T-AOS: A New Model for Competition

  • Published
  • By N. K. Cobb

By fielding five regionally aligned theater-air operations squadrons (T-AOS), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has an opportunity to more decisively engage in emerging possibilities associated with strategic competition. In conjunction with the US Air Force’s agile combat employment (ACE) concept, the possibilities exemplify demonstrations of capability, especially when conducted with Joint and combined forces.1

Leveraging the ACE tenet of unpredictability, each T-AOS can campaign for operational advantage. In terms of ACE movement and maneuver, a T-AOS can campaign for Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF) to expand access and incorporate the battle of the narrative and influence. Agile combat employment-associated possibilities are relevant to the level of AFSOF, influencing conflict diversions by changing an adversary's decision-making and enabling the aggressive generation of conventional airpower at select times and places. To emphasize an important distinction, a T-AOS is not a command-and-control (C2) node but clearly supports this with campaigning options.

Each T-AOS is primarily tasked to campaign for AFSOF wings. First introduced in April 2022 in response to AFSOC strategic guidance to transform AFSOF into the United States’ future needs, the emerging T-AOS concept represents organizational change that, at a minimum, reaches desired objectives such as “decentralized units of action tackling complex challenges” and “systems ready for full-spectrum operations.”2 The T-AOS as a new operational unit arguably represents one of the most creative changes the Air Force has initiated in its recent history with tremendous application in the current and future competitive environment.


A review of national, defense, and Air Force Special Operations Forces strategies demonstrates the relationship of the T-AOS to strategic competition campaigning. On October 12, 2022, President Joseph Biden opened the National Security Strategy by stating, “We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order.”3 This strategy specifies three major lines of effort:

  1. Invest in the underlying sources and tools of American power and influence.
  2. Build the strongest possible coalition of nations to enhance the United States’ collective influence to shape the global strategic environment and to solve shared challenges.
  3. Modernize and strengthen the US military so it is equipped for the era of strategic competition with major powers, while maintaining the capability to disrupt the terrorist threat to the homeland.

Supporting the National Security Strategy, the 2022 National Defense Strategy identifies three ways in which the Department of Defense will achieve its priorities: integrated deterrence, campaigning, and building enduring advantage. The strategy states that “campaigning will strengthen deterrence and enable us to gain advantages against the full range of competitor’s coercive actions.”4

According to the AFSOC 2020 Strategic Guidance, the command must orient toward strategic competition below armed conflict by investing in new capabilities.5 To make the dynamic shift from a two-decade priority on counter-violent extremism and crisis response, AFSOC decided to break some things— figuratively, that is—in relatively short order.

The former AFSOC commander, Lieutenant General James C. Slife, directed the elimination of Joint Special Operations Air Components (JSOAC) in task forces and promptly established new command and control (C2) capabilities and the associated training and education programs and procedures to deliberately lead to force certification, verification, and validation (CV2). No AFSOC JSOAC has ever had a pre-deployment verification process like the currently mandated special operations task group (SOTG) process. As initial analysis revealed, the request for forces demand on the enterprise to provide steady-state C2 arrangements commanded by full colonels and to continue that two-decades long commitment was unsustainable. 

On July 13, 2022, the AFSOC director of operations, Major General Matthew W. Davidson, signed the Future Concept of Operations for Air Force Special Operations Forces Command and Control. The document addresses recommendations from a US Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) comprehensive review by codifying and normalizing its pending force presentation and development model. The goal is to more closely align AFSOF with other SOF tactical units and to better enable AFSOF’s unique multidomain contributions as a competitive advantage for USSOCOM, the theater special operations commands (TSOCs), and the Joint SOF community.6

This concept of operations declared the outgoing JSOAC model did not allow AFSOC to adequately sustain capability or to support surge capacity of its forces. Moreover, the aging model, without a thoughtful analysis of the force-generation process, had a near-singular focus and did not provide the right architecture to train air commando skills prior to deployment. The concept also codified the transition of AFSOC’s new C2 structure from the JSOAC model to expeditionary force capabilities.

