Never mind stealth bomber outfits and units remotely operating multi-million-dollar spy drones from secure desert outposts. Arguably the most secretive flying squadron in the whole U.S. Air Force owns a bunch of small Cessnas and medium-size transports that look pretty much exactly like civilian aircraft.
But the 427th Special Operations Squadron’s mission is anything but mundane. After reporter Andreas Parsch filed a Freedom of Information Act request, the Air Force told him the unit “support[s] training requirements … for infiltration and exfiltration.” That is, it prepares troops for secretly slipping into and out of dangerous territory.
Additional information is scarce, but we can reasonably assert that the North Carolina-based 427th also hauls American commandos in and out of conflict zones and helps hunt insurgents in Latin America. Moreover, the 427th “operates special worldwide crisis response aircraft for the State Department and the CIA,” reporters Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady wrote in their book The Command.
The 427th is all about “discreet missions,” according to Ambinder and Grady. So its roughly 11 aircraft are discreet, too, and apparently include single-engine Cessna Caravans and a Pilatus PC-6 plus a twin-engine CASA Aviocar and Airbus CN235s. None of the planes would look out of place at some developing-world airport.
Fly by night
As a night fighter squadron during World War II, the 427th battled the Nazis in the Mediterranean and the Japanese in Burma and China. In Vietnam 20 years later, the unit trained up South Vietnamese pilots on the Cessna-built A-37 attack jet. In subsequent decades, the squadron developed a close relationship with Cessna’s products.
The 427th inactivated after the Vietnam War but stood up again apparently some time in the late 1990s at Pope Field, adjacent to the Army’s Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Not coincidentally, Bragg is the main training base for Army Special Forces.
The Air Force told Parsch that the 427th specializes in short takeoffs and landings. In countries with rugged, remote and undeveloped airfields, it’s critical to launch and land in the shortest distance possible. The Caravan, PC-6, Aviocar and CN235 all have high-mounted, straight wings that generate lift quickly even at low speeds.
The CN235, for one, “is believed to be used to insert [Special Forces] personnel at small airfields for covert counter-insurgency operations,” according to the Spyflight forum.
The Air Force has published almost no official information on the current 427th, but it’s possible to piece together the unit’s profile. The Cessna Caravan is an important clue, for that’s the same model that military contractors have used for surveillance missions over Colombia on behalf of U.S. Southern Command.
We know this in part because of a tragic incident 11 years ago. On Feb. 13, 2003, three American crewmen—Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell—crashed their sensor-equipped Caravan in Colombia’s southern jungle. The men worked for a Northrop Grumman subsidiary on a $9-million SOUTHCOM project searching for drug-running Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels.
The CIA may also have been involved. Legally, the crashed Caravan belonged to a U.S. company called One Leasing.
While searching for the crash survivors, another contractor Caravan crashed, killing the three Americans aboard. FARC held Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell for five years along with other captives before a U.S.-Colombia rescue force finally liberated them.
In November 2001, a UFO conspiracy-theorist and amateur plane-spotter drove down a public road near the Air Force’s Groom Lake testing range in Nevada—a.k.a., Area 51—and photographed two 427th planes, a Pilatus and a CN235, sharing a remote tarmac with two civilian Caravans.
Those Caravans belonged to the same One Leasing company that owned the Cessna that crashed in February 2003. In short, there’s some confluence between the 427th’s Cessnas and those flown by civilian contractors on behalf of SOUTHCOM and, reportedly, the CIA.
The Cessnas also hint at a theoretical armed role for the 427th. In tests last year, Air Force Special Operations Command fitted machine guns to one of its Skytruck light airlifters. Weaponized Skytrucks could help AFSOC train allied air forces in the use of no-frills gunships. But the U.S. command could also use the armed cargo planes in low-intensity conflicts where it’s important to keep a low profile.
In the same vein, the Pentagon has begun equipping some allied air arms with Caravans specially fitted with Hellfire guided missiles at a cost of around $4 million per plane. American firm ATK, which performs the modifications, calls the armed Caravan “a robust day/night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance solution now available with precision counterinsurgency … capabilities.”
Washington supplied several of these “Combat Caravans” to the new Iraqi air force—and Baghdad sent the cheap missileers into combat against insurgents in 2011. Lebanon and Afghanistan have a few U.S.-funded Cessnas, too, but apparently haven’t added the missiles.
As U.S. forces pull back from Afghanistan, ending an era of large-scale American occupations, Special Operations Forces and the CIA are increasingly taking the lead in covert and semi-covert campaigns targeting terrorists and insurgents.
Armed aircraft are an important part of these new shadow wars. The Pentagon quietly equipped the Philippine air force with upgraded OV-10 attack planes carrying laser-guided bombs. The OV-10s helped smash Philippine militant groups in a series of raids in early 2012. Likewise, the Defense Department fitted guided bombs to Colombian A-37s—which then pulverized the FARC insurgency starting in 2010.
With more embattled countries acquiring Caravans, the unobtrusive planes could form the nucleus of covert aerial strike teams able to work with the CIA and Special Operations Forces to defeat militants.
Just as the 427th apparently works alongside contractors flying surveillance missions in Colombia—among other undisclosed duties—it wouldn’t be surprising if, in coming years, the secretive squadron also shows up alongside allied air arms sporting missile-equipped Cessnas.