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The New York Naval Militia
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Into the Special Forces: Rudi Horvath
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WWII Veteran Interview - Walter Holy
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St. Etienne: US 36th Division in WWI
Yalta
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Life and Death of the 10th NJ Infantry
The Raid on Dieppe

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Anthony Sobieski Articles
Phoenix Raven
A Hill Called White Horse
Artillery during the Korean War

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Phoenix Raven – A Brief History
Phoenix Raven – A Brief History 
by Anthony J. Sobieski

It is a cool summer afternoon at an airport somewhere in South America. In the distance, an onlooker can see a speck on the horizon. Approaching the airport it is apparent that it is a large four-engine military aircraft. Gray against the sky, it touches down softly. Slowing easily, the jet rolls just short of the end of the runway and departs to the opposite side of the field away from the terminal. Onlookers could see big black numbers on the side of the jet and on its T-shaped tail they could make out “Charleston” stenciled in black across a field of yellow. The American flag can also be made out very distinctly on the tail. As the plane comes to a stop, airport vehicles approach slowly. The front hatch drops down and out steps three members of the crew. While one is checking the front of the aircraft the other two walk over to the now stationary airport vehicles. They shake hands and exchange and examine papers. Walking back to the plane, they bring a few of the airport personnel with them and give the crew the thumbs-up. All appears normal, routine. The two crew members who greeted the airport personnel begin to do a walk-around of the plane, ensuring everything is OK. Barely noticed doing this, they snap a picture or two of the countryside, and seem to find interest in the area where the airport fence is in disrepair not far from them.

The plane has been on the parking ramp all afternoon. Into the evening hours, some locals want to get a better look at the plane, since it’s not often they see one like this. It should be OK, since no one’s usually around, there are only a few guards on duty at night, and the old fence on the back side of the airport barely stands anymore. Five men decide to go take a look at the American jet. Who knows, perhaps the plane is unlocked? Perhaps there’s something of value that they can use or want? Or even better, there might be something they can sell. After walking through a hole in the fence where they parked their vehicle, they can see the shape of the plane silhouetted against the night sky only a hundred yards or so from them. Walking over to it should be no problem. Right before reaching the wingtip, they are unaware of a figure standing underneath the wing. Moving out from the shadows and greeting them in a rudimentary version of their language, they are motionless for a few seconds and are not sure what to do. Who is this, an airport employee or guard? Is it just one person? As they are asking themselves these questions, a second figure steps out from the shadows near the main hatch. The two talk to each other in English, and it is now evident they are wearing uniforms, like the ones from the aircrew. Again one of them hails the five locals, this time in English: “What do you want? There’s nothing to see here, just an empty plane…”

All five men turn around and start running back the way they came. Before reaching the fence, a set of headlights flashes on them and then they are blinded by the brightness of red and blue police lights. What those five men did not realize is that as soon as they started coming across the field, the two specially trained US Air Force (USAF) personnel were ready. Watching through night vision goggles, they called the airport security office with a cell phone they received from the US Embassy. Alerted, the local police were on their way even before the five men turned and started to run back to their van.

Does the above scenario sound like an infrequent occurrence? What you have just read happens more commonly than one would think, one of a number of situations that have occurred over the last eleven years regarding the US’s military flights around the world. Some minor instances are only a minute or so worth of somebody’s thought process, while others can take hours to resolve. And at the same time, a thousand miles away, there might be a major event happening to a US military cargo aircrew or aircraft, potentially life threatening, possibly an international incident. Through all of these minor and major incidents, at times more than once a month, there is one factor that is constant throughout. When it comes to these planes transiting foreign countries and landing at airports, airfields, remote locations, and even sometimes dirt runways, there are USAF Phoenix Ravens on duty. What exactly is a Phoenix Raven? The official USAF description states that they are “teams of specially trained Security Forces (SF) personnel dedicated to providing security for Air Mobility Command (AMC) aircraft that transit high terrorist and criminal threat areas.”[1]1

This single sentence speaks volumes and is the basic tenet of the program. If one was to offer an explanation of the Phoenix Raven program and they were to give nothing else but that statement, it encompasses what Ravens train to do and what they provide to the operational community. The fact that US cargo planes regularly “transit high terrorist and criminal threat areas” with more frequency than ever before solidifies the need for these specially trained SF personnel. With origins going back to the 1970’s, the Phoenix Raven program was developed specifically to deal with the types of events as described above, adding an unobtrusive force multiplier to aircrews and aircraft that fly around the globe. Prior to Phoenix Raven formalization, such planes as the C-5, C-141 and C-130 were authorized to carry Mission Security Teams (MST) if the mission or cargo dictated the need. This normally consisted of a few USAF security specialists who were told to grab their rifle, flak vest and helmet, and to “go with that plane where ever it goes and guard it and its cargo.” However, most airlift missions did not bring along additional security, just the basic aircrew configuration with a few handguns and basic weapons training. Also, while aircrew were trained in basic anti-hijack training procedures, there was no other type of enhanced training provided to them that could be useful in dealing with other-than-normal situations they might encounter.