The core of the JSOAC replacement elements was to center on emerging special operations task groups and their subordinate task units (SOTG/U). With SOTGs commanded by lieutenant colonels, AFSOC increased force flexibility and availability. And with the SOTG certification, verification, and validation process, task force organizations increased their legitimacy.

For context, a special operations task group is a deployable headquarters with two or more special operations task units of different capabilities. A SOTU can be special tactics, aviation, or a mission sustainment team (MST), led by an O-4 or senior O-3, and can be employed independent of an SOTG. The MST is a deployable combat support and combat service support structure for aviation and special tactics SOTUs and can include civil engineering, communications, logistics, security forces, bed down/sustainment, medical, airfield management, highly trained special operations security force teams for force protection at high-risk locations, and contracting capabilities, even when a SOTU is geographically separated from the SOTG.

A SOTG commander can request an aviation staff augmentation team (ASAT) for any task force O-6 or greater that the task group supports. The ASAT plugs into any O-6 or higher staff that requires AFSOF aviation expertise.

The first aviation staff augmentation teams have already been employed. The ASAT is not intended to replace all other existing Joint Special Operations Forces command-and-control supporting structures with outside air echelons, such as special operations liaison elements to a Joint Force air component command. Not part of the new command-and-control structure, but a distinctly separate force presentation from the SOTG and MST, the T-AOSs are assigned to regionally focused wings, responsible for integration and campaigning up and out with the TSOCs and beyond. In April 2022, Slife stated this emerging T-AOS concept would be needed to assist AFSOC’s transformation to “campaign in the gray zone.”7

T-AOS Objectives

In August 2020, then-Chief of Staff of the US Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr. compelled the US Air Force to “accelerate change or lose.”8 More recently, Lieutenant General Tony D. Bauernfeind, AFSOC commander, spoke about the USSOCOM commander’s conceptual ratio of “60-20-20,” representing the percentage of effort that should be relegated to campaigning for strategic competition (60 percent), versus crisis response (20 percent) and counter-violent extremist organization activities (20 percent).

The T-AOS is that element of the AFSOF that facilitates campaigning in strategic competition, which is the “persistent and long-term struggle that occurs between two or more adversaries seeking to pursue incompatible interests without necessarily engaging in armed conflict with each other.”9 The intent is for a T-AOS to provide a variety of air-related, creative, non-kinetic, nonlethal operational options so Joint commanders can have greater success, especially regarding competitive advantage below armed conflict. The regionally aligned T-AOS

will apply all-source intelligence analysis; multi-domain space, cyber, information, and special operations integration; and a robust planning capability to enable Combatant Commanders and their Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC) to fully leverage the unique capabilities AFSOC provides. Working in concert with the TSOCs and coordinating with sister Special Operations Forces (SOF) service components, these squadrons will develop a deep understanding of the environment and develop integrated campaign options for operational commanders.10

Author with air commandos in Senegal, 1992; Relationships matter.

To reach the T-AOS objective, Airmen in dynamic leadership roles outside of the cockpit may be called upon to marshal Joint, interagency, and multinational resources while balancing the requirements of an array of stakeholders. These Airmen will seek opportunities to leverage their unique background, training, education, and experience to advance American political objectives.11

A theater-air operation squadron can reinforce this concept by supporting partner-nation capability. It supports development and synchronization of AFSOF support to security cooperation, to specialized air mobility, and to Joint, Allied, and partner-nation capacity. Further, it supports capabilities through the development and operationalization of TSOC campaign plans and, to a much lesser degree, by building new air-specific relationships and partnerships. 

T-AOS Organization

Although the configuration may change in the future, the T-AOS original subordinate parts are the intelligence, multidomain, and operations flights.

Intelligence Flight

The intelligence flight is the largest portion of a T-AOS and conducts intelligence fusion and analysis activities. The intelligence flight integrates near-real-time analysis and predictive intelligence focused on TSOC priorities.

Operations Flight

The next largest flight is the T-AOS operations flight, consisting of a campaign planning section and a small air advisor team with specific skills and experience. The operations flight is a true integrated section that includes air SOF professionals from the special tactics; SOF air mobility; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and sustainment communities.

