The 7th Special Operations Squadron, which forms part of the 352nd Special Operations Wing, based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk has been undergoing several changes over the past 12 months, in line with an increase in capabilities and duties for the 352ndSOW as a whole. Duncan Monk and Ben Montgomery summarise the changes and realignment of this Special Operations Command unit.

352nd SOW Transition

On 23rd March 2015, the 352nd Special Operations Group was reformed as the 352nd Special Operations Wing after a lengthy period of capability transition has left the unit refreshed and modernised with a selection of 21st century special operations assets.

The change from Group to Wing status was initiated to reflect the increased responsibilities of the unit, as well as the increase in the capabilities of their personnel and equipment inherent from the build up of numbers of both people and airframes.

Under the 352nd SOW now sits the 752nd Special Operations Group, which was stood up at the same ceremony – presided over by Lieutenant General Brad A. Heithold, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander.

The 752nd SOG is responsible for both aircraft units of the 352nd SOW, which remain as the 7th and 67th Special Operations Squadrons, flying the CV-22B Osprey and MC-130J Commando II respectively. Also reporting to the 752nd SOG are the pararescuemen, combat controllers and combat weathermen of the 321st Special Tactics Squadron, and the 352nd Special Operations Support Squadron – who provide command and control support both in-garrison and on deployment. Colonel Nathan C. Green, commander of the 752nd SOG emphasised the new duties of the 752nd SOG during the stand up ceremony:

“The (752nd SOG is) a busy place and it is only getting busier. We currently have planes, crews, maintenance, support personnel and battlefield personnel all over Europe, Africa and the Central Command theatres. We have people forward right now, this very minute, in harm’s way and several others on alert for whatever needs to be done, whatever call comes next. We are ready; you are ready.”

The Maintenance side of what was 352nd SOG has been reformed under the 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Group, under the command of Colonel Eric Faison. Reporting to the 352nd SOMXG are the 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron and 352nd Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron – who are responsible for the maintenance of the CV-22B and MC-130J respectively.

7th Special Operations Squadron

2014 saw the 7th SOS celebrate its 50th anniversary – having been formed on the 1st of July 1964 at Sembach Air Base in West Germany. Detachment 4 of the 1st Air Commando Wing from Hurlburt Field Florida arrived in Germany in March 1964 equipped with four C-123 Providers, six C-47 Skytrains and 2 U-10 Courier aircraft.

The 7th SOS has been based at Ramstein, Rhein-Main, RAF Alconbury and currently reside at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, where they have been since 1995.

After moving to Ramstein in 1968, the unit received its first of four C-130 Hercules, the Lockheed MC-130E Combat Talon. Painted in a Matt black camouflage finish, the aircraft looked both mysterious and striking. By 1971, the 7th had received an assignment of Bell UH-1N Hueys which stayed with the unit until 1973 when the 7th moved to Rhein-Main, when the Hueys remained behind at Ramstein as a Squadron detachment.

The Squadron had operated the MC-130H Combat Talon II since arriving in the UK in 1992. Effectively a replacement for the aging MC-130Es, the MC-130Hwith the MC-130E’s going back to CONUS after the crews and engineers converted on to the Talon II’s. The Talon era lasted until late 2014, when the final examples of the type on strength were returned to the 1st SOW at Hurlburt Field in Florida. The Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey began to replace the MC-130H Combat Talon II in 2013, when (what was) the 352nd SOG took on the first examples of the type.

The 50th anniversary celebrations took place over the Late May Bank holiday weekend with various activities both ceremonial and leisure. Those included a golf Day, Hash run, retreat ceremony at Madingley cemetery with flypast, as well as a visit to the American Air Museum at Imperial War Museum Duxford, and a formal dinner at Cambridge University.

Two weeks later, on the 13th June 2014, the 7th SOS had a change of command with the outgoing Talon II commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clay Freeman, handing the reigns to the incoming CV-22 commander, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Oberhaus. The new CO is no stranger to RAF Mildenhall having toured here as an MH-53M Pave Low pilot with the 21st SOS before converting to the Osprey. Although he has fond memories of being a “Dust Devil” and misses the mighty Pave Low, Lt Col Oberhaus thinks highly of the Osprey:

“The best way to describe the Osprey is it can take off like a Pave Low, fly like a Talon, shoot like a gunship, carry SEALs, Rangers, STS, motorcycles, vehicles or any other Special Operations ass-kicking device and land like a Pave Low into an epic dust-cloud! What more could any aviator ask for?”

MC-130H Combat Talon II Retirement

As previously stated, the 7th SOS Combat Talon II fleet was retired at the end of 2014, with the airframes joining units back stateside yet to convert to the MC-130J. Although at the end of their lives with the 7th, the Talon fleet was given an impressive operational send-off – with the final months seeing the aircraft remain at the forefront of operations, with two of the three remaining Talons deployed. 87-0023 was the first of the core fleet of four to return stateside on the 14th August 2014, leaving 87-0024, 88-1803 and 88-0195 as the three final aircraft. 88-1803 and 88-0195 were the two airframes deployed on operations, and departed to the AFRICOM area of operations on the 11th September 2014.

The final Talon (88-1803) departed from Mildenhall on December 8th 2014, having conducted the last UK Talon training flight 6 days earlier, taking in all the old haunts that the type has frequented over its time in the UK – including a final trip through the Mach Loop in Wales.

Whilst the remaining 7th SOS Talons were deployed, it was required to backfill tasking requirements for Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) with an additional augmented aircraft and crew from CONUS.

That aircraft was Lockheed Martin EC-130J Command Solo II 99-1933 belonging to the 193rd Special Operations Wing (SOW) Pennsylvania ANG, based out of Harrisburg International Airport arrived at RAF Mildenhall on the 5th September 2014.

Operating from the 67th SOS ramp alongside the MC-130Js, the aircraft flew regularly, and was initially thought to have been a ‘hack bird’ or loan aircraft. 193rd SOW Public Affairs confirmed to AeroResource that the aircraft and its crew were here on temporary deployment, performing training with the 352nd SOG (now 352nd SOW) and reiterated the aircraft was not on loan to the unit.

With the retirement of the Combat Talon II the 7th has become an entirely tilt-rotor equipped unit, fielding the Osprey for the foreseeable future. However, current plans do not see the 7th or indeed the 352nd SOW remaining at Mildenhall – with the base set to be closed in 2019 following a consolidation review of US forces in Europe. It is currently anticipated that the Wing will move to Spangdahlem Airbase in Germany as part of the consolidation – an appropriate return to the country they were formed in.

With a good four years left of Osprey operations in the UK (under current plans), there are still considerable opertunities to see this unique aircraft in the UK. However, given they operate mostly at night – that’s easier said than done. Stay tuned for the next CV-22B article, when we get up close and personal!