KADENA AIR BASE, Japan ― In this day and age, the phrase “special operations” conjures the idea of the covert forces in Afghanistan that conduct raids on terrorist strongholds, train native forces in tactics or accomplish highly critical missions like the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But in the Asia-Pacific regions, the work of special operators takes on a softer veneer, focusing instead on strengthening partner nations’ militaries through exercises and training, and putting U.S. forces through their paces in preparation for a worst-case scenario down the road.

As commander of the 353rd Special Operations Group, Col. Jason Kirby is the head of U.S. Air Force special operations in the Asia-Pacific region. He talked to Defense News during a February trip to Kadena Air Base in Japan, discussing the group’s current priorities and challenges in light of emerging tension 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. So the Filipinos have done an outstanding job of responding to the threat from violent extremist organizations in their own country of late, and they’ve made great improvements in providing security for their own people, so we’ve been happy to be a part of that.

What’s happening that’s new to that partnership?

In our efforts with the Filipinos, we’ve worked on their skill sets in terms of air control and ensuring that they’ve got the ability to manage their assets effectively, so whether that’s maintenance or generating aircraft, we’ve been helping them with those skill sets.

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, and that’s part of that innovation piece that I was speaking to previously is the ability to change what we’re doing and accept the fact that what we’ve done historically may not be the best way to get after a problem set.

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. And it’s likely to continue to be that way in the foreseeable future.

Are there exercises coming up that illustrate those efforts?

Historically, we’ve got exercises with, again, the Philippines and also exercises with Indonesia and Malaysia and Australia and New Zealand. So whether it’s partners that we’re building capacity for, or we’ve got very high-end partners like we’d find with Australia or New Zealand, we conduct exercises with them on an annual basis.

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. But at the same time, there is a challenge with not having that predictability and confidence in the funding stream that we might like to have. And that’s something I know our senior leaders continue to advocate for.

What does that mean for this group specifically? Can you think of an example when the group was hindered because funding wasn’t guaranteed?

I’d say the bottom line is we get it done at the end of the day, that we often have to think about how we’re going to conduct, or we may have to commit more resources in order to achieve the same effect.

But I can’t think of an instance where at the end of the day, we weren’t able to accomplish the mission. I think at times, it just becomes more challenging.

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. They can adjust and reprioritize if needed, and that’s what’s so great about special ops, is you’ve got that flexibility, you’ve got that empowerment — perhaps compared to other components — to be able to adjust and get out.

Can you give an example of that?

I think a good example of late is our partnerships with conventional elements like III Marine Expeditionary Force that’s located here on Okinawa. We’ve got an outstanding partnership that’s going to continue to develop with them. So whether it’s forward aerial refueling of their assets including the F-35s that are now assigned to USPACOM, whether it’s their High Mobility Artillery Rocket System [and] their artillery system as well, we can provide them with support with transporting their system, which is kind of a unique special operations capability that we’ve continued to develop with them.

So those are the opportunities that we see across the force, including with those conventional elements like III MEF.

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 the other key piece is the relationship that we have with the governor of [Okinawa prefecture], Japan and his location here on Okinawa and the close proximity within. This is such a central focus area of the entire Pacific across the China seas, so this is the ideal location for us to operate from and work with all our partners across the region. And that’s the focus area for us, it’s those partnerships that the United States has had historically, and then we’re continuing to develop [them].

A lot of those partnerships are even improving right now, and a good example of that is probably India. They’ve got an outstanding capability on their own, there’s no question about that, so we see a lot of opportunities for partnering with India.

When you talk about presenting dilemmas, what does that mean? As adversaries change and grow their own capabilities, how do you stay responsive?

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. I think that’s the unique part that Air Force special operations provides. Not only the aircraft, but also the ground component as well with special tactics.

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.

I think the area that is a challenge for us is ensuring that we’re manned at the levels that we want to be manned at. As close to 100 percent manning as we can achieve. And I would say the trend is positive right now because of the continued focus on the Pacific.

There’s been kind of a renewed emphasis on ensuring that we’ve got the personnel that we need in the field. But as far as adding additional skill sets to the SOG, I can’t really think of any particular skill sets that we can’t find 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. But really the manning levels are actually quite good, quite close to what our targets are at.

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.

I think it’s more of just sustaining the capacity that we have and ensuring we’ve got adequate aircraft for the future as well. The trends are very positive, and I’ll tell you, the other elements of special ops, they always want MC-130s. They always want that capacity to get where they need to go in a given time. And that’s what’s so unique about the mission set: the ability to always make it happen and to be very responsive whenever we have requests for support.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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