FORT IRWIN, Calif. --
As night fell, two special operations reconnaissance teams made up of Special Tactics Airmen with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron based out of Pope Army Airfield, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, maneuvered to separate locations in what is known as “the box.” Their mission was to infiltrate more than 30 miles into enemy territory undetected, provide information on the enemy, and call in possible threats to facilitate movement of joint forces.
For 10 solid days from Aug. 30 to Sept. 9, the Special Tactics Airmen teamed up with the U.S. Army 3rd Special Forces Group, also from Fort Bragg, and the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, for NTC 18-10. A simulated conflict where conventional forces wage war against one another, NTC 18-10 was an intense, realistic and complex training scenario to validate their interoperability in the world’s largest force-on-force training at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, California.
Due to their smaller footprint, special operations forces are often used to shape an operating environment to facilitate a larger, conventional way to move forward on the battlefield, also known as a scheme of maneuver.
According to Lt. Col. Randall Harvey II, commander of the 21 STS, over the last 10 years the nature of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely been SOF-centric. As a result, the crucial link between SOF and conventional forces, often known as integration, interoperability, and interdependence (I-3), may have been diminished.
As mentioned in the 2018 National Defense Strategy signed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. has shifted priorities of focus from defeating Violent Extremist Organizations to the Great Power Competition.
To this end, relearning how to integrate SOF in order to best support conventional forces will be very important, Harvey said. One of the main objectives of NTC 18-10 was to reinvigorate that relationship.
“Our role out here, first and foremost, was to validate our own training for our deployment because we wanted the most realistic scenario possible,” said a Special Tactics Officer and Troop Commander with the 21 STS. “The second thing we wanted to do was demonstrate our capabilities to our joint peers, both special operations and conventional. In doing so, we are providing that I-3 link (U.S. Army Special Operations Command) is looking for between special operations and conventional force.”
Not only does validating tactical training benefit their own Special Tactics team, but it gives confidence to Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd SFG because both units will be deploying together in the future. Alpha Company will be the battlespace owners downrange, therefore demonstrating their capability while training together helps build trust. This prepares the teams for seamless, downrange operations together and allows them to hit the ground running.
“Any time that we get to work with a Special Tactics element and (conventional) forces is going to help because our missions are always going to be mutually supporting,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Scott Siegfried, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment commander, whose unit is based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and was also part of the exercise. “The fact they get an opportunity to train with us and we get an opportunity to train with them, I think both elements are going to do better in the future.”
In the NTC training scenario, ST and the BCT worked together to seize terrain and secure resources for an allied nation, who were threatened by a mutual enemy. By working together, the Special Tactics Officer said they helped the allied nation defend their borders and maintain sovereignty.
“We, as Special Tactics, conducted special reconnaissance in support of the brigade combat team,” the Special Tactics Officer said. “We acted as an early network and forward observers by highlighting enemy location, their disposition and composition, and where they were moving. That gave the brigade a huge advantage because they could maneuver onto the enemy.”
Not only can ST provide early intelligence to the conventional forces from inside enemy territory, but they have several ways to move about the battlefield undetected due to their small size and capabilities. Siegfried said that maneuver capability and real time intelligence gave the brigade flexibility and helped them with where and how to employ their forces.
“What this team allowed us to do is gain intelligence early on, build a plan of action that’s more suitable for the environment that we’re going into, and then be able to execute with more precision,” Siegfried said. “What that allows us to do is have less of an environmental impact, less of a human impact and really just targeting those entities that are confrontational.”
Additionally, because ST are experts in integrating air and ground capabilities while providing reconnaissance, the Special Tactics Officer said they were also able to strike targets with precision fires, slowing down the enemy and enabling the brigade to rapidly seize and hold key terrain.
NTC 18-10 provided Air Force Special Tactics an opportunity to not only demonstrate their inherent capability that is well-suited for this type of operation, but also fill the much-needed gap between conventional forces and SOF.