CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle
Tech. Sgt. Erik Tompson stands next to flight helmets in the Life Support Room of Hurlburt Field.
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer
The average Air Force Special Operations airman or crewman has been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq four to five times, according to Air Force Special Operations Command officials.
“We are spread a little bit thin right now,” said AFSOC Deputy Director of Public Affairs Matt Durham.
The need for special forces in Iraq in 2002 — at the brink of the war — was so dire, an Air Force Special Operations Tactics unit was plucked from training a week prior to graduation and sent to Baghdad, according to Wayne Norrad, a contractor who studies manpower and recruitment at Hurlburt Field, Fla., AFSOC headquarters.
In the war on terror, the stealth, speed and accuracy of U.S. Special Forces is so essential, the Department of Defense has veered from its course. Where other forces are being streamlined, Special Forces are set to grow by 15 percent in the next few years, according to the Department of Defense 2006 Quadrennial Review.
Yet, recruiting men for Air Force Special Tactics has always been a strain, according to Norrad, a man who spent more than 30 years in the Air Force; the last 20, he passed in Air Force Special Operations Tactics.
Roughly 65 percent of all special tactics recruits are lost in the training process, Norrad said.
“We are still failing,” Norrad said.
“That is money wasted in training.”
Air Force Special Tactics is separated into three arms: Pararescue, combat control and combat weather. Each arm is woefully undermanned. Statistics show they hover at roughly 70 percent of their intended capacity.
But pararescuers, combat controllers and combat weathermen are deployed routinely, shadowing other U.S. Special Operations Forces, such as the Navy SEALs and the Rangers.
“A lot of people didn’t know about these groups until very recently,” Norrad said.
“The American public likes short buzz words like the SEALs, so these units often go unmentioned,” he said.
The 720th Special Tactics Group at Hurlburt will likely move some of its assets to Cannon Air Force Base when the Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing assumes ownership of the base, Norrad said. In addition, there is a chance special tactics personnel now stationed at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall in England and Kadena Air Base in Japan will be transferred to Cannon, he said.
Special tactics training is conducted throughout the nation. Recruits jump from base to base, where they are schooled in different skill sets, such as parachuting and diving. Training for the job, depending upon the special tactics branch, can consume one to three years.
Physical training during the recruitment process is intense. Hopefuls spend five days a week engaged in physical activity, and are pushed to the physical limits, often denied sleep. Once a recruit graduates, training continues, although not as intensely.
Women are forbidden from special tactics. Recruits at the very least must have ROTC training.
Historically, 70 percent of recruits fail in dive school, Norrad said.
“We can’t afford to lose people on the battlefield. That is why we have to take them to their breaking point in training,” Norrad said.
Yet Norrad readily admits the recruitment system is broken.
To meet the demand for special tactics personnel, things must be changed, he said.
He has lobbied to shuffle the training process, requiring more in-depth fitness tests before recruits are sent to training schools and moving diving school closer to the start of the training process, so recruits can be weeded out more quickly, and thus save taxpayer dollars.
He also hopes to crack the riddle of success in special tactics.
He wants recruits to undergo psychological tests early on in the recruitment process.
“It isn’t to find out if they are crazy or insane, but to see if their interests are well-suited to (special tactics), if their interests are similar to the intellect, the hobbies of our current officers,” Norrad said.
Often, special tactics graduates have a record of physical performance in sports prior to their training, he said. But there is no formula for identifying who will succeed in special tactics and who will not, Norrad said.
“We don’t really know what we are looking for,” Norrad said.
That is something the military, and Norrad, are still searching for.