A Marine from 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion illuminates a training target with a laser target designator during a call-for-fire exercise on Eglin Range, Fla., May 21, 2013. The laser identifies training targets for AC-130 Spooky gunship fire.
(U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. John Bainter)
As the sun peeks over the horizon at a remote foreign airfield, a small team of elite airmen descends upon the austere runway for a unique and highly specialized mission.
They have been flying for hours and fighting their internal clocks to stay awake. They are Combat Aviation Advisors — the quiet professionals of the Air Force.
“We have to be strong, but silent,” explains Master Sgt. Richard Smith, senior enlisted advisor for the 6th Special Operations Squadron, based at Duke Field in Okaloosa County. “Our unit symbol is a question mark and our success is heightened because of our anonymity.”
If a question mark symbolizes the work of this unit, it is no wonder so little is known about this elite group of Airmen working to help American allies around the globe.
Air Force Special Operations Command’s Combat Aviation Advisors are rigorously trained Airmen. Unlike other special operations units that rely more on tactical force and lethal weapons, these airmen rely more heavily on varying perspectives to help carry out their mission, conducting special operations activities by, with, and through foreign aviation forces.
“It’s an enjoyable challenge,” explains Lt. Col. Bryan Raridon, 6th SOS commander. “On one hand, we are executing SOF missions and specialties that we are intimately familiar with as Air Commandos. On the other, we are doing it by, with, and through foreign forces; with their equipment, processes, people, and often in their language.”
The work of the 6th SOS is mirrored by their Air Force Reserve counterparts, the 711th SOS, both based at Duke Field near Crestview, Fla. Executing the mission together helps create an even greater footprint of CAA effect in partner nations.
“We never think of ourselves as active duty or reservists. We only present ourselves as a team, because that’s what we are,” said Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Tims, an airdrop specialist with the 711th.
Over the past several years, the need for the work of CAAs has grown. As a result, the CAA presence will increase to facilitate the higher demand for assistance in combat areas throughout the globe.
So what does it take to be a Combat Aviation Advisor?
According to Raridon, the job requires flexibility, empathy, toughness and an understanding that if the job is done right, most victories are quiet victories.
To be a CAA requires a selfless individual that understands how critical teamwork is to accomplishing the mission.
“We don’t champion the individual here, we champion the team,” said Smith.
Many operations take the team into harsh conditions, testing their training and ability to help foreign partners utilize their assets to complete the mission.
“The range in differences between our culture and the rest of the world can be truly vast and in some of the places we go,” said Smith. “If you lack empathy, the [local contact] will pick up on that.”
Being a CAA is not for everyone. To be considered, a person must be an expert in their field, prove language proficient on the defense language aptitude battery, have excellent physical fitness scores and have a personality that can fit with the challenges faced in such a critical position.
“We need people who are charismatic and can help further relationships with our partner nations,” said Master Sgt. Todd Chandler, 6th SOS operations superintendent. “The training is rigorous and challenging. It makes you think outside the box.”
Once selected, a person will complete a demanding 12 to 18 month training program. This program is specifically designed to yield members who are enabled with relevant foreign language skills, aware of the unique cultures represented by partner nations and prepared to provide the assistance needed for the operation.
“People who want to do hard work for their country and do it in a team environment are the ones who are going to do the best here,” said Smith.
From the short-term, 60-day campaigns to the long-term tours that can last several years, CAAs from both the 6th and 711th SOS work to be ambassadors of Special Operations Forces across the globe.
“One of the most rewarding things [about this job] is working with partner nations to get them where they need to be,” said Chandler. “The experiences you get are great.”