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The future of security forces in combat

Posted 1/24/2006   Updated 9/5/2006 Email story   Print story


by Col. Brad Spacy
U.S. Air Force Headquarters Security Forces and Force Protection

1/24/2006 - WASHINGTON  -- In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2005, the first combat patrols of Operation Desert Safeside left the northern perimeter of Balad Air Base, Iraq, and began an aggressive 60-day combat operation to kill or capture insurgents attacking the air base. This was a historic mission for Air Force security forces. It was bold, put Airmen at risk, and the stakes were high. We knew the results of Operations Desert Safeside would have far-reaching implications on the future of Air Force security forces as a credible ground combat force.

Operation Desert Safeside was carried out by the men and women of Task Force 1041. Specially built around a squadron of the 820th Security Forces Group, TF 1041 was led by a young security forces lieutenant colonel named Chris Bargery, chosen for his reputation as an innovative combat leader. TF 1041's designated area of operations was one of the most violent areas in the region, roughly 10 kilometers wide and 6 deep, from the Balad perimeter fence to the Tigris River.

Throughout January and February 2005, Colonel Bargery led the men and women of TF 1041 in more than 500 combat missions that included raids, ambushes, and sniper operations aimed at taking back the initiative enjoyed by the enemy for more than two years.

TF 1041 did not disappoint. In just 60 days they captured 17 high value targets, eight major weapons caches, 98 other insurgents and reduced enemy attacks from their area of operations to nearly zero. And although TF 1041 endured numerous firefights, improvised explosive devices and indirect fire attacks, they sustained no injuries. Operation Desert Safeside was by all accounts an overwhelming success.

However, TF 1041's success on the battlefield had a larger effect than its immediate impact on the areas around Balad AB. TF 1041 also showed the world that Air Force security forces are an exceptionally capable ground combat force. This is a key point as security forces transform from a Cold War industrial security force to a relevant ground combat force for the joint warfight in the 21st Century.

Although security forces have claimed the base defense mission since the 1960s, it has always been considered an Army responsibility. In 1985, this was formalized when the Army became officially responsible for defense "outside the wire" of a fixed base. It was an unwritten understanding that Air Force security forces would stay inside the base perimeter. This looked fine on paper, but faced numerous challenges in application, which endured through the Cold War and into the 1990s.

During Operation Desert Storm, the lines of battle were fairly well-defined with major combat at the "front" and air bases supposedly tucked safely in the rear area. The first widely publicized indications that the enemy was changing tactics was seen during the attack on Khobar Towers, but the full impact of these changes weren't fully exposed until operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. In combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq our bases are not always in the rear and the enemy has attacked us from all sides with relative impunity, just like at Balad AB. The world in which we conduct Air Force operations is changing, and we need to adapt.

Early last year, when previous Air Force/Army agreements were dissolved, the Air Force was left with a tough problem; while security forces are eager to fight outside the wire, most are untested in the combat environment experienced by TF 1041. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that security forces are spread thin conducting security missions and other tasks throughout the theater. This is where Security Forces Transformation comes in.

Security Forces Transformation will help the Air Force deliberately embrace the air base defense mission by addressing requirements in all areas, from doctrine to training and equipping, and even leadership preparation. Security Forces Transformation will also re-tool the organizational structure to ensure we have the number of troops available to take the fight to the enemy outside the wire. However, air base defense is a tough mission, and security forces can't do it alone. Effective air base defense requires an integrated approach.

The Air Force needs to truly embrace the "every Airman is a warrior" culture and enlist the whole force in defending an air base much like Sailors do for an aircraft carrier in the Navy. All Airmen must be trained and equipped to man "battle stations," and leaders must be prepared to lead them in the ground fight. Security forces might be the ones outside the wire, but the whole Air Force team will have to ensure the base remains protected from penetrative attacks and insider threats, and be ready to respond when called upon. This is the reality of the world today.

I knew when I designed Operation Desert Safeside that the only way to stop the enemy from attacking our air bases was to go out and kill or capture him and take his weapons. I knew that security forces had the skills and courage to take on this mission and make it a success. The brave men and women of Task Force 1041 proved this to be true in dramatic fashion. Operation Desert Safeside provides a look at the future of Air Force ground combat, and Security Forces Transformation is the key to ensuring we're all ready to protect and defend.

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