The need for personnel who were specifically trained to detect, protect, and defend American assets such as these planes and crew around the world became more evident as the years passed by. There were a number of base and squadron level groups that slowly molded programs together supporting this need for fly-away security, but standardized formal training and certification, along with USAF-wide implementation, was still years away. As a precursor to the future, in the 1980’s AMC gave Security Police (SP) squadrons at some C-5 Galaxy bases additional manpower authorizations to cover the dedicated fly-away security requirements these planes required at the time.[2]2 This job had always been associated with the SP/security specialist career field of the USAF. Guarding planes and personnel was this career field’s primary job. Therefore it was almost a natural progression of thought that if these same planes and aircrew were to fly to an unfamiliar location or country, they should be guarded by these same personnel instead of leaving it up to that nation’s own indigenous military or civilian guard force, or possibly having no protection at all. Another factor during those years of formation was that those in SP leadership positions were some of the most qualified in the USAF to understand the evolving threats and know the best ways of dealing with them. Some of these senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCOs)’s, operations officers, squadron commanders, and Major Command (MAJCOM) directors of SP (eventually known as SF) were just the right people who were already thinking along the lines of how to provide these services to the operational community.

A number of mid-1990’s events accelerated formalization and implementation of the Raven program for the USAF. By 1996, USAF leadership had already considered AMC, as the cargo transportation force of the USAF, to be the natural lead for this unofficial new arm of force protection, being the only MAJCOM to regularly transit all of the other MAJCOMs with its globe-hopping cargo planes. The AMC Security Forces Director at the time was Colonel Lawrence “Rocky” Lane. AMC also had a top-notch training facility in the Air Mobility Warfare Center (AMWC) located on Fort Dix, New Jersey, adjacent to McGuire Air Force Base (AFB), one of AMC’s bases. The final piece of the puzzle was completed unknowingly by two young children who unfortunately died when they stowed away in the wheel well of a C-141 transiting Mongolia. An incident involving an AMC aircraft, Colonel Lane, and the AMWC; all the right people, with all the right backgrounds, at the right moment, needed one last thing to put it all to paper and get it in motion – that of official backing and support. As AMC commander, General Ronald Fogleman provided that official backing and support. At a meeting with Colonel Lane over the topic, the General told him “to develop a program that would decrease the chances of this type of incident from happening in the future” and that Colonel Lane was to have his full support for the program and that of the command.[3]3 This direct guidance was all that Colonel Lane needed to put in motion the creation of Phoenix Raven.

Formation of an actual operational program came about in short order. What could normally have taken years occurred in a matter of months, much quicker than one would expect for a USAF program at that time. Since bits and pieces of useful training and knowledge had been around for years, it was a matter of bringing it all together in one place as one source. Certain bases already had a form of a program in place, some more formalized than others. The 89th Security Forces Squadron at Andrews AFB had been providing presidential security support for years with their “Flying Guns” program. A casual observer might have heard terms such as “FAST” (Fly-Away Security Team) and “DART” (Deployed Antiterrorism Response Team) if they happened to be at a base were the SF squadron was providing support for missions. The term Phoenix Raven came about inauspiciously as a combination of “Phoenix” being a standard AMC prefix and “Raven” being the most intelligent of birds with exceptionally keen eyesight.[4]4 With AMC taking the lead, where could they establish a training course to implement this new program? The AMWC was the answer. AMC training had been going on there for years, and even prior to that the Security Police/Forces Air Base Ground Defense School (ABGD) was located on the same grounds. Furthermore, in 1996/97, there was already a core of experienced USAF cadre from multiple career fields already stationed there. Pulling from and combining these to create a wealth of information, experience, training, and insight into the different aspects of their respective jobs, was integral to becoming what was known officially as the “AMC Phoenix Raven Certification Course.” Those who would act as the initial instructor cadre either selectively or jointly went through numerous training courses or already had a background in the areas that would make up the basis of the program. This training was a healthy combination of physical security, acute attention to detail, cultural awareness, with force protection as the overall theme, and anti-terrorism being only one part.

