In this article, we will dissect the differences between the Active Duty and Reserve Components of Air Force Special Warfare (AFSPECWAR). We’ll also touch on the difference between squadron types (RQS vs STS vs ASOS). Most might not be aware there are different options to join the military. But with the information below in hand, you can pick the right enlistment option.
Air Force Special Warfare has a myriad of mission concepts. While Recovery, Strike and Access are considered the core competencies, there are non-combat secondary missions such as Civil Search and Rescue (Civil SAR), disaster communications & airfield management, and maritime evacuation. A Special Warfare squadron’s location, type (Special Tactics/Rescue/Air Support) and status (Active Duty/Guard/Reserve) may all determine the unit’s training focus, mission opportunities and lifestyle.
The Reserve Component– comprised of the Air Force Reserve and National Guard, have a substantial presence in Air Force Special Warfare. Pararescue (PJ) and Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) career fields have a large reserve component while Combat Control’s (CCT) and Special Reconnaissance (SR) are relatively small.
Both the Active Duty and Reserve Component have Rescue, Special Tactics and Air Support Operation Squadrons.
Types of AFSPECWAR Squadrons
Rescue Squadron (RQS)
An RQS is primarily focused on Personnel Recovery (PR). Comprised of Pararescue (PJ) teams, core competencies include Civil SAR and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). RQS’s typically will train, deploy and execute missions as a team. A PJ RQS team is often referred to as a Guardian Angel (GA) team- used to signify the PJ, SERE and Combat Rescue Officer component of rescue. Combat Rescue Officers serve in various roles on an RQS, from Team Commander to Squadron Commander. RQS’s will often utilize HH-60 helicopter and C-130 airplane rescue squadrons as transportation assets for rescue missions. An RQS is not considered SOF.
Special Tactics Squadron (STS)
An STS conducts PR, Strike and Recovery missions in support of SOCOM. An STS is comprised of Pararescue, Combat Control, Special Reconnaissance and some TACP. While STS teams may often train and deploy together, they will often execute missions attached to other Special Operations forces. STS’s may have Combat Rescue Officers (CROs) and TACP Officers (TACOs) assigned to the unit, but an STS usually has multiple Special Tactics Officers (STOs) and most often the STO is the squadron Commander. EXCEPTION: The 17 STS is predominantly a TACP team.
Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS)
An ASOS is a TACP dominated unit that focuses on air strike support. An ASOS usually supports, trains and deploys with Army Infantry units to provide Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) capabilities to the team. ASOS’s are typically commanded by a TACO. An ASOS is not considered SOF.
Number of Active Duty/Reserve Component Squadrons
- 5 Active Duty
- 3 National Guard
- 3 Reserve
- 8 Active Duty
- 2 National Guard
- 15 Active Duty
- 15 National Guard
For detailed information on squadron locations, check out our AFSEPCWAR Overview page
AFSPECWAR Active Duty
Active Duty comprises the largest percentage of Special Warfare airmen. To join, applicants work through a special operations recruiter and developer to secure a job reservation. If selected and graduate, new operators are given their first duty assignment at the end of the their training pipeline.
Active Duty Operations
Active Duty operators work full time with the unit they are assigned to. Squadrons in an active duty status focus largely on a war time mission. These squadrons deploy downrange more often than their Guard/Reserve counterparts.
While Active Duty squadrons focus on wartime efforts, teams have been utilized to support non-wartime events. Notable recent examples include:
- The 23 STS’s efforts during the Haiti earthquake. The Combat Controllers (CCT) opened up and directed the Haitian airfield while PJs provided tell confined space/collapsed structure rescue.
- The 48 RQS water jump into the Pacific Ocean to provide medical attention to 2 Mexican sailors who had a crane collapse on them.
- Multiple hurricane support to the southwest region of the United States.
- The 320th STS assistance to the 2018 Thailand cave rescue operation.
Active Duty Lifestyle
Airmen assigned to active duty units can expect to be re-assigned to different Active Duty units every 2-5 years. For PJs, this can include changing from an active duty RQS to an active duty STS, or vice versa. There are a variety of bases to choose from in the United States and overseas. Weekends are typically off and airmen receive 30 days of leave per year.
AFSPECWAR Reserve Component
The Reserve Component is comprised of the Air Force Reserves and Air Force National Guard. The obvious benefit to the Reserve Component is the ability to stay in one place for your whole career, as there are no mandatory Permanent Changes of Station (PCS’s). To join a Reserve Component Team, the unit will hold interviews and tryouts to determine if you are a good fit before sending you to selection. Upon completion of the training pipeline, you will return to your Guard/Reserve unit to continue work.
Reserve Specific Operations
The only Reserve units in AFSPECWAR are 3 Rescue Squadrons- located in Cocoa Beach, Portland and Tucson. Like their active duty counterparts, the reserve squadrons are still a federally “owned” entity. Their primary training and employment is for wartime operations. Regardless, the locations of the units, most notably Portland and Cocoa Beach, place them in an opportune position to conduct Civil SAR (Mount Hood and the Atlantic Ocean, respectively).
Of note, the Cocoa Beach team has had a long history of providing lead search and rescue support to NASA launch and recovery contingency operations. Kennedy Space center is located a few miles from the Cocoa Beach RQS. While other RQS’s provide additional manpower support for each NASA manned spaceflight, the Cocoa Beach team have historically been the primary space flight support subject matter experts.
National Guard Specific Operations
Special Warfare National Guard is comprised of 2 STS’s (Kentucky, Oregon), 3 RQS’s (New York, Alaska, California) and 15 ASOS’s (See list here).
The National Guard teams are a state asset and have both a federal and local mission. They work extensively with local and state agencies for disaster response. While Active Duty and Reserves have performed civil SAR and disaster response in the past, the Guard is heavily involved in these type of non combat operations. Notable Guard accomplishments for Civil SAR include:
- The California PJ team’s multiple maritime rescue jump missions to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The team, located in the Bay Area, is known for their parachuting prowess.
- The New York RQS team’s response to the 9/11 incident at the World Trade Center. The NY team, located on Long Island, is known for their high level of medical skills.
- The Alaska PJ team is the busiest rescue unit, receiving on average one real world mission per week. These missions range from bear maulings to lost hikers and airplane crashes in the middle of America’s harshest terrain.
Reserve & National Guard Lifestyle
Reserve component units have full time and part time positions. A full time position is not very different than an active duty position regarding day to day ops. Part timers work the standard ‘1 weekend a month and 2 weeks a year,’ but there are usually additional training opportunities for part timers if the unit has funding. Part timers typically work another job or go to college within the nearby area.
Working in the reserve component affords an operator to stay in the same location for his entire career. It also affords part time operators the ability to pursue a second career in the civilian sector. If a change of scenery is wanted, reservists & guardsmen can move between their components’ squadrons as long as there is availability. Additionally, there are opportunities and programs to augment active duty units in a temporary capacity, provided funding is available.
Reserve Component retirement benefits differ from the active duty and can be complex for part timers. If retirement options are important to you , I recommend additional research into the reserve’s retirement system.
If you have more questions about Active Duty vs the Reserve Component, visit our AFSPECWAR Community Forums