Special Operations Command South (Airborne) Unit History

Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) was authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on May 20, 1986 and activated by U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) on August 4, 1986, in Quarry Heights, Panama. SOCSOUTH began as a subordinate division under the USSOUTHCOM Operations Directorate (J3), with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion of 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) as a component of United States Army South (USARSO). In August 1986, it was reorganized as a separate headquarters and moved to Albrook Air Force Station, Panama, where its offices resided in the Department of Defense (DoD) Schools building's basement. In 1988, under the Panama Canal Implementation Treaty, SOCSOUTH moved to Corozal East, Panama. However, SOCSOUTH moved back to Albrook Air Station and remained there until June 1999 when the headquarters moved to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

To allow for the closing of Roosevelt Roads, SOCSOUTH moved to its current location at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla. in April 2004. The temporary headquarters consisted of 32 modular office facilities. In 2014, the command permanently headquartered on the air base and is comprised of over 400 military service members, civilian employees, and contractor personnel. SOCSOUTH is one of eight components operationally assigned to USSOUTHCOM. It is a joint (service members from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force) Special Operations headquarters that plans and executes special operations in Central & South America and the Caribbean. SOCSOUTH principally employs Special Operations Forces (SOF) provided by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and its services component commands.

The USSOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR) encompasses 31 countries and 16 dependencies and areas of special sovereignty. The region represents about one-sixth of the landmass of the world assigned to regional unified commands. The AOR includes the land mass of Latin America south of Mexico, the waters adjacent to Central & South America, and the Caribbean Sea.

Honored five times, SOCSOUTH received an Expeditionary Streamer for Just Cause and four Joint Meritorious Unit Awards (JMUA).

Significant Operations

Operation Just Cause/Promote Liberty 1989: In December 1989, SOCSOUTH activated a task force that played a significant role in executing Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama. The newly formed TFs would play key roles with performing separate objectives during Operation Just Cause. These objectives were the capture of Manuel Noriega, the defeat of the Panamanian Defense Forces, and the restoration of democracy in Panama. To accomplish this objective, the task force identified three principal missions: the capture of Noriega, destruction of the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF), and the rescue of an American citizen held captive. The Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF), commanded by Maj. Gen. Wayne A. Downing, was divided into smaller Task Forces (TF): TF Black (Army Special Forces), TF Red (the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment), and TF White (SEALs and Special Boat Unit assets). Missing the AFSOC support to the invasion, especially the AC-130 gunships, which would provide strong support for the operation.

During the initial invasion, each TF was given H-hour missions. TF Red successfully assaulted the Torrijos and Tocumen Airfields. TF White executed four separate missions: Deny use of the Paitilla Airfield; destruction of Panamanian patrol boats; securing the Atlantic and Pacific entrances of the Panama Canal; and seizure of the PDF headquarters (La Commandancia) in El Chorillo, Panama. Finally, TF Black composed of 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, commanded by Special Operations South Commander Col. Robert C. Jacobelly, was tasked with two reconnaissance missions, a direct-action assault to deny PDF access to the Pacora River Bridge which destroyed a Panamanian armored battalion, and the removal of Panamanian T.V. Channel 2 from the airways. In addition, TF Black played a significant role in several post H-hour missions. TF Black's post H-hour missions included stopping pro-Noriega radio broadcasts and executing capitulation missions. SF presence in Panama prior to the invasion enhanced their knowledge of the culture and language, making them an ideal force to secure the countryside through capitulation missions. These capitulation missions resulted in the surrender of 14 Panamanian units, 2,000 troops, and 6,000 weapons. Following each military component's surrender, TF Black left behind a small SF element from 7th SFG to help the rebuilding effort.

On January 3, 1990, after being surrounded for ten days in the Papal Nuncia, Noriega surrendered to American forces. In the end, SOF proved to be an effective force in achieving the objectives of Operation Just Cause. SOF played key roles in the capture of Noriega, the capture of Panama City, the security of the Panama Canal, the rescue of an American citizen, and the restoration of democracy in Panama.

Operation Uphold Democracy 1995: On September 16, 1995, the operation began with the alert of United States and its allies for a forced entry into the island nation of Haiti. U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force elements staged to Puerto Rico and southern Florida to prepare to support the airborne invasion, spearheaded by elements of the Joint Special Operations Command, (HQ, 75th Ranger Regiment), followed by 3rd Special Forces Group, the U.S. Army 7th Transportation Group (Army watercraft and terminal elements) and the 10th Mountain Division. Some of these elements were staged out of Hunter Army Airfield and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division deployed to Haiti aboard USS America and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The operation was directed by Lieutenant General Hugh Shelton, Joint Task Force 120 (JTF-120), provided by Commander, Carrier Group Two.