In January 1997, the AMWC cadre had successfully moved along enough in its approval process to prepare for the first class. Scheduled for February 1997, AMC released a short announcement looking for volunteers to attend a new type of training for the Security Forces career field. Most of these volunteers had already heard about the new program previously through the unofficial grapevine. Those that were selected were ready physically and mentally on the first day, and eight days later on February 22nd 1997 the USAF graduated the first 24 Phoenix Ravens. That first class consisted of eight straight 16+hour days of physical and mental training. After that first class went through, and those first 24 graduates returned to their units, word spread quickly about this new, tough training that the AMWC offered. The response was overwhelming, with many SF personnel wanting to earn a Raven number[5]5 and join the program’s ranks. By the end of 1998, the AMWC had graduated another 337 students from the now prestigious Raven School. The demand for Ravens, both from the SF troops themselves wanting to attend the course and from the flying community in general, grew ten-fold. After only two years, the length of the training course had almost doubled to fifteen days, with no day off, averaging 14+hours a day. The number of tools used for teaching, both physically and mentally, had similarly grown. The program had built up so much momentum and backing that by the end of 1998 there were graduates from most of the other active duty MAJCOMs. The Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) were now supporting the program and attending regularly, with the US Army and Navy making inquiries about possibly attending. Colonel Lane and AMC had a winner on their hands.

The operational community was split into two camps; those that felt they wanted and needed these Ravens on board their planes, and those that did not. During 1997-98, Ravens found that those who more readily accepted the new addition of “sky-cops” to their close-knit aircrew group were the younger pilots and crew, officers and enlisted alike. At the opposite end of the spectrum were, unfortunately, those aircrew who flew into Southeast Asia, South America, Europe, and other out-of-the-way locales where it was common practice, even if not on a US or foreign military base, to lock up the plane and leave it guarded by the host nation and head for lodging. The real life scenario of the stowaways and another incident, where an aircraft guarded by host nation forces was damaged at a Senegalese airfield, proved that the old ways were not working any more in a modern changing environment. The challenge to the fledgling Raven program was in gaining the acceptance of the flyers and earning their respect, all in a minimum amount of time. Sometimes, all it took was one mission where an aircrew drove off to its lodging location, to return in a day or two to find the Raven team still alert, still protecting, and ready to pitch in with anything they could when the crew returned. At other times, it included situations where an aircrew felt steadied and reassured in doing their respective jobs on and around a plane all the time knowing a trained Raven team was there to do nothing other than protect the aircraft and crew from any potential harm.

By 2001, the Raven program had become more readily accepted by the USAF’s flying community, a rather short period of time considering its inception date. The jargon “Raven mission”[6]6 had also worked its way into regular USAF lexicon. When new pilot trainees came through the aircraft commander’s orientation course at AMC headquarters, a Raven orientation briefing was given by the program manager, a schedule item which continues today. 2001 also proved to be critical in a number of other ways. The Department of Defense USS Cole Commission Report, issued in January 2001 after the attack on the US Navy vessel, acknowledged the USAF Phoenix Raven program as a benchmark for the need of force protection at transit locations.[7]7 The USAF, for its part, was doing the right thing at the right time by adding Raven teams to some of its missions. The growth in number of missions flown had tripled since 1997, and by June 2001 the total number of certified graduates was over 600[8]8, by now a combination of active duty, Guard, and Reserve certified Ravens. Each class built upon the previous one, improving techniques and training through lessons learned and constant feedback from the field. Camaraderie also appeared among those graduates too, with each Raven knowing that those around them went through and had the same experiences they did. This unfortunately also brought about unexpected backlash from some in the SF community, mostly from those who could not grasp the importance of the program. But, that was about to change in a way no one could have imagined.

September 11th, 2001 (9/11) was a flashpoint for the program. Before the end of that day, every available active duty Raven was either already assigned to a mission or on standby to fly out immediately, while a large number of Guard and Reserve Ravens volunteered to fill some of the overflow of tasked missions. In the next few weeks, almost every military cargo, transport, or troop rotator flight taking off from the United States, regardless of where it was bound, had Ravens on board. The next month was nothing short of a blur to those that flew during that time, with the program adjusting to a new term, the “Stage.” Staging points had been identified in various countries that the U.S. was going to utilize in launching its response on those who attacked us. The selection process was straightforward, concentrating on locations from which our transport planes could make it to Afghanistan (and surrounding countries) and back. Dozens of active duty Ravens forward-deployed to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy; Ramstein Air Base (AB) and Rhein-Main AB, Germany; Thumrait, Oman; Moron AB, Spain; and Kadena AB, Japan. The majority of Guard and Reserve Ravens, for the first time mobilized as such, poured into Charleston and Dover AFBs to cover the load from the continental U.S. What all these Ravens accomplished was astonishing, covering 678 missions during the last 3½ months of the year. To say this strained the program to its limits is an understatement. It was only through the perseverance, dedication, and a will to get the mission done that these Ravens accomplished such an extensive set of requirements..

