On the Ground With No Support: Why America’s Special Operations Forces Need a Dedicated Armed Overwatch Fleet
June 2014 – Baghdad.
We were treading a thin line, and we all knew it. I was the senior enlisted joint terminal attack controller for the 300-member special operations task force sent to Iraq to quell the rising threat of ISIS—the famed “crisis response force” dispatched to safeguard Baghdad and Erbil and ensure the protection of the U.S. Embassy.
In came America to save the day . . . except, that wasn’t exactly the case. The reality during those first weeks on the ground was that the response force was a sitting duck—just waiting for a repeat of Benghazi, but 300 times over. We deployed a U.S. special operations force to counter a multi-national terrorist army. You would have thought it would be accompanied by at least a contingent of armed aircraft. But you’d be wrong.
ISIS had recruited tens of thousands of fighters, and its armies—well-trained, well-equipped, highly organized, and hyper-aggressive—were rampaging across the region. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops and warfighting infrastructure from Iraq in 2011, the majority of our combat power in the Middle East was in Afghanistan. Military leadership was not keen on shifting airpower into Iraq just to support what was then called an “advise and assist” mission in Baghdad.Air support—the mainstay of modern U.S. warfighting and vital to overwatch, intelligence collection, and close air support for ground troops—was not readily available. The USS George H.W. Bush had been dispatched to the Persian Gulf, but it would be weeks before any proper semblance of air support infrastructure was re-established.
ISIS was steadily encroaching on Baghdad, and our combat power on the ground consisted of some guys with guns and a few gun trucks. A large, organized assault on our special operations teams at the Baghdad International Airport could have been catastrophic—air support from the Persian Gulf would have been too little and probably too late. “Well . . . at least we’ll all die in a blaze of glory like the Spartans,” was daily commentary at the team level.
This 2014 mission was not the only time I saw a detrimental lack of airpower for special operations forces, but it was among the worst. As a JTAC for various teams and task forces spanning combat operations across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria over a 20-year career, this figurative “starving” for air assets was really the norm rather than the exception. It was a regular cadence: high-profile missions were suddenly a “no-go,” timelines for major operations were pushed, Americans and our allies on the ground were endangered, and in some cases killed, when the availability of air assets that just weren’t there would likely have changed the outcome.
Among the most poignant examples was in Niger during a joint mission to capture a commander of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Over their four-day mission, the U.S. Special Forces team did not have persistent armed overwatch assets and was ambushed by an ISGS militia cell. Close air support could not make it overhead until well over an hour after the first shots were fired—after it was too late. Four U.S. Green Berets were killed-in-action.
Critical shortages in air assets for special operations is not simply a problem of the past—it’s happening today. All of these missions have a common thread: they take place in austere environments, often without robust combat infrastructure, and lacking in air assets to meet mission demands. In these high-risk scenarios, armed overwatch aircraft become a game changer. This is why USSOCOM is proposing a dedicated fleet of next-generation aircraft that can be rapidly deployable, capable of short runway take-off and landing, and able to maintain hours-long overhead presence. These could mean the difference between success and failure—or life and death—for special operations teams.
As Congress considers the Armed Overwatch program, it must take into account a core focus of the National Defense Strategy: ensuring the United States is ready and capable of defending against “near peer” military adversaries like Iran, Russia, or China. These adversaries openly vie against us in an ever-fluxing tide of great power competition and strive to dominate the world's fragile and developing nations. If it ever comes to military confrontation, our conventional fleets of advanced strike fighters and bombers will be vital. But they won’t be everything. The next near peer war is sure to be more asymmetric than any wars of the past—a mix of large battles and small-scale special operations and intelligence activities. Our special operations forces will play a vital role in both.
History shows us that victory does not always go to those with superior technology, but those who most effectively merge new technologies into ever-changing methods of warfare. Our model for U.S. airpower must adapt to these evolutions of warfare. USSOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program will offer a next-generation fleet to our special operations forces, enabling them to carry out missions in the most austere and non-permissive environments around the world with greater capability, enhanced survivability, and a higher rate of mission success. And it will equip a next-generation special operations force for the near peer war of the future.
Wes J. Bryant is a retired master sergeant and former special operations joint terminal attack controller in the elite special warfare branch of the Air Force. He is co-author of the book "Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell,” a first-person account of the war on ISIS cowritten by Army Major General Dana J.H. Pittard. Wes is now an author and speaker with a focus on foreign policy, counterterrorism, extremism, and veterans issues. He's held interviews with Soledad O'Brien and Fox News affiliates. You can find his work in Military Times, Task & Purpose, Politico, and Insider, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @wesjbryant or visit his site wesjbryant.com.