The following are excerpts from an American military media interview at Kadena Air Base in Japan with the commander of the 353rd Special Operations Group, Col. Jason Kirby, head of U.S. Air Force special operations in the Asia-Pacific region. He talked about mission priorities and rising tensions with China, Russia, and North Korea.
The work of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command is less apparent than special ops missions in the Middle East. What does your special ops group do in an operational context?
It’s the full spectrum of operations. We’ll work on building partnership capacity, whether it’s the Filipinos or the Indonesians or the Malaysians or a variety of other partners in the region. We work with them and we ask what skill sets they would like to improve in their own forces and then we work to provide them with that kind of instruction.
Have you increased your training activities in the Philippines since the uptick in terrorism there?
Yes, we absolutely have. The Filipinos are a central partner for us within the region.
Is the increase in terrorist activity across Southeast Asia leading to an increased operational tempo or changes in training?
I think we’re continuing to adapt to the challenges within the theater. So we constantly refine our tactics, our techniques and our procedures, and we evaluate the environment that we’re operating in. And that includes our adversaries as well, so as challenges change, we adapt with them…
What threats are you seeing in the region, and how is this group equipped to help the military deal with them?
I think our objective for U.S. Pacific Command is to maintain stability and hope to garner prosperity throughout the region. All of that comes out of security. It’s that partnership capacity-building that allows our partners to develop their own security initiatives, and that is definitely a focus area for us.
What’s the biggest challenge?
I think probably the Department of Defense writ large, it’s [lack of] a predictable funding stream is probably our biggest challenge that we have. So we strive to maximize our resources to the maximum extent.
Readiness has been a problem Air Force-wide. How do you ensure operators are trained and aircraft are ready?
For the leadership, the squadron commanders that we have within the SOG, they’re empowered to identify the areas that they need to focus on. So because we’re special operations, the mission set is very broad, very diverse set of skills that we’ve got to maintain, so what the commanders can do is based on what they’re seeing ahead.
We’re seeing a resurgent Russia, ascendant China and issues with North Korea. Has the situation caused you to rethink how the group does things?
When we look at that problem set from a tactical viewpoint, we look at rapid responsiveness. And when we do encounter challenges, we want to present dilemmas for others, and what I mean is the ability to adapt to the situation, to move quickly in support of other special operations elements and move within a given decision cycle. So I think that’s the part that special operations provides.
I think a key piece of our responsiveness is our focus on multitiered communications. So the ability to communicate with our forces in the field through a variety of different means so that we always have that connectivity. Because that’s absolutely key to being able to react quickly is the ability to command and control forces. And so I think we’re doing very well in that area in particular.
The other part, too, in terms of moving out rapidly is that ability to operate in any environment. Day, night, adverse weather. You name it, to infiltrate forces, to take them out or to resupply them in the field as well.
Are you seeing any technology gaps? Is there any tech that would benefit special operators in the region?
I would say that generally for any skill sets that I think that we don’t have, we can usually find — and really, I can’t think of where we could not find those skill sets — with one of our partners.
How many people are you at right now, and how many would get the SOG to 100 percent?
The SOG is pretty well-manned. We’re somewhere near 1,000 personnel or so, but in terms of the figure on a given day, it varies.
Are you seeing a demand for MC-130Js and the MC-130Hs? Are they mission-ready?
It’s kind of a replacement of our legacy aircraft, is what we’re trying to focus on, Air Force Special Operations is focusing on. So USSOCOM has done a terrific job of advocating for additional MC-130s, and we’ve been seeing that in the budget. So the number of aircraft has been increasing very positively.
I’d say for the aircraft that the 353rd SOG has, we’ve got the capacity that we need, but ideally we’re going to have to replace our older aircraft. [source]