United States Air Force Special Reconnaissance (SR) is a specialized military unit that deploys advanced technology and covert operations deep behind enemy lines to provide critical battlefield intelligence, develop targets, and achieve global access, air, space, and cyberspace superiority.
The various branches of the United States (US) military have extensive and diverse capabilities. Some are unique to a specific branch, while others are present throughout all branches. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are essential to all US military branches – even branches that a casual observer would not anticipate having SOF units, such as the Marine Corps and Air Force. This article focuses on the youngest Air Force SOF unit, Special Reconnaissance.
Special forces are vital in filling gaps present in a branch’s capabilities. Additionally, as the Air Force employs them, they allow for greater cooperation between the branches in combat. Though it has a new coat of paint, Air Force Special Reconnaissance has a long and storied history throughout the 20th century. The Weathermen were instrumental during WWII, the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom [source]. Therefore, this article will expand upon the foundations of the unit, as well as detail its doctrine and equipment.
1.0: The Origin of Special Reconnaissance
The US military recognised the utility of weather reports concerning aviation during WWI [source]. However, the rapid demobilisation of the military following the Treaty of Versailles meant there was little room in the budget for a scientific categorisation of weather phenomena, much less a comprehensive understanding of it [source]. The government developed specialised programs throughout the late 20s and 30s to tackle this challenge [source]. The Weather Bureau, first established in 1870, oversaw two concurrent programs [source]. One was a US Army effort, the other an Air Corps effort [source].
By 1937 the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) took over control of training [source]. In the face of continually shifting base locations for the program and developing aircraft that could fly higher, faster and longer than before, the program was consolidated [source]. The newly christened Air Corps Weather Service eliminated the army’s role in aerial-focused meteorological measurement [source]. By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941, the USAAC Weather Service had 2,400 personnel [source].
1.1: The Weathermen of World War II
World War II saw the most significant size increase of the US military in history [source]. With this expansion came a corresponding reorganisation of existing assets. The US Army Air Force (USAAF) formed from the US Army Air Corps due to the need for a larger, air-oriented command structure [source].
The now-USAAF Weather Service was reestablished as the Joint Meteorological Committee, consisting of the original USAAF component and Army and Navy weather experts [source].
As part of its contribution to the war effort, USAAF Weathermen deployed to Allied airbases [source]. Weather played a crucial role in the air component of WWII. Thus the Weathermen were instrumental in the success of the USAAF, RAF, and other allied air forces efforts during the war [source]. Most Weathermen (and later women) operated relatively safely behind friendly lines [source]. By the war’s end, the USAAC trained 6,200 weather forecasters [source]. They contributed to Allied success from Normandy to Iwo Jima [source].
Not all Weathermen were content with spending the war in luxury [source]. A select few joined efforts undertaken by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in wreaking havoc behind enemy lines [source]. This included deployment with partisan forces in Yugoslavia and establishing stations for monitoring the weather in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Such efforts were crucial in the eventual allied victory in WWII and marks these men as the progenitors of Special Reconnaissance [source].
1.2: The Vietnam War and the origin of SOWT
By 1963, a new conflict was on the horizon [source]. Increasing US commitment to supporting South Vietnam meant the US Air Force had to conduct sorties in a highly hostile environment. This was because of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong air defences, as well as the weather [source]. In fact, US pilots aborted approximately half of all aerial missions targeting North Vietnamese logistics due to poor weather [source]. Clearly, there was a gap in the existing assets at the Air Force’s disposal.
In 1963, Air Force Captain Keith Grimes became the first commander of the newly created Commando Combat Weather Team [source]. Unlike during WWII, this group would be “warriors first, weathermen second” [source]. Many consider Grimes the father of the Special Operations Weather Technicians (SOWT), the forerunner of Special Reconnaissance [source].
1.2.1: Commando Combat Weather Teams
The Commando Combat Weather Team focused primarily on highly sensitive missions deep behind enemy lines. This included walking-in sorties against the Ho Chi Min Trail [source]. Commandos would rendezvous with Laotian guerillas, establish mountaintop observation posts, and call in strikes on North Vietnamese supply convoys [source]. After this, commandos, such as Grimes, would lead their party to raid the survivors and escape back into the jungle [source]. Such strikes were devastating [source]. Grimes himself “facilitated 1,200 confirmed kills” [source].