Humanitarian Relief Operations 1998: Following the devastation caused by Hurricanes Georges and Mitch in 1998, SOCSOUTH provided immediate distribution of relief supplies while participating in humanitarian relief missions. More than 80,000 pounds of supplies were delivered to needy victims by helicopter within the Dominican Republic. Additionally, over 1,000 flood victims were transported to safety in Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Operation Safe Border 1995: In early 1995, a long-standing border dispute between Ecuador and Peru resulted in armed conflict. SOCSOUTH was designated the executive agent to plan and organize the initial Military Observer Mission Ecuador/Peru (MOMEP), a peacekeeping mission established to seek a resolution. SOCSOUTH initiated a command-and-control element, provided military assets, and deployed troops for the multinational peacekeeping mission. Also providing support were Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The observer operation significantly reduced tension in the region, leading to the withdrawal of 10,000 troops and the demobilization

of 140,000 troops. Ultimately the dispute was resolved in 1998. The operation highlighted the critical role SOF can play in the United States' Preventive Defense program. MOMEP also marked the first time SOF were used in a multinational observer and observer support role in South America. The long-standing presence of SOF in the region improved their language skills, knowledge of the region, culture, and interoperability with Partner Nations (PN), making them an invaluable asset in helping to resolve the dispute. The command was also a participant in the Inter-American Defense Board demining program. SOCSOUTH's support of the program resulted in the removal or destruction of 3,629 mines and the clearing of 275,241 square meters along the border between Ecuador and Peru.

Plan Colombia and Plan Patriota Support 2001-2008: The U.S. Congress, with the support of President George W. Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, initiated Plan Colombia, a multi-million-dollar interagency effort to support Colombian democracy against the threat of the narco-terrorist groups; the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). SOCSOUTH was an integral part of this effort by providing Special Operations Forces as advisors. The Colombian Armed Forces improved capabilities were instrumental in reducing the FARC activities throughout Colombia. Furthermore, this effort continued under the Colombian Plan Patriota and established Colombian governance in the majority of its national territory, reduced the FARC from approximately 25,000 terrorists to a defeated remnant of 8,000 by 2008. The pressure exercised by the Colombian government and military and with the support of the people brought the FARC to the peace table in 2012.

Operation Willing Spirit (OWS) 2003: On February 13, 2003, a contracted reconnaissance plane carrying four DoD contractors - Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Tom Janis, Tom Howes, and one Colombian host nation rider, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz - crashed in the jungles of Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC in Spanish executed Chief Janis and Sgt. Cruz at the crash site and took Keith, Marc, and Tom as hostages. The U.S. immediately initiated efforts to recover the three survivors. In June 2005, under Operation OWS, the U.S. along with the Colombian government and military began persistent activities. These recovery efforts set the conditions for a hostage recovery. SOCSOUTH deployed a command-and-control element (C2) in Colombia, Special Operations Command Forward (SOCFWD), to provide on-site coordination to aid in the recovery effort. On July 2, 2008, after more than five years in captivity, Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves, along with other Colombian hostages were successfully rescued by the Colombian Military during Operation Jacque. The recovery was executed with no shots fired, no loss of life, no wounded, and two senior FARC leaders' capture.

Operation Unified Response 2010: On January 12, 2010, at 4:53 pm (local time), a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The earthquake caused immense damage and destruction in the densely populated Port-au-Prince area. The President of Haiti, Rene Preval, issued an immediate appeal for international aid, and the U.S. responded quickly. Within several hours, SOCSOUTH deployed a six-man SOUTHCOM Situational Assessment Team to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to assess the capital and surrounding area. AFSOC and the 1st Special Operations Wing/23rd Special Tactics Squadron also deployed advance teams to provide airfield security, airfield communications, air traffic control, ground control, personnel recovery, weather and drop zone surveys, and airfield operations operating from a radio post on the grass. Six hundred take-offs and landings occurred within the first five days. SOUTHCOM established the Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command-Haiti on January 19, 2010, to command-and-control SOF assets in Haiti to facilitate humanitarian assistance (HA) and Disaster Relief (DR) efforts and mitigate trends of mass migration and destabilization in support of Joint Task Force-Haiti (JTFH).

JFSOCC-H conducted activities including area assessments and civil reconnaissance, information operations, air traffic control, and aerial port operations. The earthquake rendered inoperable several key Port-au-Prince radio stations, leading to a gap in Haiti's radio broadcast capability. SOUTHCOM requested and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed two EC-130J Commando Solo aircraft from the 193rd Special Operations Wing (193 SOW) to fill this critical capability gap. Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE was the first humanitarian relief mission for the 193 SOW. This was also the first time Commando Solo aircraft broadcast Voice of America (VOA) transmissions in Creole to the people of Haiti. Military Information Support Teams/ground assessment teams distributed 88,000 Microlink FR160 AM/FM hand-cranked/solar-powered radios to facilitate these messages. The JFSOCC-H medical planner worked in concert with numerous interagency health officials.