Multidomain Flight

The T-AOS multidomain flight includes professionals from the cyber, space, and information operations (IO) communities. Most of this flight’s manning consists of officers who are information operations and public affairs professionals.12 The T-AOS is an embryonic concept, and its first-generation subordinate elements recently began evolving into squadron A-staff elements and four campaigning flights. For example, the intelligence flight is parallel to an A-2 staff element, and the campaigning flights are personnel from the operations and multidomain element organized into campaigning teams. The campaigning teams plan and advise as required by the wings who advance the AFSOF role in the TSOC and combatant command campaigns. A T-AOS within or outside the continental United States has command relationships that parallel the AFSOC wings it supports.

T-AOS Education and Training

Specific concepts for education and training of T-AOS personnel are being decided as of this writing. The current education and training deliberations between AFSOC training and education working groups include professional development regarding the operational environment, so T-AOS personnel appreciate friendly partner’s perspectives and challenges and the regional compound security threats. Such proposed education and training activities will also include potential operational command authorities, operational capabilities, and Joint fluency for multidomain campaigning and effective Joint, interagency, intergovernmental, multinational, and commercial enterprise (JIIM-C) expertise so that T-AOS personnel are effective in various environments and missions on arrival.

All personnel will need planning methodologies to communicate with mission-type orders. Force protection training is imperative for Airmen to function and survive in multiple environments. Cognitive skills including critical thinking, creative problem solving, and systemic design thinking are essential for creativity and innovation and for maturity in a mission command environment.

Fundamental skills, beyond maintaining occupational specialty proficiency and leadership fundamentals, will include the Joint planning process (JPP), combatant command theater orientation, the JPP certification exercise, and the annual sustainment of each. All air advisors, in addition, will complete US Air Force Basic Air Advisor training or a SOF equivalent, AFSOF Air Advisor Fundamental Skills, Advanced Special Operations Techniques Level 1, and the AFSOF Air Advisor qualification exercise.13

Given systems to be used, the T-AOS directors are asking for prerequisites including top secret clearances to be completed during initial training phases to prevent operational exclusion of new arrivals. A security cooperation course is essential. A contracted embassy operations course has already proven instrumental for T-AOS to integrate more effectively with the greater interagency community, especially regarding integrated deterrence.

Pending Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) core curricula certainly augments senior noncommissioned officer and commissioned officer professional development. JSOU core curriculum modules, especially Understanding Great Power Competition, Understanding the Geo-Strategic Landscape, Risk Calculation and Decision-Making, Joint SOF Roles in Support of Integrative Campaigning Solutions: JIIM-C for IW, and “Thinking” for IW in Compound Security Competition will soon be available on the internet on an on-demand basis.

Considerations for Future Operations

This formal education is a must, given the current strategic competition and ambiguous environment, as there are several dynamics to consider in terms of specifying the why behind the T-AOS concept, socialization of the concept, building capacity, and operationalizing the future operations of theater-air operations squadrons.

The author, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Colin Powell, and Senegalese commandos, 1992.

Supporting the concept of strategic competition, T-AOS campaigns prioritize irregular warfare activities. Such operations are conducted parallel to gray-zone operations. They address challenges occurring below the level of warfare, particularly the power of information and other operational influence possibilities to assist current US efforts regarding the ongoing struggle short of traditional conflict. Strategically, this is where “winning is perhaps better described as maintaining the US government’s positional advantage, namely the ability to influence partners, populations, and threats toward achievement of our regional or strategic objectives.”14

Rather than seek a single, specific definition of the gray zone, one should embrace that the gray zone includes diverse challenges with no single solution and has three common characteristics. These characteristics are some form of aggression, the perspective-dependent issues, and ambiguity that exists in terms of the nature of the issue, the parties and policies involved, and the framework of the challenge.

