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    24th Special Tactics Squadron: Spear of the Sky

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    The 24th Special Tactics Squadron is an Air Force and JSOC special mission unit responsible for providing air support for special operations.

    When America’s most elite special operations forces require advance coordination of air assets, direct fire missions via close air support (CAS), the recovery of downed personnel in enemy territory, or advanced battlefield medical care, there is one unit they turn to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (24th STS). Also known as Task Force White, the 24th STS is an elite group of airmen with the sole purpose of supporting and enabling other special mission units (SMUs) within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

    Emblem of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron. (Source)

    Though not as well known as their Army or Navy counterparts, the 24th STS serves an integral role not only as an independent special operations group but also as a support group. The Special Tactics Squadron is also noticeably older than other special forces groups. Their origin dates back to World War 2, prior to the US’s adoption of a widespread special operations doctrine.

    1. History of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron

    The formation of the 24th STS dates back to WWII when the squadron originally went by the name 24th Air Corps Interceptor Control Squadron. (Source) The squadron at the time worked primarily towards the coordination and command of interceptor squadrons.

    Like many special operations groups, they went through different names since their inception, such as the 24th Pursuit Group and the San Francisco Air Defense Wing. (Source) The 24th’s assignment to Pacific coastal defence near the end of WWII earned it these names among many. Throughout these assignments, the 24th focused on the coordination of air assets across different bases and theatres.

    This initial mission would begin to shape the contemporary function of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, tying its expertise in aircraft usage with the modern doctrine of highly adaptable special operations forces.

    2. Doctrine

    The modern 24th STS is, like other SMUs, assigned to its purpose because of its unique and highly effective skill set. For the 24th, this special skillset is the coordination and implementation of airpower, a core component of modern US military doctrine. Air dominance and control over any area of operation has long been a primary concept in American air doctrine, dating back to WWII. “Owning the skies” is a critical aspect of manoeuvre warfare. To this day, focus on both global reach and power for its air forces remains an essential part of US military air doctrine (Source).

    The primary purpose of the 24th STS is to help further this doctrine and ensure that US airpower is fully utilized alongside ground-based special operations forces.  However, unlike their comrades in Delta Force and DEVGRU, the 24th STS is not solely a direct combat-oriented team. It carries with it a number of purposes, including airfield reconnaissance, assessment and control, personnel recovery and triage, joint terminal attack control, and even humanitarian efforts (Source). The 24th’s command over air assets in the field makes it more than a tactical powerhouse for JSOC, it serves as an all-around specialized strategic support. Within each of their specializations, there is a range of skills and applications that come into play.

    Men fast roping out of a helicopter.
    24th Special Operations Wing conducts fast-rope training as part of training exercise Emerald Warrior 16. Photo by Senior Airman Trevor McBride Image via DVIDS (Source)

    3. Organisation

    While other JSOC  forces are separated into specific force structures, the organization of the 24th is less rigid. For the most part, the special operations airmen of the 24th are attached to other SMUs within JSOC. Rather than working in teams of Airforce personnel, 24th STS operators will work independently as enablers for operational elements from units like DEVGRU and Delta Force. Members of the 24th STS will be attached to a unit and deployed alongside them. However, the 24th STS has an incredibly high uptempo due to its specialized skills and wide operational capabilities. During Operation Gothic Serpent aka Black Hawk Down, the 24th STS had only 11 operators deployed (Source)

    3.1. Force Organisation:

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    The exact composition of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron can be difficult to discern. They exist within the 24th Special Operations Wing and subsequently within the 724th Special Tactics Group. The nomenclature of the Airforce’s special operations force structure can be quite difficult to navigate, likely by design. Similar to how SEAL Team 6’s name was originally meant to confuse Soviet intelligence. The 24th also exists alongside a series of other special tactics squadrons, all of which are composed of special operations airmen. However, only the 24th STS serves to augment and enable the various special mission units within JSOC.

    There are two primary operational jobs within the 24th Special Tactics Squadron: Pararescue Jumpers (PJs) and Combat Control Teams (CCTs).

    3.1.1. Pararescue Jumpers: That Others May Live

    Donning a maroon beret, PJs aka Green Feet can fulfil a variety of roles within Airforce special operations. As experts in downed personnel recovery, they conduct both combat and humanitarian missions primarily depending on which squadron they are assigned to. However, within the 24th STS, they primarily fill the role of a combat medic with a highly diverse skill set.

    Maroon beret with a PJ flash.
    The maroon beret worn by PJs. (Source)

    Medics are often in short supply, even in conventional units. A medical emergency or a family crisis can mean that a team of operators no longer have a medic. Alternatively, special mission units might want to bolster their medical capabilities with an extra hand or with a medic who has a more diverse skill set than what they have integral to them. 

