Okinawa special ops unit seizes moment at exercise
Stars and Stripes March 24, 2008
DAEGU AIR BASE, South Korea — For airmen of the only Air Force special operations unit in the Pacific, a recent training stint in South Korea was one of the best they’ve had anywhere, they said.
The 353rd Special Operations Group specializes in flying special operations troops into and out of combat covertly at night and in any weather, resupplying those forces, and aerially refueling special ops helicopters.
They’re stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and belong to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command.
And while they train in many countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and Guam, it’s South Korea that affords them the fullest opportunities to train at their various special ops missions, said Lt. Col. Michael A. Wormley, commander of the 353rd Special Operations Support Squadron.
More than 400 of the group’s airmen and six of its special ops-modified C-130 aircraft spent about a month in South Korea for the annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises.
Wormley served as mission commander for those airmen, who finished the training last week and began redeploying to Kadena on Friday.
In interviews last week, Wormley and other airmen from the special operations group said several things make South Korea an especially good training opportunity.
One is that the U.S. military is well-established on the peninsula under the U.S.-South Korea military alliance. The U.S. 7th Air Force (Air Forces Korea) operates from two fighter bases here — Osan and Kunsan — and maintains five smaller “co-located operating bases” inside compounds on South Korean air force installations.
“The beauty of Korea in the Pacific theater is the maturity of the command-and-control system, and having 7th Air Force in place … and ready for us to plug in to,” Wormley said.
Certain U.S. and South Korean airmen work side-by-side year-round, and procedures governing U.S. military flights over the peninsula have long been in place.
Food, sleeping quarters, fuel and other key services are readily available to aircrews deployed to the peninsula for training.
The peninsula holds other benefits, airmen said.
One of the biggest is the chance to fly over mountainous terrain, Wormley said.
The group’s sophisticated aircraft are equipped to fly close to the contours of the earth, which allows them to evade enemy radar.
Most of the other countries where the airmen train have fewer mountains.
“Almost all the sorties we went out on we got a great amount of training for operating in the mountains,” said Capt. Jared Brupbacher, 28, a navigator with the group’s 17th Special Operations Squadron. “My navigator proficiency really took a step up this time.”
And Korea’s climate forces the airmen to plan their flights to accommodate cold-weather challenges.
South Korea’s many restricted airspaces — including the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas — also help sharpen training aircrews.
Navigators have to stay closely focused on ensuring their aircraft are on the proper course.
“Because if you have any kind of errors you could go into an airspace that you’re not supposed to go, and that could be bad for relations with another country,” said Capt. Chuck Chandler, 36, of Augusta, Ga., a navigator with the 1st Special Operations Squadron.
And there are “many small towns that you have to avoid,” he said. “Because we don’t want to disturb the local population and we’re very sensitive to that … especially with loud airplanes flying very low.
“Korea,” said Chandler, “is the best place to train.”