The JSFAW: The UK Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing 

1.0 Introduction

The Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) is a joint service organisation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British Army that provides rotary wing aviation support to the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF). 

In this article, we analyse the history of the unit, its purpose and organisation, and its most relevant operations.

2.0 Symbols and History

2.1 Symbols

The JSFAW emblem consists of a blue circular shield containing the unit’s name. Above it is the royal crown. Inside another black circle contains an eagle in mid-flight holding a blade. The blade indicates its status as a special force and the eagle its status as a transport air unit. Underneath is the word “RESOLUTE” written on a scroll.

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JSFAW emblem (Source).

2.2 History

2.2.1 The Creation of the UKSF

In 1987, the British Command created the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), when the post of Director of the Special Air Service (SAS) became Director of Special Forces (DFS). The UKSF was born when the MoD assigned the DSF control of both the SAS and the Navy’s Special Boat Squadron, which was renamed the Special Boat Service (SBS). 

Since then, the directorate has expanded by creating and unifying new units. In 2001, they created the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) which specialises in covert battlefield insertion and extraction. This unit is formed by the 7th Squadron (RAF) and the 658th Squadron (Army Air Corps). In 2005, the DSF created the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). The SRR supports the SAS and SBS in reconnaissance and surveillance tasks. That same year the MoD also created the 18th Signal Regiment. In 2006, the MoD expanded the Directorate with the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) which serves as a quick-reaction force to assist Special Forces missions (source; source).

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UKSF Emblem (source).

These new British Special Forces regiments are designed to help in “the long war”. This responded to the need to have special forces made up of small, well-trained, and well-supported units that can act as “force multipliers” (source; source).

For those of you who want to know more about the UKSF, you can have a look here at the article I recently published about them.

2.2.2 The JSFAW

On 2 April 2001, the Ministry of Defence united the 657 Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), and the 7 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF) under a single command. Since then it has been based in RAF Odiham. From 2006, JSFAW also incorporated the 651 AAC Squadron to operate the fixed-wing Britten-Norman Defender 4000. The JSAW reformed the 651 and transferred it to RAF Odiham. However, the 651 left JSFAW in July 2008. This is because the squadron moved to RAF Aldergrove, as part of the 5th AAC Regiment (source).

In 2008, JSFAW incorporated the 8 AAC Flight, which operated a fleet of Westland Gazelle AH1 and AgustaWestland A109A. The A109A eventually retired and was later substituted for a covert fleet of Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II helicopters. These helicopters have military registration and civilian livery. The 8 AAC changed its name in September 2013, re-designated as 658 Squadron, which is part of the JSFAW today. The 7 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF) has been a part of JSFAW since its creation in 2001. The 7 Squadron started operating several Boeing Chinook HC1 helicopters, which in recent years upgraded to the HC6 version.

(Source), (Source)

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Emblem of RAF Odiham (source)
No. 657 Squadron

The RAF created the original 657 Squadron of the RAF in January 1943 during WWII. It was first deployed in North Africa and later served in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. The 657 eventually disbanded in November 1955. Its duties and number, however, transferred to the Army with the formation of the Army Air Corps (AAC). The 657 AAC Squadron was raised on 1 January 1973 as a component of the 1st Regiment AAC. It operated in Northern Ireland from Shackleton Barracks. In July 1990, the squadron abandoned its independent status to join the 9 AAC Regiment. It moved to Oakington in Cambridgeshire and subsequently to Dishforth Airfield in North Yorkshire in February 1991.

In June 2000, the squadron regained independence by moving to RAF Odiham in Hampshire. It took part in Operation Barras in Sierra Leone in September 2000, deploying two Westland Lynx helicopters. By April 2001, the squadron had become part of the newly created JSFAW. The 657 operated several Westland Lynx AH9 helicopters. The squadron disbanded in May 2018 when the Lynx reached the end of their operational life (source; source). 

(Source), (source)

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A Westland Lynx of the Army Air Corps landing on a desert road south of Basra Airport, 2003.
No. 7 Squadron RAF

The RAF created the No. 7 Squadron at Farnborough Airfield on 1 May 1914 as the last Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadron formed before the outbreak of World War I. The RAF bragged that No. 7 was “the last RFC unit to stand up before WWI”. During WWI the squadron focused on observation and interception duties and was responsible for the first interception of an enemy aircraft over Britain. The wing has been disbanded and reformed several times since its formation. 

In 1982 the squadron was reformed to perform the helicopter support role, receiving Chinook HC.1s. This variant soon changed to the HC.2, equivalent to the US Army’s standard CH-47D, and entered RAF service in 1993. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 7 Squadron took part in the UK’s deployment to the Gulf in 1991.