After 9/11, the demand for Ravens and their skills increased dramatically. Phoenix Raven involvement in some of the earliest post-9/11 AMC taskings solidified the need for the program within the command. One new twist added to the Raven program was that of providing Air Marshal-type support to civilian contracted missions. The US Federal Air Marshal (FAM) Service went through a huge expansion after 9/11. Part of that was training Ravens to cover some of the overflow trips that FAM manpower could not handle. In a joint endeavor, a new portion was added to the Raven training course where students actually went to the Atlantic City, New Jersey training center for the FAM Service, and were given a “crash course” on FAM anti-hijack procedures. This new training became a regular part of the Raven course from 2002 through 2006, providing over 600 FAM-trained Raven personnel in the process. This requirement eventually came to a close after FAM numbers substantially increased and the number of flights needing support decreased to manageable numbers.

Another mission needing urgent attention was that of moving captured suspected terrorists to a safe holding area away from Afghanistan. It was clear that the Raven community could provide immediate support to this need. Detainee movement and handling was not part of the original training for Ravens, but what the program did offer were personnel already having 90% of the skills envisioned for those that would conduct those movements. There was some knowledge already available regarding AMC’s pre-9/11 refugee and prisoner movements from past operations. The Ravens already possessed the training to match AMC’s knowledge. These two things and the expertise of those in the SF community who actually had prisoner handling experience enabled the initial detainee flights to commence. The vast majority of the detainee movement training staff and those filling the key leadership positions were Ravens, though not in a primary role. The Raven influence was evident from the early planning stages to the formalization and concept of operations that would eventually become “Detainee Movement Operations.” Raven involvement continues to this day with detainee movements, with Ravens still being required on certain missions.[9],[10]9, 10

In 2006 and 2007 development of two other programs took place, both growing out of the Phoenix Raven aircraft security concept. The first, Fly Away Security (FAS) program, has become a stripped-down version of the Raven program’s basics for Central Command’s inter-theater air operations.[11]11 While existing in some form since 2002, the need for aircraft security personnel “in-theater” was evident. From 2002 through 2006 many of these missions were flown by Ravens who were prepositioned at certain locations, creating, in essence, “mini” Raven stages. However, the need and demand only became larger, precipitating a change in the way the deployed SF community had to address these missions. Eventually, the SF community developed a system where a Raven was either forward-deployed by AMC or United States Air Forces in Europe, or deployed as part of a non-Raven SF package to a location which supported these inter-theater missions. When in place, these Ravens would take a small group of non-Raven volunteers and teach them the basics of fly-away aircraft security, enough to perform the mission. The second, Deployed Aircraft Ground Response Element (DAGRE) program, is designed to be an enhanced version of Raven for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) deployments into contingency areas.[12]12 These AFSOC SF are taught additional specialized tools that can be utilized in their AFSOC specific operating environment.

The Phoenix Raven program held its ten-year anniversary celebration in May 2007, coinciding with the graduation of the (then) newest class of Ravens. Over the span of those ten years, the program has been through multiple changes, sometimes in leaps and bounds, at other times imperceptibly to the average Airman, but all for the continued improvement of the career field within a career field. For those that were or are part of the program, these changes have not always been agreed with. But for those within the Raven leadership, it has always been understood as the way ahead. A number of these ideas that have been initiated or partly initiated though the Raven concept can arguably said to now be part of the whole SF career field. Those basic tenets of Raven training that have found their way into other AF programs have done so simply because they are good, solid, sound principles to use and follow. Tactical baton use commonly referred to by the name brand “ASP” for the make and model used by the Ravens, has become a regular part of training for all SF personnel. Use of the “Redman” padded suit for training scenarios is now funded for all SF unit training sections. Pressure points and hand-to-hand “combatives” training, developed by Raven cadre at the Air Force Expeditionary Center (AFEC)[13]13, are now expanding for instruction to all USAF personnel and is planned for inclusion into the overall basic training curriculum.[14]14

