In 2010, America’s Commandos Unleashed Aerial Hell on the Taliban
Special operations surge killed thousands of insurgents—and pushed U.S. planes to the brink
In late 2010, U.S. president Barack Obama authorized a new strategy in Afghanistan—one that greatly emphasized direct action by American Special Operations Forces.
The resulting surge in aerial ambushes and nighttime ground raids took a heavy toll on the Taliban. Thousands of insurgent leaders and foot soldiers died in just a few violent months.
But the new commando campaign required intensive air support. And that put the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Command, whose 14,500 people fly most of America’s unique commando planes, in a delicate position.
The White House and Pentagon were counting on AFSOC at precisely the worst time for the aerial commando force, which was flying a dwindling number of 40-year-old airplanes while awaiting an influx of expensive new equipment.
To its credit, AFSOC managed to soldier through the crisis. The command’s official history for 2010—a heavily redacted copy of which War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—captures the tension, worry and heroic effort as America’s commandos unleashed Hell on the Taliban … from the air.
The late-2010 commando surge came amid a broad escalation of America’s then-nine-year-old war in Afghanistan. In late 2009 and early 2010, Obama sent an addition 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to join the roughly 70,000 already there.
At the same time, the president—then two years into his first term—ordered a shift in strategy. “Obama embraced the idea of a counter insurgency strategy that focused less on firefights with the Taliban and more on securing key towns, training Afghan forces and bolstering local governments,” according to the AFSOC history.
But then in mid-2010, Obama tweaked the new strategy. While regular Army and Marine forces worked to secure towns, train Afghan troops and support local administrators, Special Operations Forces would actually seek out more confrontations with the Taliban, often by flying into insurgent territory in the dead of night to attack the enemy in his own compounds.
“Dropping more bombs and carrying out more raids by Special
Operations Forces underscored a sense of urgency in the war,” the history explains.
Over the course of 2010, there was a sixfold increase in commando ops in Afghanistan.
Official statistics reveal the extent—and bloody impact—of the commando surge. “During the last six months of 2010, coalition forces carried out more than 7,000 SOF missions that killed or captured more than 600 militant leaders and inflicted heavy losses on insurgent fighters, with 2,000 rank-and-file soldiers killed,” according to the AFSOC annual review.
And the special-ops surge actually accelerated through the end of the year. “From mid-September to mid-December, SOF launched 1,784 missions that killed or captured 880 insurgent leaders in Afghanistan,” the history recounts. “The raids also killed 384 lower-level fighters and captured 2,361 more insurgents.”
But the ramp-up in commando ops challenged Special Operations Command—and AFSOC, in particular. While SOCOM had benefited from tens of billions of dollars in extra funding since the 9/11 terror attacks, the Air Force component had seen very little of that additional cash. “We have not invested a lot of money in the air,” said Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, then head of AFSOC.
In 2010, AFSOC was mostly still operating the same planes it—or its predecessor organizations—had possessed since the Vietnam War. In 2010, the command owned or leased around 300 aircraft, many of them variants of Lockheed Martin’s venerable C-130 transport. The planes cost around $2 billion a year to operate.
Low-flying MC-130s with special see-in-the-dark sensors carried commandos into enemy territory at night. AC-130 gunships packing batteries of machine guns, cannons and howitzers pummeled insurgents from the air—killing 1,200 enemy fighters in 2010 alone.
Wurster described many of his planes as “old, broken-down,” according to the AFSOC history.
The document quotes Wurster describing 1967-vintage MC-130s still flying in 2010. It took Herculean effort to keep these aged aircraft flightworthy—and some creative thinking by Wurster and his staff to lighten the C-130s’ workload.
Maintainers at the Air Force’s depots simply had to work harder. At Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, where the flying branch overhauls many of its large planes, mechanics pulled 12-hour shifts in four special hangars stripping down, repairing and rebuilding AFSOC C-130s.
They discovered that 2010’s intensive flight ops—4,000 AFSOC missions between May and August—had inflicted some pretty serious aches and pains on the special C-130s—including unexpected corrosion on landing gear and rear ramps. “We never used to replace these,” mechanic Robert Hall said of the ramps, according to the history.
One particularly weary MC-130 spent eight months in overhaul, during which Robins’ workers replaced 100 major components.
As maintainers worked overtime keeping old C-130s healthy, AFSOC staff found small ways to fill in for the big, four-engine planes. The command acquired smaller M-28s and PC-12s for some less-intensive, out-of-the-way missions in places such as The Philippines.
Meanwhile, Wurster made some important decisions to ensure that AFSOC could begin acquiring scores of new C-130s to replace the old ones.
Instead of buying separate versions of the Lockheed transport to recapitalize gunships, infiltrators and other special C-130 variants, Wurster directed his command to purchase just one baseline C-130—the $80-million MC-130J. AFSOC could then add weapons, sensors or refueling gear, as warranted, to equip a new C-130 for a particular task.
“Utilizing the MC-130J as the core platform allowed AFSOC to keep the production line at Lockheed going without disruption, the key element in ensuring airframes would be delivered to the command as soon as possible,” the annual review explains.
For all the killing, strain and change, 2010 came to a close without AFSOC falling apart or failing to meet the demand for commando action in Afghanistan. “Simply put, AFSOC remained a command in the midst of an evolution unlike anything it had experienced since its activation,” the history notes.