Secretive U.S. Task Force Has Been Criss-Crossing Asian Skies

Previously unknown unit flew John Kerry to Vietnam, helped out in the Philippines, and more.

Department of State

On Jan. 14, 2017, in one of his last trips as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry climbed aboard a U.S. Air Force C-146 Wolfhound cargo plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. The small military plane with a discreet, civilian-style paint job would take him more than 150 miles southwest to Ca Mau.

The airport serving the small city south of Mekong Delta was too small to accommodate Kerry’s more common transport, the C-32, which is a derivative of Boeing’s 757 airliner. In Ca Mau, the top American diplomat and Vietnam War veteran would take tour of some of the old battlegrounds, talk with locals about reconciliation efforts in what was once part of South Vietnam, and learn about environmental restoration projects in the area.

But this wasn’t the first time Kerry made use of a C-146 for official visits to more remote parts of Vietnam. In December 2013, a Wolfhound took the Secretary of State and more than 40 staff to the Mekong Delta region and then on to the Philippines to announce a $25 million aid package following the devastating Typhoon Yolanda.

And that time, a previously unknown U.S. special operations task force helped him get where he needed to go.

According to documents The War Zone obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Joint Special Operations Air Detachment – SN (JSOAD-SN) was responsible for making sure Kerry reached his destinations safely. This unit is mentioned in the footnotes of a heavily redacted copy of the 2013 annual history for the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group, which is headquartered at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

We do not know what the “SN” stands for in the acronym. Censors removed nearly any mention of the detachment’s operations from the history’s main narrative. We also don’t know if the unit was still active as of January 2017, when Kerry returned to Vietnam. At the time of writing, U.S. Pacific Command had not responded to questions about the unit’s name and basic functions.

Department of State

However, one can still glean a significant amount of detail from the history, related documents and other publicly available information. Most importantly, the Air Force’s 524th Special Operations Squadron undoubtedly provided the aircraft and crews. The squadron, nicknamed the Hounds, is the only unit flying the C-146s. As of June 3, 2013, there were two Wolfhounds in the Pacific region, according to another table the author previously obtained via the FOIA.

Moving Kerry around definitely seems to have been one of the bigger operations for JSOAD-SN during 2013. On Oct. 30, 2013, the detachment drafted a concept of operations specifically for the specialized airlift mission in Vietnam, according to the citations.

“The theater [commander] selected the Hounds based on their professionalism, reliability and ability to operate in austere environments,” the 524th declared in a review of its activities after being named the Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) squadron of the year for 2013. The author received this document through yet another FOIA request.

But the detachment was not dedicated solely to moving dignitaries around remote areas of the Pacific. Soon after Typhoon Yolanda made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013, American special operators rushed to assess the damage, distribute aid and move wounded and displaced civilians to safety. This support came in no small part from American troops already in the country conducting counter-terrorism operations and others who had arrived shortly before for separate training exercises.

USAF

A stock shot of one of the 524th's C-146 Wolfhound 

“On 18 November [2013], the first MAGMA C-146 crews from JSOAD-SN arrived,” according to the 353rd’s annual history. The 524th commonly uses the call-sign “Magma” on missions all around the world. The specific mention of the detachment made it clear the unit was distinct from Joint Special Operations Air Detachment - Philippines (JSOAD-P) at Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao.

In the Philippines, the Wolfhound flew from Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base on the island of Cebu, “which they used as a hub to conduct relief shuttles to and from airports in the disaster zone.” With the help of multiple crews, the C-146 was flying nearly non-stop during the disaster relief mission, which the Pentagon dubbed Operation Damayan.

In just four days, the team from JSOAD-SN was responsible for rushing two civilians to a hospital in Manila for surgery, delivering more than 40,000 pounds of humanitarian aid and transporting nearly 270 refugees to safer areas. The special operators performed their last flights on Nov. 22, 2013.

And that wasn’t all. The 353rd’s annual review cites two JSOAD-SN after action reports unrelated to Operation Damayan or assisting Kerry and his staff. One is dated March 13, 2013, while the unit published the other on Aug. 26, 2013.

USAF

A C-146 at Duke Field, Florida

It is entirely possible these secretive missions were actually quite banal, involving the discreet movement of advisors or gear for training exercises or other exchanges with long-standing partners, such as the Philippines or the Republic of Korea. It is equally possible these were missions of a more secretive nature.

During 2013 alone, the 524th’s activities “included discrete operator movements, SOF [special operations forces] team airlift to austere locations, hurricane evacuation, humanitarian aid, ammunition resupply for [U.S. Army] Special Forces, and even SOF airlift in support of the President of the United States,” the squadron’s report for that year proudly declared. In January 2013, the squadron's Wolfhounds brought elite troops right to front lines in Gao, Mali to support the French-led intervention against Al Qaeda's north African franchise. Then, in December 2015, photographs appeared on social media showing a C-146 on an apparent covert mission in Libya along with elite American troops and their gear.

There are no shortage of potential threats in the Pacific, which might require special operators and their unique skills. Since 9/11, the Pentagon has worked with allies in the Pacific to battle a number of Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. On top of that, U.S. military personnel have worked with counterparts throughout Asia to counter North Korean's proliferation of missile and nuclear technology, illicit shipments of conventional weapons and other activities. Drug smuggling and piracy are always a concern, too.

What we do know is, during 2013, the “Magma” crews from JSOAD-SN were keeping busy in the Pacific and were clearly ready for whatever missions came their way.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com