With the constant changes going on in today’s USAF, all with the objective to think, train, and adapt to an ever changing operational environment and provide a better Airman to handle that environment, what is the future of the Phoenix Raven program? Will the program be around in twenty years? Within the former leadership of the Raven community,[15]15 there has been and still is discussion as to whether all SF Airmen should receive Raven-type training, therefore eliminating the need for a specialized individual program. Until that happens, the current training cadre and leadership have done an outstanding job keeping the program aggressively adaptable for today’s changing environment. Detractors of the program may point out that there have not been a large number of incidents (large or small) that have happened over the span of the last eleven years. However, they fail to look at the opposite thought process of how many potential incidents have been averted due to a Raven team’s presence on a mission. A Raven simply saying “sorry you can’t look inside the plane” or by providing a physical presence when it would otherwise be assumed no one would be around avoids many minor incidents easily. Cross-cultural awareness and verbal judo skills[16]16 are a large part of a Raven’s classroom and scenario training, taught to address and de-escalate any potential situation at the lowest level first. At times simple physical posture and presence are enough to dampen anyone’s intentions, whether they are to simply get up close to look at a plane, see what’s inside, or to attempt something criminal or hostile.

Nevertheless, there are issues that should be addressed within the Raven community in particular and the SF career field in general. Education and support at the squadron level are the keys to a successful program such as this. Strong unit leadership backing will give any squadron a well-balanced and well-managed Raven section. This backing is a must, since it filters down through to the lowest ranks. The perceived elitism or separatist attitudes that are sometimes demonstrated often are reflections of a unit leadership’s attitude as a whole. This leadership support must go further than simply saying they “support” the program. A healthy encouragement of the officer corps to attend Raven training must be emphasized to give leadership a better understanding of the tool they have at their disposal. Another area that unit leadership must continue to avoid is not seeing the Raven section as simply a manpower pool for a squadron to utilize when it perceives the need. Phoenix Raven students are taught that they are SF first and foremost, but that they have additional specialized training. There is an initial two-year commitment to the program once a trainee graduates.[17]17 During these two years, the design of the program is to perform Raven duties and training first and also to be able to perform home base post duties when available. The reverse could occur with the current program and governing regulation. Being non-specific as to where the Raven section should fall in the unit hierarchy (training or operations), the potential exists for Ravens to work normal post duties first and with Raven responsibilities coming second.

Another area of apparent concern is the official guidance of the program. Prior to the release of Air Force Instruction (AFI) 31-104, the Phoenix Raven program followed an AMC Instruction, or AMCI, which applied only to AMC and its Ravens. As the lead MAJCOM in the formalization and employment of the program and as the recognized functional experts, AMC realized early in 2001 that the expanding roles of the program necessitated the need to become a USAF-level program. Work soon began on converting the AMCI to an AFI, in an effort to provide broader guidance for all MAJCOMs to follow. This AFI has only been somewhat successful, due to a number of factors. First, while directing the creation of a “Raven section” in each of the tasked squadrons, it leaves the direction open-ended and therefore at the discretion of squadron leadership as to where and how to implement this requirement. Second, the inclusion of an AFSOC chapter should have been left out of the AFI completely and followed the USCENTAF idea (through the FAS program) of supplementing the AFI for their specific roles and responsibilities. This will hopefully be rectified with the advent of DAGRE.

Through it all, the old adage of “adapt, adjust and overcome” has become synonymous with Raven operations. As long as USAF assets require protection while transiting the far-off locations that most people cannot even find on a map, the inherit ability to be adaptable, to be able to adjust at a second’s notice, and the strength to overcome any adversity will be needed. The best way to do that is to have a trained group of highly motivated and professional personnel who are willing to take on the risk and challenge of being the protectors of these planes and crew. Every Raven is given an individualized coin upon graduation from the training course. On the back of this coin along with their engraved Raven number are the three reminders expected from every Raven; that of ‘Integrity’, ‘Setting the Standard’ and being ‘Ambassadors’ of the USAF. With these three things holding true now more than ever, the Phoenix Raven program quietly forges on providing global protection and continuing to give peace of mind for those that they protect.

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Show Footnotes and Sources

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Copyright © 2008 Anthony J. Sobieski.


Written by Anthony J. Sobieski. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Anthony J. Sobieski at:
raven299@verizon.net.

About the author:
Anthony Sobieski is a Department of Defense employee and US Air Forcereservist. He is a recognized Korean War historian and author, havingpublished three books on the subject; FIRE MISSION! (2003), FIRE FOREFFECT! (2005), and A Hill Called White Horse (2009). A 1998 graduate ofthe Phoenix Raven certification course, Anthony is the 299th certifiedRaven in the U.S. Air Force.


Published online: 11/21/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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