Once again, the conclusion of the Vietnam War caused the Commando Combat Weather Teams to atrophy [source]. To be sure, SWOT was vital throughout the rest of the 20th century, featuring in Desert Storm and during the invasion of Grenada [source]. However, special operations and mission planners routinely ignored their expertise and questioned their professionalism [source]. It would only with the Global War on Terror that combat Weathermen would once again become essential on the battlefield [source].
1.3: The Refinement of SOWT in the Global War on Terror
US Air Force (USAF) SWOT personnel participated in Operation Anaconda, the 2002 SOF raid into Afghanistan [source]. Their participation in this earned them the respect of other SOF personnel, such as Delta Force [source].
During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, SWOTs were inserted behind enemy lines ahead of the 19 March commencement of the air campaign [source]. They were to warn the military in the case of enemy deployment of chemical weapons [source]. Additionally, they were instrumental in the success of Operation Northern Delay, the last large-scale combat parachute operation since Operation Just Cause [source].
In 2008, the USAF formally recognised the need for SWOT in a special operation context [source]. Deployment with Tier-1 and other elite units increased as a result [source]. As part of this effort, SWOT joined Operation Neptune Spear, the mission which killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, in a classified capacity [source].
Beyond special operations, conflict in the 21st century has caused the US military to regain confidence in the capabilities of its SWOT [source]. Combined with greater USAF integration with the Army, SWOTs began to deploy with conventional US Army units alongside joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) [source].
2.0: US Air Force Special Reconnaissance
The USAF rebranded SWOT as Air Force Special Reconnaissance (SR) in 2019 [source]. Weather forecasting technology relegated SWOT as obsolete [source]. However, the Air Force was unwilling to disband the unit totally [source].
2.1: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)
SR seeks to “provide environmental reconnaissance capabilities to commanders” [source]. Therefore, SR operatives conduct
- Ground intelligence [source],
- Surveillance [source],
- Weather forecasting [source],
- Electronic and cyber warfare [source].
- And reconnaissance [source].
The reorientation of SWOT to SR indicates a greater wish by the Air Force to be more independent [source]. SR operates under Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), which is itself subordinate to US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) [source].
“Bottom line, a fully leveraged Air Force ground [manoeuvre] element eliminates the need to ask another service to do what the Air Force should do ourselves”US Air Force internal memo, 2018 [source]
2.2: Selection Criteria
- Pre-Dive and Dive [source],
- Jump [source],
- Military free fall [source],
- Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion (SERE) [source],
- Reconnaissance [source],
- Combat control [source],
- And advanced skills training [source].
SR operatives have access to highly specialised equipment [source]. Given the nature of their work, electronics form a crucial component in their loadout [source]. These electronics include micro drones, like the Black Hornet, and rugged electronics, such as the Android Tactical Assault Kit [source][source].
Regarding non-specialised equipment, AFSOC has a massive budget [source]. In 2022, it was greater than Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) and Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) combined [source]. While still dwarfed by the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), this budget allows for AFSOC and, by extension, SR operatives to have access to the best possible equipment [source]. At the very least, this would include the following;
- A highly customised M4 (or derivative), such as the MK18,
- Generation 3+ night vision, such as the GPNVG-18,
- And various portable and secure radio/satellite communication devices [source].
Depending on the mission, an SR officer might carry
- A high-resolution camera,
- A laser designator,
- A marksman rifle, like the MK 20.
Moreover, when attached to other units, SR operatives (like other AFSOF personnel) often opt to adopt weapons used by said unit [source].
4.0: Notable Operations
- Guerilla operations in support of Yugoslav partisans during Nazi occupation [source].
- Facilitating airstrikes on the Ho Chi Min Trail [source].
- Operation Kingpin, a mission to rescue American POW’s from a NVA camp in North Vietnam. The mission ultimately failed as a result of the North Vietnamese moving the prisoners, but no casualties were taken [source].
- Operation Anaconda, which resulted in the eviction of the Taliban from Kabul and their retreat to the eastern border of Afghanistan [source].
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq [source].
- Operation Neptune Spear, though their role in this is classified [source].
USAF Special Reconnaissance is the natural evolution of USAF SOF capabilities. Given special forces’ massive budgetary and mission expansion since 9/11, it makes sense that the Air Force would want to expand in this direction [source]. This is also a symptom of the Air Force’s desire for greater independence, as epitomised in the quote above. Modern warfare is multi-domain [source]. Having organic ground assets for targeting, rescuing airmen, or assisting with fire support is essential in this environment [source].
Special Reconnaissance may be a new name for the weathermen, but their function remains remarkably similar. It is a vital asset for US success in a future battle scape where information reigns supreme.