down range that we’ve been doing with a much larger force,” said Maj. Andy Chen, 34th Special Operations Squadron, Force Generation Professional Development assistant director of operations.
Within AFSOCs new model of SOFORGEN, or Special Operations Forces Generation, AFSOC is structuring their teams to operate as independent units of individual subject matter experts that can survive anywhere by themselves.
“We need to have SMEs of different types within the same team, and there may be just one person that’s the SME,” said Chen. “So, there needs to be a lot of trust from that person to themselves, which I think is the most important part. During the entire phase of training, people are developing their own confidence in their own capabilities, that then permeates to the entire organization and the mission commander can trust that each of their team members can execute their task(s).”
To become experts, Airmen at the 34th Special Operations Wing are cycling through SOFORGEN and are developing skills to be tactically proficient anywhere in the world.
“Most of us [special tactics operators], all we know is counter-terrorism, so now per the NDS we’re being asked to tackle new challenges,” said Capt. Lawson Allen Jr., 34th Special Operations Squadron chief of tactics. “So, how do we fit into that? How do we apply these tactics into this new realm? Well, adding in professional development and academic opportunities allows us to think outside the box and solve problems differently, that can help on the tactical side.”
Since austere landings are critical to supporting small teams and setting up new areas of military presence in locations with limited infrastructure, pilot training, techniques, and procedures are being updated to reflect these needs.
“Once you’re an expert in the aircraft and understand how to employ it at a top level, then we can be asked to operate in location XY or Z, and all you do is change the scenery, you can still apply the same tactics to any adversary at any location,” said Lawson.
As future challenges emerge during the Strategic Competition, AFSOC plans to continue to meet those challenges with a culture of innovation, opportunity, competence and trust by prioritizing Airmen.
“The heart of our force is our Airmen,” said Slife. “What we have to do is equip, develop and organize the Airmen of the command for that future operating environment. So, 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.”
The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance demands “creative approaches that draw on all the sources of our national power” to include an innovative technological base, enduring democratic values, broad and deep network of partnerships and alliances, and the world’s most powerful military.” AFSOC aligns with this demand by putting opportunities in the hands of Airmen to think outside the box, build new ideas, and develop as teams to redefine the operating environment of the future.