- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AP) They don't wear green berets.
Hollywood hasn't glamorized their exploits in exotic lands. Even within their own service they are a sometimes overlooked and underappreciated bunch.
They are air commandos of the 6th Special Operations Squadron, possibly the least well-known Air Force special-operations unit, whose main expertise teaching the finer points of air power to less-developed foreign forces happens to fit neatly with the U.S. goal of building coalitions for the war on terror.
Whether the 6th SOS would become involved if war should come to Iraq, no one here will discuss. But its specialists have had a hand in anti-terror campaigns in Afghanistan, the Philippines and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
They train foreign air forces in flying, aircraft maintenance, aviation command and control, combat search and rescue, and air-assault operations. They keep regional U.S. commanders apprised of these countries' capabilities and in wartime can integrate them into a multinational coalition force.
Lt. Col. Eric Huppert, the squadron's commander, calls this an "inside-out" approach to the war on terrorism. The idea is to help a country, through training and advice, defeat homegrown rebels or terrorists without having to bring in U.S. combat power, as happened in Afghanistan, where no such relationship had existed.
Maj. Tim, a 6th SOS member who agreed to speak on the condition his last name not be revealed, recently spent 52 days in the former Soviet republic of Georgia as part of a team providing advanced training in the UH-1H Huey for a commando battalion.
Georgia's lawless Pankisi Gorge, which borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, has become a purported hide-out for Chechen rebels and possibly terrorists with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
In Maj. Tim's view, the training with such nontraditional allies will benefit the United States for years to come.
"You can really say you are doing nation building," Maj. Tim said.
The military prefers to call it "foreign internal defense." It's exactly the kind of work the Army's Special Forces, renowned as the Green Berets, have done for decades with foreign ground forces. Not until 1994 did the Air Force establish the 6th SOS as the air equivalent of the Green Berets.
The roots of the 6th SOS go back to the "Jungle Jim" program that was started in 1961 to focus on counterinsurgency air operations in Vietnam.
Then, as now, the American government's approach was to help unstable nations fight their own battles.
"The idea is to get people in that country understanding that it is their government helping them, not being puppets of the American government," Col. Huppert said in an interview at his Hurlburt Field office, where he can look onto the tarmac and see a Soviet-built An-32 transport plane that the 6th SOS leases to keep its pilots up to speed with the kind of older aircraft they encounter in many less-developed countries.
They also have an An-2 Colt, a piston-engine biplane used in such countries as Albania and Ethiopia as a general utility aircraft. In a unique arrangement, mechanics from the former Soviet republic of Moldova help maintain the two old planes.
The 6th SOS is organized into six flights, or groups. Each is designated for work in particular regions: one for Latin America, another for the Pacific and two for the Middle East and Central Asia, and two for Europe.
They are, in a sense, air ambassadors. They are not the kick-down-the-door warriors typically associated with the term "special operations." Rather they are quiet professionals multilingual, culturally sophisticated, often with advanced degrees whose task is to train and advise foreign air forces, usually in total secrecy.
The 6th SOS was in Uzbekistan, for example, a number of times before the September 11 attacks, and when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed for access to Uzbek air bases in the weeks before initiating the war in neighboring Afghanistan, the relationships built by the 6th SOS paid off. The Uzbeks quietly gave permission for AC-130 special-operations gunships to use their Khanabad air base.
The 6th SOS has also operated in such far-flung places as Oman and Jordan in the Middle East, Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Venezuela, South Korea, Indonesia and new NATO allies such as Poland and Slovenia.


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