Air Force answers 'wake-up call,' increases force protection

Released: Mar 18, 1997

by Staff Sgt. Cheryl L. Toner
Air Force News Service

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Less than a year after the deadly terrorist bombing in Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, the Air Force has answered a "tremendous wake-up call," according to its chief of staff.

To quell the tide in which terrorist factions see American men and women as "trophies," Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman activated the 820th Security Forces Group here March 17, the first force protection unit of its kind in the Air Force. The 820th, a multi-functional organization, is the first of three organizations which will form the Air Force Security Forces Center also at Lackland.

The 820th will provide the Air Force a highly-trained, rapidly-deployable "first in" force protection capability. An element from this group will precede forces deployed to any operation in support of the U.S. Air Force global engagement mission.

The June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia accelerated ongoing Air Force efforts to protect its forces operating around the globe, according to Lt. Col. Larry A. Buckingham, 820th SFG commander. It also gave the Department of Defense new insights into the operating methods of world terrorist organizations.

"Terrorists have great resources and we need to make sure we have what we need to counter them," said Brig. Gen. Richard A. Coleman, director of U.S. Air Force security forces, Washington, D.C.

In the Khobar Towers tragedy, Buckingham said that the amount of explosives used would have been "almost impossible" to obtain without leaving a "trail," and yet it was done. One of the roles of this new organization will be to gather intelligence which will look for indicators or trails that will prevent this from happening again. "We can't afford to lose anyone," Buckingham said.

While the activation of an organization itself isn't new to the Air Force, there are a few things that make the 820th stand out. Mindset is one thing. "We're shooters first," said Capt. Don Derry, S-3, operations officer. "Everyone will be trained in all combat operations to defend our assets," he said. Once the group secures an area, "they'll slip into their specialties," Derry said.

This mindset, however, shouldn't lead anyone to believe the group is Special Operations. They're "purely for force protection," according to Buckingham. "We'll be looking at all threats;" he said, "from medical needs and what's in the water to the local population and whether or not they want us there. We're looking at the whole environment, not just the 'bad guys'."

While this unit isn't the Air Force's equivalent of the Army Rangers, it appears as if a background in that arena is helpful. The commander and a number of his staff have served as special forces and rangers. Some have also served as exchange students with an RAF Regiment, a stint that begins with a six-month infantry school.

As much as a resume in weapons, sensors and communications may be helpful, members aren't required to arrive fully trained. All personnel will attend just about any school they can get their hands on, according to Coleman. "I had to whittle down my wish list," he said with a chuckle, "or else nobody would get a day off."

The few who would contemplate joining the 820th should be warned: this is no picnic. When the forces are here, their days will begin with three hours of physical training.

While this would be a couch potatoes nightmare, the number of days each member will spend on the road won't be conducive to a sedentary lifestyle either. Buckingham anticipates each person will spend between 120 to 180 days on the road annually. "Anyone below the top one percent in the Air Force isn't coming here," Buckingham said.

The 820th has yet to receive all its assets and the various flights around the states won't be complete until October '97. However, that first week in October will see all flights, a total of about 440 people, together at Fort Polk, La., for a joint exercise, according to Buckingham. There the Air Force will train with the Army, and possibly the Marines, and will be under the operational control of the Army's 82nd Airborne, according to the 820th commander.

While the joint exercise or even daily operations of the force protection group won't be for the weak at heart, the 820th personnel have a different view. In unison, Buckingham and Derry both say that the activation of this force "is a dream come true."