    PJs train a variety of medical skills not common for conventional or special operations medics. They are trained to use extraction devices like hydraulic extrication rescue tools aka the “jaws of life” and circular saws. PJs train in high-angle and aquatic rescue in the event that someone is injured in water or extremely rough terrain. Additionally, they can provide casualty care far beyond what even the most advanced special operations medics can.

    PJs climbing a ladder from the water into a helicopter.
    PJs from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron boarding a Black Hawk via a ladder. (Source
    3.1.1.1. PJ Pipeline
    • Basic Training – 8 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Prep Course – 8 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Assessment and Selection – 4 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Pre-Dive Course – 4 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Combat Dive Course – 5 Weeks
    • Airborne School – 5 Weeks
    • Military Free-Fall Course – 4 Weeks
    • Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training – 3 Weeks
    • Pararescue EMT-Basic Course – 7 Weeks
    • Pararescue EMT-Paramedic Course – 30 Weeks
    • Pararescue Apprentice Course – 22 Weeks

    The pipeline to even becoming a PJ is a long and gruelling one. From start to finish it takes just under two years for a new recruit to complete the pipeline and that is assuming they don’t sustain any injury or fail any of the courses. It is not publicly available knowledge what the requirements are for a PJ to be able to be assigned to the 24th STS. It could be luck but it is more than likely a combination of experience and an additional pipeline that is shorter yet even more difficult than their initial one.

    3.1.2. Combat Controllers: First There

    Combat controllers make up the bulk of special warfare airmen within the 24th STS. CCTs serve a purpose that is not integral to any special mission unit. Combat controllers have many roles, they are FAA-certified air traffic controllers meaning that they can communicate and coordinate with friendly aircraft in the battle space providing clearance to land, loiter, and pass through. Additionally, they are Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC) qualified, allowing them to call in fire missions and air strikes from the ground assets and air assets that they are controlling.

    Scarlet beret with CCT flash.
    Scarlet beret worn by CCTs. (Source)

    CCTs assigned to the 24th STS can be attached to any of the other special mission units within JSOC. They are most often seen alongside DEVGRU and Delta Force. However, CCTs have been known to serve alongside the Regimental Reconnaissance Company and likely assist the other, less kinetic elements of JSOC as needed.

    John Chapman standing near mud walls with a SEAL recce rifle.
    Medal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant John Chapman, KIA while serving as a CCT with DEVGRU. (Source)
    3.1.2.1. CCT Pipeline
    • Basic Training – 8 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Prep Course – 8 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Assessment and Selection – 4 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Pre-Dive Course – 4 Weeks
    • Special Warfare Combat Dive Course – 5 Weeks
    • Airborne School – 5 Weeks
    • Military Free-Fall Course – 4 Weeks
    • Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training – 3 Weeks
    • Air Traffic Control – 11 Weeks
    • Combat Control Apprentice Course – 8 Weeks
    • Special Tactics Training – 24 Weeks

    4. Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)

    4.1. Airfield Reconnaissance, Assessment and Control

    Despite the US’s frequent use of aircraft carriers for air power projection, the US still operationally relies on usable airfields. These become especially important for rapid troop mobilization and humanitarian efforts, involving larger cargo and transport planes. Locating, controlling and even establishing such airfields is one of the responsibilities of the 24th. Various airmen, officers, and ground operators secure and maintain a secure presence around these airfields. (Source) Their covert operational nature allows them to quietly establish a presence before more largescale forces arrive.

    4.2. Personnel Recovery and Triage

    Among the many skilled members of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, there exists a number of medical and rescue experts. As the 24th is capable of delivering forces quickly, their ability to recover and exfiltrate makes them an exceptional rescue force. In addition to triage and extraction

    4.3. Joint Terminal Attack Control/Fire Support

    JTACs support serve the critical role of being the guiding hand for close air support for ground forces. (Source) Through their work, JSOC is able to more effectively administer its coordinated combat efforts. Members of the 24th must manage incoming information from their fellow soldiers, and develop fire solutions via allied air forces.

    JTACS calling in air support in the desert.
    JTAC members working alongside an A-10 Thunderbolt. Image via Mike Killian Photography (Source)

    4.4. Direct Combat Support

    The 24th’s capabilities are built for specialized support and operations alongside other forces. At the same time, they are just as capable of direct combat action. Their personnel at times attach to forces that experience active combat, making them required to assist in limited combat. 24th Special Tactics Squadron members have participated in direct combat in nearly all their deployments, demonstrating their variability. (Source).

    5. 24th Special Tactics Squadron Equipment and Weaponry

    The 24th Special Tactics Squadron uses a variety of weapons, gear and systems to achieve its objectives. Their weapons may be less varied than other arsenals, but they still serve an essential role. Their communications and radio equipment are the best of the best, allowing them to rapidly and accurately coordinate aerial operations. 

    24th Special Tactics Squadron operator adjusting his goggles.
    24th Special Tactics Squadron operator with full kit and tactical gear. Image via Media.Defense.gov (Source)

    5.1. Weapons

    When a combat controller of the 24th needs to engage in direct combat, they need the required firearms. Weapons that many US special operations forces use are often used by the 24th as well. 

    The M4 and its variants are used by a variety of AFSOC teams. The 24th maintains this weapon as a general assault rifle for their tactical teams. Typically, operators from the 24th STS will use the same weapons as the units they are embedded with. For example, CCTs assigned to DEVGRU will use HK 416s in order to help blend with the unit. Sticking out in a combat zone makes you look important and looking important is a good way to get killed. Additionally, CCTs working alongside Delta Force have been seen using the Low Visibility Assault Weapon (LVAW) (Source).

    24 STS CCT with an HK 416 in full kit.
    24th STS operator with an HK 416. Image retrieved via DEVTSIX. (Source)

    Other weapons serve the purposes of the 24th such as long-range weapons. These include DMRs such as the MK-20 Mod 0 (an accurized version of the Mk 17 aka the Scar H), SR 25s/M110s, and a number of different precision rifles.

    5.2. Equipment

    For assaulters in units like DEVGRU and Delta Force, their primary weapon is their carbines. However, for the CCTs embedded within these units their most important weapon is their radios. Radios serve as the primary form of communication between members of the 24th on the ground and the air forces they coordinate with. They primarily use two different radio types, the smaller handheld PRC-152, and the larger more cumbersome PRC-117G (Source).

    5.2.1. PRC-152

    For the sake of mobility, many of the combat controllers and communications officers will bring with them a PRC-152. This radio employs the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and features ad-hoc, self-healing and adaptive networking capabilities (Source). This helps soldiers and operators maintain communication capabilities while on the move. 

    Front and profile view of a PRC 152.
    PRC 152 without antenna attached. (Source)

    5.2.2. PRC-117G

    The 152s larger brother, the 117G, serves the purpose of being the larger task force radio for not only special forces but also general US, and NATO forces. While not as portable, it features integration with SATCOM, shortwave and longwave communications and a number of simultaneous transmission capabilities (Source). These features are key to the 24th STS, as constant communication with multiple groups is one of their core competencies. 

    Marines using a radio in the desert with trucks in the background.
    U. S. Marine Corps Radio Operators using the PRC-117. Photo by CWO3 Benn Barr, 1st Marine Division Combat Camera (Source)

    5.3 Vehicles

    The 24th uses a variety of vehicles, both in direct and indirect ways, in the field. Because they use such a variety of aircraft in their deployments, it is hard to cover the breadth of all the vehicles they utilize. However, more notable transport aircraft utilized by the 24th include the Blackhawk, Pave Hawk and the MD-530G. The A-10 Thunderbolt is one of the most common US fixed-wing aircraft for close air support missions.

    5.3.1. The Hawks of the 24th

    The Black Hawk is commonly utilized by the 24th and the teams it is embedded with. (Source) As a Multi-Mission helicopter, its tough and customizable design allows it to serve a myriad of roles. This perfectly fits the adaptable requirements of the 24th STS. Its derivative version, the Pave Hawk, serves the 24th even more directly.

    Though in fewer numbers than the Black Hawk, the HH-60G Pave Hawk features upgraded communications, a navigation suite, and integrated communications and global positioning. (Source) It is used as the primary rescue and personnel recovery for the Air Force. The 24th is usually the rescue force for any special operations evacuation, and the Pave Hawk serves as an excellent dedicated rescue and support aircraft for PJs.

    Pave hawk hovering over pine trees.
    Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk transport Air Force personnel. Image via DVIDS by Airman 1st Class Eugene Oliver. (Source)

    The MD-530G, a light scout helicopter, is used by Air Force special operation forces as well as the 24th STS during some operations. The helicopter is used as a reconnaissance scout, close air support craft and/or light transport. (Source)

    5.3.2. Close Air Support

    As noted before, due to the amount of aircraft that the 24th STS coordinates with, it is very difficult to capture the entire breadth of all aircraft the group may utilize. However, given their appearance frequently alongside conventional US forces and within the areas of operation the 24th has appeared in, the A-10 Thunderbolt and the AC-130 Specter Gunship are particularly noteworthy.

    The A-10 serves as close air support and relies on coordination from groups like the 24th to guide their strikes. They can hit ground targets with a range of ordnance, including their signature front-mounted GAU-8/A cannon (Source).

    A10s flying in formation over fields.
    Two A10s flying in formation. (Source)

    The AC-130 is the US’s most adaptable and powerful close air support gunship and has served alongside US special forces excellently. Though how many times the 24th STS has personally coordinated with an AC-130 is unknown, it serves special operations forces around the world and requires the most advanced coordination team. In the field, whenever a detachment of the 24th STS finds themselves with a Spectre above them, they will be the primary form of communication and connection to it.

    AC 130 spectre gunship flying towards camera.
    AC-130H Spectre Gunship. (Source)

    6. Notable Operations of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron

    The full breadth of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron’s operations is hard to know. There are multiple deployments where the presence of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron has been confirmed. These most notably include the US Invasion of Panama, Operation Restore Hope, the Battle of Mogadishu and general ops during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    6.1. Operation Just Cause

    The 24th STS received a number of commendations during the invasion of Panama (Source). Though the operations they conducted in-country are not known, they likely operated embedded with assaulting units and personnel rescue.

    Buildings burning with destroyed cars on the street.
    Fire as a result of combat during Operation Just Cause. (Source)

    6.2. Battle of Mogadishu

    While operating alongside a number of JSOC forces during the US Invasion of Somalia, the 24th STS served an invaluable role in both direct support and personnel rescue. Three members in particular, Timothy Wilkison, Scott Fales and Jefferey Bray, all assigned to the 24th served extremely admirably in both search and rescue and HVT capture (Source).

    Their usage in this operation is a demonstration of their dedicated skill in airpower coordination. The vast majority of the Battle of Mogadishu involved the usage of a number of Black Hawks. Pave Hawks and MD-530Gs also assisted in coordination with ground forces. The 24th would serve as the best of the best for such an operation.

    6.3. Afghanistan and Iraq

    There is not an exceptional amount known about all the operations of the 24th during the Invasion of Iraq. There were however some visible aspects of their presence. Alongside Delta Force operators and other US combined armed forces, the 24th STS assisted in a number of operations. These operations included Operation Iraqi Freedom, where Scott Sather, a 24th STS combat controller died. (Source)

    Within Afghanistan, the 24th STS conducted a number of counter-terrorism operations alongside other US forces. The 24th assisted Task Force 145 in their mission to find, fix, and finish terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Source)  The 24th also operated directly with DEVGRU  as well as Delta force. Wherever either of these two special mission units was deployed it was almost guaranteed that some element of the 24th STS was alongside them.

    6.3.1. John Chapman

    Early in the war in Afghanistan a combat controller named John Chapman was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the battle of Takur Ghar. It was the first time actions resulting in the Medal of Honor were ever caught on footage.

    Chapman was a CCT attached to DEVGRU for a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. When the SEALs and Chapman landed they quickly came under superior enemy fire. An operator from DEVGRU was killed and Chapman was wounded by machine gun fire. Chapman sustained grave injuries while clearing an enemy bunker. Eventually, the Navy SEALs retreated due to sustaining significant casualties, unknowingly leaving the still alive Chapman, for dead. 

    Chapman eventually regained consciousness and immediately began engaging the enemy, including in hand-to-hand combat as multiple insurgents charged the bunker. As a QRF force in a helicopter came to rescue the SEALs and Chapman, insurgents began to shift their fire to the QRF. 

    Recognizing this, Chapman exited the bunker and began to re-engage the insurgents. The QRFs helicopter was struck by an RPG and made a controlled landing below the summit where Chapman was still fighting. As members of the 75th Ranger Regiment poured out of the helicopter Chapman continued to provide covering fire. Unfortunately, a few of the Ranger was killed as they exited the aircraft. However, his actions saved both the QRF force and the lives of the SEALs.

    Picture of a painting of Rangers assaulting up a mountain with a crash Chinook in the background.
    Artist rendition of the QRF assaulting up the mountain after the crash. (Source)

    6.3.2. Medal of Honor

    Ultimately John Chapman sustained over 16 bullet and shrapnel wounds while on the mountain top. His body was recovered with only a few rounds still in his magazines. Chapman continued to fight until his death, only stopping when an enemy’s round pierced his heart. For his actions, Chapman was eligible for two Medals of Honor. However, it would take 16 years for him to be awarded one, due in large part to the Navy SEALs’ attempts to block his Medal of Honor. Awarding him the medal would be both an admission of failure and that they left a comrade to die as they retreated. However, in 2018 he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless actions on that Afghan mountain top.

    John Chapman in dress uniform.
    John A. Chapman, 1985 – 2002. (Source)

    7. Future of the 24th STS

    The future of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron is one of almost inevitable purpose and growth. As airpower continues to grow in its complexity with the addition of high-precision guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles and 5th generation aircraft, so too will the US’s demand for dedicated and highly specialized air forces. The unique skill set of bridging the gap between air forces and ground-based special operations forces will be increasingly valuable and will see the 24th STS become increasingly important. 

    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel is a King's College graduate with an MA in War Studies. His areas of focus are extremism in the Western world, military privatization and the impact of climate change on global security.

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