As the rescue phase ended and the humanitarian crisis continued to evolve, it noted several significant, long-term health concerns. JFSOCC-H planners on the ground in Haiti reported that the earthquake displaced over one million persons. As a result, medical treatment and shelter became long-term needs as the Caribbean rainy season approached. JFSOCC-FWD planners recommended a partial solution to this long-term health care issue in Haiti and provided ground assessments of the area. JFSOCC-H joined with the Corps of Engineers to build a 250-bed convalescent care field hospital that partially alleviated overcrowding on hospital ships making room for more critical cases. Immediately following the Haiti earthquake, slot times into Port-au-Prince airport and unloading capabilities became limited. As a result, the SOCSOUTH Logistic (J4) section quickly determined that an alternate Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD) in Baharona, Dominican Republic, would be advantageous. Within five days of establishing the APOD, the SOCSOUTH logistics team had downloaded fifteen C-130 aircrafts and received/forwarded eighty-five passengers, thirty pallets of cargo, sixteen skids of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), ten high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicles, and three bare base sets, which provided critical billeting and office space for the JFSOCC-H. SOF ground assessment teams from the 7th Special Forces Group conducted extended duration reconnaissance and assessments that provided greater fidelity than the air assessments. In addition, a Special Operations Surgical Team (SOST) and a Special Operations Critical Care Evacuation Team (SOCCET) treated patients.

Fuerzas Comando: The military training exercise, Fuerzas Comando, began in 2004 and is a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff-approved, SOUTHCOM-sponsored exercise under the responsibility of Commander, SOCSOUTH. The exercise brings over 25 countries to compete for the title of the Best Warriors in the Western Hemisphere. The exercise has two parts: a skills competition and a Senior Leader Seminar focused on countering terrorism. The challenging contest promotes military-to-military relationships, increases training knowledge, and improves regional security. Regional partnerships reflect the enduring promise to one another for a cooperative, prosperous, and secure hemisphere. Fuerzas Comando provides the opportunity to exchange experiences and a platform to learn about our counterparts, their countries, and their cultures.

Hurricane Eta and Iota 2020: In November 2020, Hurricane Eta and Iota devastated Central America by flooding the region, creating landslides, and destroying vital infrastructure in Honduras, Panama, and Guatemala. The DoD directed assigned forces at or near the immediate scene of a foreign disaster to take prompt action to save human lives. SOUTHCOM directed Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-B) to lead the planning and execution of the military support to U.S. Government humanitarian assistance (HA) and disaster relief (DR) efforts. SOCSOUTH’s elements deployed in Central America, including Regional Psychological Teams, Civil Military Support Elements, and Special Forces assisted in providing HA and DR to partner nations in need. Air Force Special Operations Command also deployed a Special Tactics Team to assist in surveying airfields for resupply of HA/DR donations. U.S. actions saved over 300 civilians and provided more than 400,000lbs of hygiene and nutrition kits to dislocated individuals affected by the storms.

Haiti Earthquake 2021: On Aug. 14, 2021, Haiti sustained a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, damaging critical infrastructure in the southern peninsula. Haiti initiated a state of emergency and requested humanitarian aid and disaster relief from the international community. U.S. Southern Command rapidly deployed the SOUTHCOM Situational Assessment Team (SSAT) from Special Operations Command South to Haiti on Aug. 15.

The SSAT is a quick-reaction team that provided the SOUTHCOM Commander, Adm. Craig Faller, an assessment of conditions on the ground and recommendations on support the U.S. military can provide to leading element for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, U.S. Agency for International Development. Following the SSAT’s assessment, SOUTHCOM established Joint Task Force - Haiti with SOCSOUTH as the command element support USAID. SOCSOUTH was the first Theater Special Operations Command to lead military assets during a humanitarian crisis.

Joint Task Force-Haiti established its expeditionary headquarters at Port-au-Prince International Airport on Aug. 17. The joint task force immediately began management multiple military rotary-wing aircraft to support the delivery of relief supplies to the point of need. Task force personnel separated and prepare aid supplies for quick on-boarding to aircraft, coordinating directly with USAID, Haitian authorities, and non-governmental originations on aid delivery to the critically impacted areas. Component commands came together to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief through airlift and logistical capability the U.S. military possesses.

JTF-Haiti was comprised of over 1,200 personnel from U.S. SOUTHCOM and the National Guard and Reserve personnel. Elements of JTF-Haiti worked with U.K., French, Dutch, and Dominican Republic allies to provide support to the Haitian Government. Coupled with the support of USAID and multiple NGOs, the joint task force managed to deliver over 587,950 pounds of humanitarian aid, fly over 671 air missions, and rescue 477 people.

JTF-Haiti composed a team of highly skilled experts in the fields of logistics, communications, and aviation critical to the task force’s success during its 21 days of operations. Humanitarian efforts directly reached 277 communities, 30,578 families, and 211,430 citizens through the delivery of food, hygiene, shelter, and medical supplies.

Partner Nations:

Antigua and Barbuda | Argentina | Barbados | Belize | Bolivia | Brazil | Chile | Colombia | Costa Rica | Cuba | Dominica | Dominican Republic | Ecuador | El Salvador | Grenada | Guatemala | Guyana | Haiti | Honduras | Jamaica | Nicaragua | Panama | Paraguay | Peru | