The Global War on Terror is—largely out—and Great Power Competition against near-peer rivals like China and Russia is in.
Beijing and Moscow possess competent militaries that, in the event of a conflict, would require an effective, joint approach to defeat.
Along with the rest of the military, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has been reviewing, and renewing where necessary, its concepts to fit the near-peer competition the Pentagon is now placing a focus on. One of the latest concepts the command is employing to that end is the Special Operations Force Generation (SOFORGEN), which is a new Air Expeditionary Force construct aimed at ensuring Air Force special operations units are prepared to meet the nation’s needs.
SOFORGEN: A New Concept For Spec Ops Squadrons
The SOFORGEN model uses four, five-month phases (for a total of 20 months or 1.8 years). The four phases are:
- Available to Commit: This is the peak phase in which Air Commandos are either overseas or ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
- Reset: During this phase, the unit has recently returned from a deployment (or has been removed from the “Available to Commit” phase) and is focusing on training and refitting. Individual Air Commandos get to attend schools during this phase to increase their proficiency.
- Prepare: In this phase, the Air Commandos come together and train as a team, putting their individual training and skills into practice.
- Ready: During this phase, the unit achieves a high level of readiness on its assigned mission sets and tasks that it might encounter on deployment, refining tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Humans Are More Important Than Hardware
In its 2020 Strategic Guidance, AFSOC made the case for its new force generation model. Squadrons would once more be the “beating heart” of the command, the document said, and they would follow a structured and deliberated force generation cycle that aimed to care for and inspire its commissioned and non-commissioned officers at every turn.
“These leaders will focus on the common needs of the unit during each phase of the cycle, from combat to redeployment and reintegration with family and friends. Through this restructure, we will provide combat capability to the joint force in a way that maximizes the opportunity for predictability and stability for our Airmen and their families,” AFSOC’s Strategic Guidance stated.
In addition to its air assets, AFSOC fields commandos on the ground who augment other special operations units or deploy in small teams. These Air Commandos are the Pararescuemen, Combat Controllers, Tactical Air Control Party operators, and Special Reconnaissance operators—who until recently were known as Special Operations Weather Technicians.
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“It’s definitely a positive step for the community. SOF [special operations forces] are notoriously bad for their work-life balance. In the past, we tended to be away from home more than we were home. Think 8 and 9 months on the road, training or in deployment. You can’t have such a heavy schedule and not suffer in your personal life. It takes a very special spouse to keep up with such a difficult job,” a former Air Force Combat Controller told Sandboxx News.
“Anything that makes the schedule of an operator more predictable (within reason, we’re still a warfighting organization with special duties) is a positive step in my eyes,” the former Combat Controller added.
At heart, AFSOC’s new force generation model is investing in and protecting its most precious asset—its people. Aircraft, weapons, and sensors are fine and dandy but in the absence of a futuristic artificial intelligence capability that will operate them, people are essential. And AFSOC’s mentality is in line with that of the wider U.S. special operations community. After all, the first “SOF Truth” out of five is that “Humans are more important than hardware.”
AFSOC has been validating and fine-tuning the SOFORGEN concept. And a recent exercise involving one of the least known special operations aircraft sheds some light on what is going on behind the scenes.
Testing the SOFORGEN Concept
In the closing days of 2021, U-28A Draco aircraft assigned to the 34th Special Operations Squadron deployed from Hulburt Field, Florida, to Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, to test their unit’s “prepare” SOFORGEN phase.
“The exercise is validating all of the training we’ve been doing over the past several months in the ‘prepare’ phase of FORGEN. It’s important because we are exercising our ability to plan for short-notice contingencies while being able to deploy and execute to those at the flight level,” a pilot assigned to AFSOC said in a press release.
The U-28A is a modified version of the single-engine Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that specializes in tactical airborne intelligence and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.
“We have had VALEXs for every deployment. The difference this time is that we are essentially trying to package it in a way that enables the SOFORGEN construct. With SOFORGEN, SOTUs [Special Operations Tasking Unit ] are essentially pre-packaged groups that are able to be deployed or move around and perform a mission function on their own,” 1st Lieutenant Cody, an intelligence officer assigned to the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron’s Intelligence Flight, stated.
With tensions in Eastern Europe sky-high because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U-28A Draco aircraft could find themselves deployed in the thick of it to provide key intelligence to military leaders and policymakers about Russian movements.
But the new concept also applies to old mission sets too. For example, AFSOC units can still deploy in Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia to counter violent extremist organizations.
As the U.S. military enters a new era, concepts such as the SOFORGEN, which use hard-won lessons to address new threats and challenges, will be key to keeping America the world’s sole superpower.