The Pentagon Has Expanded Its Commando Force in Europe
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The Pentagon has expanded a special operations unit based in the United Kingdom. From there, the beefed-up commando force can respond to Russian actions in Eastern Europe — or rush off to crises in Africa.
In January, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel approved plans to create the new 352nd Special Operations Wing. Two months later, the U.S. Air Force formally stood up the wing at RAF Mildenhall and replaced the existing 352nd Special Operations Group.
The new wing has twice as many troops as before — and it has lots of aircraft.
“As the security environment around the world changes, so must our forces,” a spokesperson from Air Force Special Operations Command told War Is Boring in an email. “With increased manning, the 352nd … is better prepared to operate within [the] EUCOM area of responsibility.”
U.S. European Command is the Pentagon’s top headquarters in Europe.
The command has been busy since Russian troops seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in February 2014. Following the Russian invasion, Washington has conducted frequent war games to send messages to both its NATO allies and the Kremlin.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with Poland and Romania, all worry about the potential for Russian aggression beyond Ukraine.
In particular, the Baltic states have sizable ethnic Russian minorities. These governments worry that the Kremlin could sow the seeds of rebellion and then “intervene” as in Ukraine.
“Russia is … systematically undermining neighboring governments and complicating international responses to its aggressive actions,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel — head of U.S. Special Operations Command — told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 26.
Highlighting the growing importance of America’s elite troops, U.S. special operators have stepped up training with their NATO counterparts and worked with Ukrainian soldiers.
“The traditional rules of conflict are changing — our ability to influence outcomes is not solely based on our aggregate military capability,” Votel said.
On top of that, the U.K.-based airmen will be capable of “responding to requests to operate within USAFRICOM and other theaters when requested,” the Air Force spokesperson noted.
U.S. Africa Command oversees all American military operations on that continent.
The Pentagon created emergency response units around the world following the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Since then, soldiers, Marines and commandos stationed in Spain and Djibouti have flown into action in the Central African Republic, Liberia and South Sudan. These missions ranged from evacuations to helping fight the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
Today, “Libya appears to be emerging as a safe haven where terrorists, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-affiliated groups, can train and rebuild with impunity,” AFRICOM chief Gen. David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 26.
In Nigeria, “Boko Haram threatens the functioning of a government that is challenged to maintain its people’s trust and to provide security and other basic services,” he added.
The flying branch hopes that the 352nd will be better positioned to deal with these continuing crises — and any new ones that might flare up. The decision “was made to reflect the increased responsibilities and capabilities of the unit’s people and assets,” the Air Force spokesperson stated.
“The U.S. makes changes to personnel, infrastructure and operations based on the global security environment in order to support our allies with a stronger and more efficient force.”
Currently, the wing has one squadron of MC-130J Commando II transport planes and one squadron of CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The 352nd has personnel trained to coordinate parachute drops and rescue American troops. The wing even has meteorologists to help plan missions.
In 2013, the unique Ospreys — which fly like traditional planes, but can land like helicopters — arrived at Mildenhall, filling a gap left when the Air Force retired the last MH-53M Pave Low helicopters in Europe six years earlier.
At the same time, the MC-130Js began to replace the Air Force’s older MC-130P Combat Shadow commando planes.
The necessary maintenance and administrative personnel round out the unit’s approximately 1,200 members. The number is eventually set to expand to 1,500.
The wing’s commanding officer will oversee all special operations planes and helicopters — including those from the Army’s elite 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment — if a serious conflict breaks out.
The newly expanded 352nd’s main job is to sneak American commandos in and out of enemy territory, AFSOC public affairs officials explained. Further, the wing’s aircraft could deliver supplies to those special operators during combat operations.
Since 1992, the group’s smaller predecessor had performed similar missions. Originally situated at RAF Alconbury, the unit moved to Mildenhall less than three years later.
“Once members of the group received an execute order, crews flew and picked up members of the Army Special Forces or Navy Sea, Air and Land teams, then deployed to an intermediate staging base,” an official history of the group from 1997 explained, describing a hypothetical raid.
We obtained a copy of this history through the Freedom of Information Act.
From the first staging area, MC-130 transports and MH-53 helicopters would move to another location closer to the actual objective.
The MC-130s would refuel the helicopters along the way — a service the current J-models can also provide for the Ospreys.
At the second site, commandos would board the choppers for their actual mission. After completing their assault, this force would return to refuel the helicopters and board the planes again for the ride home.
The group was available to help with “noncombatant evacuation operations and combat search and rescue … of downed aircrews,” the historical review stated.
But with the situation in Eastern Europe and the potential for violence in Africa, rescuing American citizens from “areas of unrest” and training exercises are likely to be the new wing’s top priorities.
In September 2014, the 352nd Special Operations Group’s aircraft took part in the Pentagon’s annual commando war game in Europe, nicknamed Jackal Stone.
Four years earlier, the elite airmen in Britain “supported Operation New Dawn in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,” according to another official Air Force historical review we obtained through FOIA.
That year, the 352nd and the SEALs trained Latvian and Lithuanian commandos for NATO’s contingent in Afghanistan.
In the future, the new wing could help Americans evacuate from danger in Ukraine. The Air Force commandos could also help NATO nations respond to any insurgency that might crop up within the alliance’s borders … fomented by Moscow or otherwise.
The Air Force has flown its Ospreys into Africa before. CV-22s loaded with Navy SEALs played a central role in a hair-raising attempt to extract American citizens trapped in South Sudan in December 2013.
In both cases, U.S. Central Command temporarily loaned tilt-rotors under its control for the African missions.
“We also have special operations … elements located in Germany and the United Kingdom,” Rodriguez said. “With limited forces and infrastructure, we are working to maximize our … flexibility to respond effectively to crisis.”
The doubled-down 352nd could potentially supply these aircraft on a more regular basis. They have the ability — and conflicts in Nigeria, Libya and elsewhere are still raging.