In April 2001, 7 Squadron RAF became part of the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) with the role of supporting UK Special Forces. It currently uses Chinook HC.6 and is based in RAF Odiham, Hampshire. In March 2020, the squadron received the right to emblazon battle honours on its standard, in recognition of its role in the British military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 and the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. 

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SAS Dauphin helicopter.
A Chinook HC2 of 7 Squadron pictured at RAF Northolt, 2012. Photo by Flickr user Colin Cooke Photo.
658 Squadron AAC

The current 658 Sqn has its origins in the 8 aac Sqn and an old 658 Sqn. Originally, the 8 AAC Squadron joined the JSFAW in 2008. A few years later, in 2013, the merging of the already existing 658 Squadron and 8 AAC led to the current 658 Squadron. At that moment, the 8 Sqn operated several AgustaWestland A109A and the 658 Sqn a small fleet of Westland Gazelle AH1. The new 658 Squadron inherited these helicopters. The A109 was replaced in 2009 with several Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin helicopters in civilian livery. The last AH1 retired in 2023 (source; source).

The current 658 AAC Squadron is a British AAC unit that provides dedicated air support to the 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS) for domestic counter-terrorism operations. The squadron shares headquarters with 22 SAS at Stirling Lines. It has been part of the JSFAW since 2008 when it merged with the wing as 8 AAC Flight. Due to the colour of their helicopters, and their CT tasks, the 658 Squadron is nicknamed “Blue Thunder” in the press (source; source).

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 AS365 Dauphin II in civilian livery used by the 22 SAS for domestic CT missions belonging to the 658 Squadron AAC. 

3.0 Purpose

The JSFAW was designed to assist the other British Special Forces regiments in the “long war” as well as asymmetric war. This responds to the need for special forces of small, well-trained, and well-supported units operating on battlefields where combat lines are poorly defined and enemies mix among friends. These special forces are understood as “force multipliers”, that is, small teams of operators can achieve results comparable to those of larger forces through specialised methods and training (source; source).

The JSFAW’s main tasks are:

  • Special Forces Aviation support
  • Transport of cargo and troops
  • Covert insertion and extraction
  • Counterterrorism (CT)
  • Resupply

Aside from these tasks, the overall role of British special forces today is very focused on waging the global war on terrorism. The JSFAW, along with the other UKSF, is therefore prepared for irregular and asymmetric combat.

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3.1 JSFAW Doctrine

The JSFAW serves several different purposes, including focusing on air support. This wing can conduct transport and rescue operations, acting as an extremely rapid response force. The JSFAW’s primary mission is to be an extremely rapid air response force, specialising in working alongside special operations forces and operating in extremely dangerous situations.

JSFAW provides helicopter air support to special operations forces. Its missions include assault, cover insertion/extraction and reconnaissance. This includes counter-terrorist operations both at home and abroad. While 7 Squadron focuses on foreign action and includes cargo transport, 658 Squadron focuses on airlift for domestic operations. Rapid response is a critical aspect of its doctrine, being a rapid response force supporting special operations.

The JSFAW is the equivalent of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), also known as the 160th SOAR (A) of the US JSCO.

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22 SAS operators boarding an AS365 Dauphin II helicopter belonging to 658 Squadron AAC of the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW). Courtesy: The Reptile House.

4.0 JSFAW Organisation

The JSFAW is part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), a directorate that manages the assigned joint capabilities of the three-armed services. The UKSF is under the operational command of the Director of Special Forces (DSF), a senior role within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The DSF is also the head of the UKSF, which reports to the so-called Strategic Command (StratCom), formerly known as Joint Forces Command (JFC). They are governed by the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) which are located at Northwood Headquarters (source). 

The JSFAW headquarters (HQ) is located in RAF Odiham, Hampshire. The wing is under the command of the RAF Station Commander, a Group Captain (OF-5) at RAF Odiham. However, the Army and RAF retain full command of their respective forces (source). The JSFAW is commanded by a Wing Commander (OF-4) and consists of two squadrons, one RAF and one AAC (source). 

4.1 No. 7 Squadron (RAF)

Motto: Per diem, per noctem (“By day and by night”).

Based at: RAF Odiham. 

Aircraft: Chinook HC6.

The No. 7 Squadron is a Royal Air Force (RAF) unit based in RAF Odiham, Hampshire. It operates several twin-rotor Chinook HC6 helicopters (source). They support SAS and SBS missions wherever they deploy.

Squadron badge
No. 7 Squadron Emblem (source).

4.2 No. 658 Squadron (Army)

Motto: Videmus Delemus (“We see and destroy”). 

Based at: Stirling Lines. 

Aircraft: Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II.

