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Total force: special ops squadrons blur active, reserve lines

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- The Air Force's total force integration effort blurs the line between active-duty and Reserve Airmen, successfully blending two special operations squadrons as an example of a combined force.

The active-duty 6th Special Operations Squadron and the reserve 711th Special Operations Squadron are partners.  They share a building, flightline, aircraft and mission.  They also perform the same mission set of combat aviation advisors focused on aviation foreign internal defense. 

As the only two Air Force operational squadrons performing this mission, their deployment tempo is best described as continuous averaging around one deployment a month.

The alliance began in 2012, when the 6th SOS moved to Duke Field and the 711th SOS transitioned from the MC-130E mission to FID.

"It's no longer what they do for us, it's what we do together," said Lt. Col. Casey Ward, 6th SOS commander.  "The only difference between our two squadrons is the patch on our shoulder and down range we wear a common patch so there really is no difference."

The training, qualifications and deployments are accomplished together by the Airmen in the two squadrons.  More than 75 percent of the time, a combat aviation advisory team is made up of both 6th and 711th SOS Airmen, yet it's tough to tell them apart.

"We never think of ourselves as active duty or reservists.  We only present ourselves as a team, because that's what we are," said Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Tims, a CAA airdrop specialist. 

A CAA deployment sends a small team of Airmen to assess, advise, train, and assist friendly and allied forces with their own airpower resources.  The training aims to improve the partner nation's air capabilities quickly and show them a way to move forward effectively.  In pursuit of those military objectives, it's natural to form close, long-standing relationships allied-partner nation counterparts.

Maj. Alejandro Bonilla, a Spanish-speaking 711th SOS reservist and CAA, has bonded with his allied counterparts in South America.

"By understanding at its core what constitutes culture, and how to communicate and bridge differences, much can be done in the way of longstanding partnerships, which is our mission," said Bonilla.  "The better these relationships, the less likely we will see conflicts in these regions. That is the core of aviation foreign internal defense."

The 6th SOS Airmen are "old pros" at that type of operation, performing advisor missions since 1994.  The 711th SOS transitioned to the mission in 2012.  The squadron's evolution progressed incrementally with much help from their active-duty colleagues.

"In CAA operations, reservists are the newcomers," said Tims.  "We have to lean on our active-duty counterparts for their experience.  One day, that role will reverse and we will become the continuity for the program."

The 711th SOS is approximately 30 to 40 percent CAA qualified.  Lt. Col. Leslie Hadley, 711th SOS squadron commander, said the leadership kept the Airmen focused on the bigger picture of the unit's full operational capability.

"People naturally want change quickly, but this transition is a slow process," she said.  "It can take 12-18 months to have a qualified CAA.  The squadron is just now at the half-way point in reaching our full capability."

Combat aviation advisory encompasses 10 Air Force specialty codes.  Both officer and enlisted applicants must be an instructor or seven-level equivalent.  The Airmen are by-name selected after a comprehensive testing and interview process.  Upon selection, Airmen complete a six-week initial skills and required language training along with a supervised deployment and constant preparation and refresher activities.

Master Sgt. Christiaan Becker, an aircrew life support equipment specialist and reservist, took on the challenge of an advisor as soon as he was allowed to apply for training. 

He relied on his active-duty counterparts in the 6th for guidance and continuity after becoming a new advisor.

"They went out of their way to get me caught up on my roles," Becker said.  "They are very demanding and the veterans of this mission.  We're the new guys, but we're catching up quickly."

Once an Airman is qualified and deployable, they become an immediate Air Force asset to accomplish the CAA objective, according to Ward.

"With active duty, we are in a continuous state of rotation (based on the needs of the Air Force) whereas reservists will be here," he said.  "That reservist provides years of continuity and will be the face of the Air Force in forming those long-lasting relationships with partner nations.  In this mission, personality and relationships are critical and providing our partners with a consistent friendly face they know goes a long way in meeting our national objectives."

When the active and reserve Airmen deploy to a region to meet those objectives, they must operate as a self-sustaining team.

"This (CAA) is truly one of the hardest jobs you can find in the Air Force," said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Sims, one of two reservists to begin CAA team leadership upgrade training.  "You go from being a part of a large squadron with full support down to an eight- to 10-person team, or smaller, responsible for all of your own care."

Both Sims and Becker said they experienced the dual roles of being both a tactical and strategic advisor during separate CAA deployments.  Any member of an advisory team could instruct partner-nation aircrew in tactics, techniques and procedures, then be called upon to address their air forces leadership, all in the same day. Becker said he taught a military survival class one day and the next, he was in a suit and tie at the partner nation leadership. 

"This could be the first time our allies have met someone from the United States, and they are eager to talk to us, maybe to practice English, or learn about our country," said Sims, who supported a partner nation's first-ever airdrop from an aircraft.  "My bearing and discipline are under scrutiny at all times in addition to maintaining deployment security.  It made me develop a sense of leadership and responsibility others are not faced with.  Because of this, we have a sense of pride in the mission and a true sense of TFI."

When Sims' team arrived, the country's military personnel were unaware of the capabilities or how to properly configure the aircraft to execute an airdrop.  By the time they left, the allied aircrews had performed approximately 15 airdrops from their aircraft.

Each team member returns from a CAA deployment with stories of success and connection like Becker and Sims.  The CAA mission demands a lot from the squadrons' Airmen and constantly evolves to meet the changing international landscape.  Those who call themselves CAAs say they are ready and willing to meet the challenge.

"I know without a doubt those of us who are CAA qualified have enhanced ourselves because of the multitude of skills and team concepts we've gained from the program," said Tims.

The active and Reserve Airmen in the 6th and 711th SOS continue to work together and improve.  The blurred lines of the two squadrons will also continue to evaporate until those active and Reserve advisors will be referred to only as a team.