Air Force Special Ops Must 'Ruthlessly' Cut Legacy Systems, 3-Star General Says

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Operators conduct helocast training
U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Operators conduct helocast training from the ramp of an MH-47G Chinook from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, at Hurlburt Field, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Air Force photo by Maj. Jeff Slinker)

Air Force Special Operations will have to adapt to major changes in mission and organization while coping with tighter budgets in the new era of great power competition, Lt. Gen. James Slife said Monday.

"One thing that's clear to us is that the future doesn't look a lot like the present to us," Slife, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said in a virtual discussion with the Center for Strategic and international Studies.

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If predictions within the Defense Department for flat or declining budgets in future years come true, "the only conclusion one can come to is we have to stop doing some stuff," he said.

"We have to divest in order to invest" in systems and equipment more suited for generational competition against China and Russia than the conflicts with violent extremist organizations that have dominated missions for Special Forces since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Slife said.

He did not specify which legacy systems would have to be dropped from the AFSOC inventory, but Slife previously has spoken of the need to replace the unarmed U-28A Draco, a modified, single-engine Pilatus PC-12 used by AFSOC for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

At an Air Force Association air warfare forum in May in Orlando, Florida, Slife said the service needs an "Armed Overwatch" aircraft to replace the U-28As that "can operate from austere regions and provide surveillance and precision fires in support of small disaggregated ground teams."

Without naming them, Slife said he was also looking to other legacy systems "that may not necessarily be relevant to the future."

"We have to look ruthlessly at what we have been doing and what we're going to be required to do and make the trade to position ourselves for the future," he said.

In future, AFSOC will be tied more closely to the main Air Force than it has been under Special Operations Command in the counter-terror wars since 9/11, Slife added.

In the mission role reversal that took place after the 9/11 attacks, special operators saw a shift from supporting their parent services to being supported by the conventional branches, he explained.

"We need to return to being a supporting force to the larger joint enterprise and, for me, that means the U.S. Air Force. That's probably the area that's attracting more of my attention than anything else right now," Slife said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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