The No. 658 Squadron is an Army Air Corps unit of the British Army. It provides dedicated aviation support to the 22 SAS for domestic counter-terrorism (CT) operations. The squadron shares HQ with 22 SAS in Stirling Lines, Herefordshire. It operates five Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II. 

658 Squadron Emblem

5.0 Equipment

No. 7 Squadron RAF operates several Boeing Chinook HC6s. The squadron originally received HC.1s Chinooks which and later upgraded to the HC.2 version. In 2021, the 7 sqn started upgrading these aircraft to the latest Mk 6A (HC6A) version (source; source). 

Chinook HC6A as used by the UKSF through the 7 Squadron RAF (JSFAW).

No. 658 Squadron AAC operates five Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II variant N-3 Dauphin 2/N-3 Dauphin AH.1. The 658 originally had six aircraft, but they lost one of them in an accident in 2023 (source).

658 Squadron Dauphin
658 Sqn Dauphin 2 pictured at Birmingham-BHX, 19/07/16. Source: Alec Wilson via Flickr.

6.0 Notable Operations 

The JSFAW and other British special forces have been involved in covert operations in 19 countries in the last decade. Due to the secret nature of their mission, its activity inside and outside the country is rarely public. The following is a list of the most important operations in which 7 and 658 Squadron were involved both before and during their service with JSFAW:

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6.1 From 1980 to 2001

  • 1983: Chinooks of 7 sqn operating from Akrotiri, Cyprus, transported supplies to British troops in Lebanon (source).
  • 1986 – Present: 7 sqn conducted several operations in Northern Ireland (source).
  • 1990/91: During Operation Desert Storm (Gulf War), 3 Chinook HC1s deployed to a forward operating base at Al Jouf, Saudi Arabia. During the war, the squadron engaged in:
    • Inserting SAS foot patrols into Western Iraq.
    • Flying resupply missions in support of SAS fighting columns operating in the western Iraqi desert.
    • Delivering an SBS sabotage team close to Baghdad to destroy communications cables.
    • Flying the SBS into the capital city to secure the British Embassy once allied forces expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
  • 7 sqn delivered humanitarian aid to the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

(Source), (source), (source)

  • 1997: 7 sqn inserted SAS teams close to Pristina, Kosovo, for Operation Tango (source).
  • 1999: Supported NATO operations in Kosovo (source).
  • 2000: 7 sqn supported 1 PARA Battle Group during Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone. The unit later transported the SAS, SBS and Paras into the heart of the Sierra Leone jungle during Operation Barras (source; source)

6.2 From 2001 to Today

  • December 2001: The 7 sqn flew SBS and SAS assault units over the freighter MV Nisha in the English Channel. The authorities suspected that the vessel was carrying “terrorist material” (source).
  • 2001-2014: 7 sqn supported UKSF operations in Afghanistan. Some missions were:
    • August 2009: An SBS-led operation against a Taliban IED factory.
    • December 2013: An aborted SBS operation against a Taliban commander.

(Source), (source)

  • 2003-2011: 7 Sqn Chinooks supported UKSF operations in the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq. These initial operations included:
    • They ferried a SAS team into the western desert on a WMD search and destroy operation.
    • 7 Sqn inserted an SBS Land Rover formation on the ill-fated mission behind enemy lines called  ‘Zero Six Bravo’.
    • 7 Sqn Chinooks would later support a UKSF task force that operated out of Baghdad, known as Task Force Black.

(Source), (source), (source)

  • March 2011: 7 Sqn Chinooks deployed to support UKSF in Libya.
    • One mission was to covertly insert an M16/UKSF team into the country but was unsuccessful when the landing was spotted by locals and the team was apprehended by militia.
  • 2017: On 4 June 2017, 658 Squadron landed a Dauphin on London Bridge to support the Metropolitan Police Service in response to the London Bridge terrorist attack (source; source).
  • 2018: On 21 December 2018, a Dauphin helicopter deployed forward in the early stages of Operation Buckthorn. This operation involved the rescue of the container ship Grande Tema, which had been “hijacked” by stowaways (source).

7.0 Summary

The JSFAW emerged as a dedicated unit to provide aviation support to the British Special Forces, in particular the elite British SAS. This unit has proven to be a very useful tool that allows operators to deploy quickly and safely both at home and abroad. The JSFAW is therefore a specialist in insertion and extraction, transport and supply tasks. Its role is also heavily influenced by the current era of specialised counter-terrorism requirements.

This is why the JSFAW, along with the other units that make up the UKSF, is a lethal and flexible force on the battlefield. Its history, resources and training make this unit highly effective and efficient in its tasks. As a result, it is entrusted by the British military and political authorities with the most dangerous and sensitive missions at home and abroad. In an increasingly hostile world, and given the continuing need to respond to threats, JSFAW is more than likely to play an important role wherever British and allied interests lie.

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