As specified by JSOU President Isaiah Wilson III, such gray-zone winning is accomplished “through access, placement, and strategic influence, setting the conditions for the possibilities of winning before—or even without—the fight.”15 Those battles, especially the battle of the narrative, are already being waged by US adversaries, nation-state and nonstate, at home and around the globe, and we are behind. A significant part of why we lag in the international battle of the narrative is our military cultural reluctance toward propaganda against our enemies even though our Western political culture does not hesitate to conduct propaganda against fellow Americans.

The AFSOC director of operations, Colonel Jocelyn J. Schermerhorn, noted:

Our adversaries’ ability to leverage the power of information to frustrate the most technically advanced military in the world, both validates the importance of informational power and highlights the need for SOF to master operating in the Information Environment (IE). The IE provides SOF opportunities to proactively create multi-domain dilemmas for adversaries especially below the level of armed conflict. T-AOS is AFSOC’s contribution to the joint force to aggressively understand, blunt, and counter adversary use of ideas, images, and violence.”16

Joint headquarters and even established Joint task forces would be able to reach back to a T-AOS for planning assistance given its ability to look at an issue holistically and creatively and develop operational approaches.

For competitive advantage in gray-zone campaigns, AFSOC’s value is directly related to its ability to set conditions. Its role in setting conditions includes:

  1. Creating uncertainty with access and placement efforts while assessing systems, relevant populations, and key stakeholders during presence options.
  2. Inducing friction by testing narratives in conjunction with security assistance and security cooperation activities, with regional foreign internal defense and security force assistance operations, and with a myriad of other creative options.
  3. Imposing costs regarding access and placement to gain institutional knowledge about key air-related systems, the associated relevant populations, and key stakeholders. An example might include environmental samples (soil, water, etc.) to build ecological counternarratives. The possibilities are endless and only limited by imagination.
  4. Providing information, at a minimum, keeps our decisionmakers ahead of the enemy’s decision-making cycle, rendering weaponization possibilities for collected information regarding air systems and possibilities such as air fuel, parts, physical infrastructure, key players, and key terrain.17

True creativity is admired by those in positions of authority so much that military campaigning will soon lead to multiple series of operations to win the strategic competition fight rather than ad hoc efforts arranged to simply deter others from winning. Indeed, US SOF should, more so than conventional forces, be the offensive part of the greater integrated deterrence fight. AFSOC can deliberately function as the SOF of the US Air Force and the air in SOF while maintaining service-like responsibilities as a force provider. The potential role of US Air Force special operations in a nation-state warfare Joint task force can easily vary from air contributions to a special operations Joint task force in an irregular warfare task force given the variation in desired outcomes. Given access and placement, an AFSOC T-AOS will increase mobility for integrated teams to conduct a myriad of tasks ranging from situational awareness to influence operations.

Is it possible for an integrated air campaigning entity, the T-AOS, to plan for a single-air platform to safely land at a predetermined location that is not necessarily a prescribed airfield? Could the airfield have been specified by the T-AOS’ own all-source intelligence and operational experts as the single best location to cause a desired reaction from our competitors that triggers information collection, analysis, and dissemination? That single-air platform landing could grow to be three or more near simultaneous landings at prescribed locations in a specified region. The larger group of air platforms could easily come to include not only AFSOF, but also other US Air Force platforms. Imagine the cost imposed and the associated friction induced.

Imagine the potential reactions to a US SOF “back to the future philosophy, mindset, and approach to rediscovering SOF’s full role, purpose, potential, and identity,” where air, land, and maritime SOF are off-loaded to gain advantage using their “comprehensive combination of skills, techniques, operational methods, and tradecraft of the past, amplified by twenty-first century technological advancements.”18 Imagine the ease of assessing competitor reactions via multiple forms of local, regional, and international media.

In its campaigning, a T-AOS could work with the TSOC to integrate into larger-scale theater operations where other service aircraft join the regional presence operation. Next-level access and placement operations could include partner nations and similar Joint, combined operations could create uncertainty if these operations occurred at informed locations, multiple times. Now, rather than just presence, information gathering and deliberate information transmission, associated with the intent of seeing response communication pathways and links, would expand. In a specific example of such operations, soil samples could be collected, not for potential remote airfields, but rather to test the soil for contamination that could in turn be part of climate change counternarrative possibilities. The strategic competition campaigning possibilities are endless.


