USAF European Special Operations

RAF Mildenhall, UK is a home base of the United States Air Force (USAF) 352 Special Operations Wing (SOW) flying the CV-22B Osprey and the MC-130J Commander II. The unit is scheduled to move to Germany in few years, the country where the unit was raised in 1964. Vayu recently visited and had a closer look at the unit which operates mainly after daylight. 

Mission

The 352 SOW is part of the US Air Force Special Operation Command (AFSOC) with its headquarters at Hulbert Field, Florida USA. AFSOC also employs the other regional, not US continent based, 353 Special Operations Group at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The AFSOC organises, trains and equips airmen to execute global special operations and provides Air Force Special Operations Forces (SOF) for worldwide deployment and assignment to regional unified commands. The command's SOF are composed of highly trained, rapidly deployable airmen, conducting global special operations missions ranging from precision application of firepower, to infiltration, exfiltration, resupply and refueling of SOF operational elements. The Mildenhall 352 SOW plans and performs specialised operations using their advanced aircraft, tactics and air refueling techniques to transport and resupply military forces. Furthermore, infiltrating, exfiltration and resupplying of Special Forces by air drop or air land, intruding politically sensitive or hostile territories. Therefore the aircraft fly primarily missions at night to reduce probability of visual acquisition and intercept by airborne threats.

Aircraft

In 2012, upgradation of 352 SOW started and the first 67th SOS called “Night Owls” was transformed into a brand new MC-130J “Commando II” aircraft. The MC-130J is a two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics, multifunctional liquid crystal display, head-up displays, improved defensive, navigation, refueling and communication systems, as well as new powerful engines. The crew consists of two loadmasters and a Combat Systems Officer (CSO). The CSO manages the mission and integrates systems and crew with the aircraft commander to collectively achieve and maintain situational awareness and mission effectiveness. The other squadron, 7th SOS, replaced its MC-130H “Combat Talon II” aircraft by the complete new tilt-rotor CV-22B “Osprey”. With the unique characteristic to take-off and land vertically and turn its two engines into a normal horizontal flight it increased its speed and operational range considerably, ideal for SOF ops. The CV-22 has a pilot, co-pilot and two flight engineers/loadmasters. The aircraft can carry up to 24 seated Special Forces and can be aerial refueled by the MC-130Js at low altitude to expand the mission range. For self protection, a .50 machine caliber gun is mounted at the rear end ramp and operated by one of the flight engineers. The USAF Special Operations Command schedules to have 51 Osprey’s in operation by 2019, of which 10 are now in use at the 7th SOS at Mildenhall. 

Back to Germany

In 2015, the US government launched a cost cutting plan to re-shape the European structure into a leaner organisation. As per the drafted plan, the current Mildenhall units like the 352 SOW would re-locate to Spangdahlem, Germany, which is in fact close to the units activation location at Sembach AB in 1964. It is expected that the 352 SOW will move around 2022. However, a detachment is already preparing steps required for the re-location such as construction work and concurrently also planning of the logistic operation of moving men and equipment. One of the preparations was to capture the acoustic signature of the CV-22 in the different configurations it can fly in. For this reason, Osprey visited Spangdahlem AB several times for acoustic tests. Various aircraft maneuvers, such as approaches and take-offs at various heights and directions, hovering and taxing were executed and monitored under responsibility of German Defence command, partnering with USAF. The outcome will be used to develop noise models that will help establish noise protection zones around Spangdahlem. 

Although the 352 SOW continues its regular training flights out of Mildenhall, simultaneously the unit is also focusing on preparing themselves for the future. Germany is being visited now more often and partnership with German SOF units has increased. For example, recently concluded autumn Special Forces exercise “Nighthawk 2018” at Karup Air Base, Denmark, where several Ospreys and a MC-130J trained closely with German CH-53G’s and EC-645T2’s of “Kommando Spezialkräfte – KSK” (German special forces command)  for two weeks.

Text and photos: Peter ten Berg 

Mildenhall 7th SOS flight line with CV-22B’s rotors in horizontal and vertical position