SPECIAL TACTICS IN ACTION
The least known of U.S. special operations units, the 720th
STG—combat controllers, pararescuemen and combat weathermen—is
perhaps the most unique of the military elite, as it recently demonstrated
“Are you in the same Air Force I am?” The startling question
instantly spiked the briefing officer’s voice, terminating his update
on the progress of the ongoing, tactical air-ground exercise. For long minutes
the general had simply stared in bewilderment at the tall, tough-looking
captain speaking to him in the command tent.
As sweat-stained and mud-spattered as the boots and BDUs he wore,
Combat Control Team (CCT) officer Craig Brotchie spoke like an airman, but
looked more like some swamp-savvy Ranger or Marine.
The general could be forgiven his outburst of curiosity. Brotchie
was indeed a USAF officer and a highly trained one at that. But the tactical
performance of his small team in that exercise represented a little-known
aspect of air-ground operations that routinely surprises even those within
the Air Force.
Even more surprising to many is the emergence within the Air Force
of the 720th Special Tactics Group (STG), a special-purpose combat force
combining the proud CCT with another elite force with an impressive combat
record—pararescuemen. The most recent addition to STG was a combat weather
The 720th was activated in October 1987 at Hurlburt Field, Fla. By
1996, combat weather troops—used to support Army Special Forces—were
part of the team. All told, Special Tactics numbers only some 800 operational
The Air Force Special Operations Command (6% is ST) now possesses
a potent air-ground capability so versatile that Special Tactics airmen are
invariably deployed with their U.S. Army Green Beret and Navy SEAL
The 720th STG presently supervises seven Special Tactics squadrons
stationed elsewhere in the U.S., as well as Europe and the Far East. The
squadrons are designated the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 10th Weather; and
the 320th and 321st. The latter two are based on Okinawa and in England,
The Group’s mission is presented in deceptively simple language
“ . . . to organize, train and equip Special Tactics forces worldwide
to establish and control the air-ground interface in the objective areas.”
These often-classified, high-risk missions take place in a world
that seems light-years away from the public’s perception of the “wild
blue yonder” Air Force. But in fact, they represent an evolution in
tactical joint-force operations that is as sophisticated as any of the much
more visible weaponry now in the U.S. arsenal.
The key to the effectiveness of the Special Tactics concept is the
combination of superb human talent with the latest advances in technology.
And for years, the mainstay of this concept has been the all-enlisted pararescue
and CCT officer-enlisted teams working together to execute their separate
Pararescuemen (“PJs”) are arguably the finest combat trauma
medics in the armed forces. Their motto—“That Others May
Live”—is a commitment that has been paid for with pararescue blood
on battlefields as far apart as Laos and Somalia. These personnel recovery
specialists in their distinctive maroon berets made their first official
combat jump into Panama in 1989 during Operation Just Cause.
They have subsequently conducted numerous, open-ocean parachute rescue
missions to aid injured sailors, and work closely in their rescue role for
all NASA space shuttle launches. For a force that has seldom numbered as
many as 400 strong, the PJs have compiled an astonishing history of valor
The scarlet beret worn by CCT operators is seldom seen during their
operational deployments overseas. This is a prudent decision considering
the extremely sensitive nature of their mission in the combat zone. The versatile
CCT have good reason for their motto (“First There”) because one
of their missions resembles, in many respects, that of the famous U.S. Army
The first of the first to enter denied territory, usually at night
and often by parachute, CCT establish assault zones for follow-on airborne
Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Norrad, then with the 23rd STS, remembers
his first combat jump on one such mission during Operation Just Cause. “I
jumped in as part of the command group of the 3rd Ranger Battalion, and even
though we jumped low, they were still firing at us as we came down in our
parachutes. Strings of red tracer rounds from automatic weapons stitched
the sky all around me. A real eye-opener for my first combat
They also are trained in the tactical art of calling in air strikes
on enemy positions. And they have developed an unparalleled expertise in
controlling the devastatingly accurate firepower of AC-130 Specter gunships.
(CCTs, however, should not be confused with Tactical Air Control Parties,
whose members are not part of the 720th.)
The latest example of their courage and skill was demonstrated yet
again in Afghanistan, as CCT “eyes on target” brought to bear hand-held
laser designators to pinpoint Taliban targets with precise selectivity. An
11-man team from the 23rd STScalled in many of the 175 strikes conducted
during 25 consecutive days.
As the New York Times reported in January, 100 combat controllers,
pararescuemen and weathermen served there. A CCT staff sergeant named Mike
called in air strikes. “I’ve trained for a lot, but this was the
first time I ever rode on horseback,” he said. Mike nearly lost his
life when a bomb exploded nearby. “Everything went black, and I thought
I was dead,” he said.
The latest increase in Special Tactics versatility is represented
by another group of specialists, the combat weathermen with their gray berets
and motto, “Weather Warriors.” Five detachments field about 120
As Senior Airman Edwin Gideons, then an airborne weather observer,
once explained to Airman magazine:“The Army uses our weather data to
decide what they’re going to do, as far as weapons and tactics. Our
missions turn into direct action.”
Their participation in dangerous missions can—and has—proven
critical to successful accomplishment in some spectacular operations.
Such was the case, for example, when in November 1970 a combined
U.S. Army-Air Force commando unit waited impatiently in Thailand. Clear weather
was necessary to launch the daring Son Tay POW rescue attempt into North
Within the short, 38-day timeframe available to the commandos, foul
weather grounded the rescue attempt. That is, until the task force’s
assigned weathermen detected a single 12-hour “weather window”
of opportunity. Placing both their faith and their lives on the
weathermen’s judgment, the commandos launched their now-famous mission
that brought them to the outskirts of Hanoi.
In Vietnam and Laos, 20 pararescuemen and seven CCT were KIA. (A
memorial to the CCT was dedicated in 1980 in Hurlburt Field’s air park.)
One of the pararescuemen, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, became
the only man of his military occupational specialty to earn the Medal of
Honor. Killed on April 11, 1966, he was posthumously awarded the MOHin December
Since Vietnam, STG elements have served in Grenada, Panama, the Persian
Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Colombia and currently in the
Philippines and Afghanistan.
In Somalia, some of the 11 airmen from the 24th STS who fought in
Mogadishu on Oct. 3-4, 1993, were wounded. Bravery was abundant: a pararescueman
earned the Air Force Cross, another the Silver Star, a CCT the Silver Star
and Bronze Stars for valor went to the other 8 team members.
On Feb. 22, 2002, two pararescue jumpers from the Okinawa-based 320th
STS were killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines during anti-terrorist
operations. On March 4, a pararescueman and combat controller were KIA in
As always in the conduct of risky special operations missions, the
most critical weapon present is the human warrior. Operating in small groups
and armed only with light weapons, often in company with Green Berets and
SEALs, Special Tactics airmen work in an extremely lethal, unforgiving
Human failure can prove catastrophic in such situations. That’s
why the CCT/PJ selection-training pipeline makes an enormous effort to weed
out all but the best of the candidates who volunteer for such duty.
“The biggest problem we have is that Hollywood hasn’t made
a movie about us,” Sr. Master Sgt. Mike Breeden (now with the 22nd STS)
once told the Air Force Times. “We’re looking for a mental character
who is independent and is strong-willed and who doesn’t quit, but by
the same token is also a team player.”
Those who complete the initial selection phase can look forward to
further training in their core skills specialties. These in-clude basic and
advance parachuting, open and closed-circuit Scuba tactics, Survival School
and other specialty courses.
No doubt, as the war on terrorism continues, the highly skilled 720th
STG will play a crucial yet virtually unknown role.