Combat Control, Shadow Warriors
Donning the red berets, Combat Controllers are the Special Tactics Force’s third branch of specialized ground troops. Working as certified air traffic controllers, Combat Controllers (CCT) specialize in unconventional missions where they assemble air navigation and communication sites anywhere in the world. Deploying by air, land or sea on missions within enemy territory, CCTs establish “assault zones” functioning as parachute drop zones, helicopter or fixed wing landing zones or extraction zones for low altitude re-supply missions. CCTs also establish “recovery zones,” which are used for surface-to-air recovery of personnel or equipment, or ground-based fire control for fixed wing, rotary wing, and AC-130 Gunships. In addition to creating these landing zones, which often require demolitions to clear obstructions, CCTs gather intelligence, conduct surveys, make limited weather observations, and provide critical command and control communications.
First established during World War II, the need for CCT was realized when major airborne assaults fell short of their targets, resulting in missed targets by up to 30 miles. In response to these failed drops, a small parachute scout company of Army pathfinders was organized and trained to deploy to a target before the main assault forces arrived. Once set, they provided visual markers for inbound aircraft using high-powered lights, flares and smoke pots. Their first mission, occurring in September 1943 during the reinforcement of allied troops in Italy, resulted in a huge success. After the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service in September 1947, the Air Force Pathfinders, later called Combat Controllers, were activated in January 1953. Since then, CCTs have played crucial roles in military campaigns across the globe.
Today, CCTs are assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command where they work jointly with Pararescuemen and Combat Weathermen to form Special Tactics teams. Working with Navy SEALs, Marine reconnaissance squads, Army Rangers and Special Forces in “direct action,” airfield seizure and personnel recovery missions, day or night, CCTs maintain high standards of physical fitness and light weapons proficiency in addition to their air traffic control knowledge and skills. CCT training is one of the toughest in the U.S. military. After Air Traffic Control School, a CCT recruit must graduate from the Army Airborne, Combat Divers and Military Free Fall Parachutist Schools. They must also complete the Navy’s Underwater Egress training, the Air Forces’ Basic Survival School, Combat Control School and the new Advance Skills Training Program before becoming a qualified member of Combat Controller.
The U.S. Air Force Advanced Skills Training (AST) is a new 12-month program that uses a “warrior training warrior” philosophy, teaching students the necessary skills for successful service in the U.S. Air Force’s Special Tactics. After the Special Tactics operators finish their technical training, graduate from the Army’s Airborne School and the Air Force’s Basic Survival School and Combat Control School, they advance to AST. There they learn the principles of being part of AFSOC’s Special Tactics. Producing combat-ready Special Tactics operators, AST bypasses the traditional probationary period of most U.S. Special Operations Forces. AFSA caught up with AST instructor, Mr. Ron Childress, long time CCT MSgt Mickey and new CCT and AST student, SrA Jared (whose full names cannot be given due to security concerns).
When asked about the training, Mr. Childress responded by saying, “Tech School, or their specialty school is where they receive the apprentice skill level. AST is where they sharpen the sword, so to speak,” adding, “after the pre-scuba phase, they can ask instructors questions and get answers as part of the mentoring and coaching aspect of the program.” This, perhaps, is one of the key aspects of this “commando training commando” school. Throughout their AST training, students have mentors who have “been there,” coaching and instructing them on what it is like to be in Special Tactics, and what skills they will need in the field. This training is paramount in producing combat-ready operators.
Previously, Special Tactics operators would have to go through an 18-month probationary period before being allowed to participate unsupervised in missions. Graduates of the AST training program come into their field mission-ready. Training Junior NCOs and enlisted airmen, AST takes them to a higher level of maturity. “They become motivated, dedicated and ready to execute the mission,” said long-time CCT MSgt Mickey.
When we asked SrA Jared how he felt about the training, he said, “The AST training was extremely helpful. The hand-me-down experience and tricks-of-the-trade that I learned could not be taught anywhere else with the exception of the field,” adding, “I feel better prepared to do my job and serve my country to the best of my abilities.”
AFSA wasn’t the only one watching this new approach to Special Operations training. Other U.S. Special Operations Forces, such as the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, have been reviewing AFSOC’s AST training program and may implement a similar program into their future training.
While the faces of our enemies may change and their tactics grow more barbaric, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s Special Tactics Air Commandos will help lead the way through this new type of war. Whether they are needed to rescue and recover American hostages, conduct weather reconnaissance for a top-secret mission or seize control of an airfield, they are ready to come to their nation’s call, anytime, anyplace. Even though the spotlight often passes them by and shines on their sister service teams, they are far from the “glory-hounds” or “Rambos’ of Hollywood, preferring to keep their profile low and their success rate high. They conduct their mission and serve their country for the love of their job – for the love of their country.