The relevance of a T-AOS is centered on its direct relationship to strategic competition and the comparative advantage it offers, as demonstrated by the associated national, defense, and AFSOF strategies, including direction and action from the previous and current AFSOF commanders. AFSOC is investing in tools of influence, building tools of collective influence, and modernizing so it is equipped for strategic competition. The Air Force must now consider the possibilities for future operations given the current competitive, ambiguous environment justifying such a force presentation.

Who will create new training scenarios and incorporate a wholly new force presentation, an integrated team such as a T-AOS, into local unit training, Joint-combined exchange training in theater, and Joint exercises worldwide? At a minimum, one could easily see a T-AOS developing specific plans where portions of the T-AOS would, post-campaigning, participate in exercises with other forces and partners that would assess the viability of planning efforts and mirror the real-world possibilities. Certainly, those in AFSOF positions of authority appreciate that providing the manning, materiel, and financial resources for such an endeavor extends beyond current levels.

Thus far, the rationale for rapid, relevant change bridges two distinctly different approaches taken by the former and current AFSOF commander. The challenge for the former AFSOC commander was to be the change agent. The challenge for the current AFSOC commander is to grow capability while repelling doubts, insist on the fielding of the emerging T-AOS organizations, press for the associated Joint force commander’s campaigns and requisite authorities, and reinforce interagency and international relationships while motivating creative solution sets for future operations. The Joint Operating Concept for Competing calls for “expanding the competitive mindset” by accepting that “our adversaries have a very different conception of warfare.”19 Our adversaries aim to defeat the United States and replace our nation as the international hegemon without firing a shot. We are behind, but theater-air operations squadrons are one of the creative force presentations for remedying that condition.

N. K. Cobb serves as an academic chair at Joint Special Operations University.

1 US Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment (Maxwell AFB, AL: Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, August 23, 2022), 4,  https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.

2 Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), AFSOC 2020 Strategic Guidance (Hurlburt Field, FL: AFSOC, 2020), 1, https://media.defense.gov/.

3 Joseph R. Biden Jr., National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, October 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

4 Department of Defense, “2022 National Defense Strategy,” October 27, 2022, https://www.defense.gov/National-Defense-Strategy/.

5 AFSOC, Strategic Guidance, 1.

6 AFSOC/A3O, Concept of Operations for Future Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF) Command and Control (C2), July 13, 2022, i.

7 Hearing to Receive Testimony on United States Special Operations Command's Efforts to Sustain the Readiness of Special Operations Forces and Transform the Force for Future Security, Before the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 27, 2022 (statement by Lieutenant General James C. Slife, USAF), 2, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/.

8 Charles Q. Brown Jr., Accelerate Change or Lose (Washington, DC: Chief of Staff of the Air Force, August 2020), 6, https://www.af.mil/.

9 Mark A. Milley, Joint Concept for Competing (Washington, DC: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, February 10, 2023), iii, https://s3.documentcloud.org/.

10 Slife, statement, 3.

11 Joseph R. Tomczak, Parallel Lives in the Indo-Pacific: Edward Lansdale, Donald Wurster, and the Irregular Warfare Mind-set, white paper (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, June 7, 2023), 6, https://govwhitepapers.com/.

12 AFSOC, Strategic Guidance.

13 AFSOC/A3, “Theater Air Operations Squadron (T-AOS) Skills Training Requirements,” Memorandum for Record, May 31, 2023.

14 Joseph L. Votel et al., “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” Joint Forces Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2016): 108, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/.

15 Wilson, 38.

16 AFSOC Director of Operations, Concept of Employment, T-AOS, November 30, 2022, 5.

17 AFSOC, Strategic Guidance, 2.

18 Will Irwin and Isaiah Wilson III, The Fourth Age of SOF: The Use and Utility of Special Operations Forces in a New Age, Report 22-1 (MacDill AFB, FL: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2022), 4.

19 Milley, Joint Concept, iv.

The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government.


The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. See our Publication Ethics Statement.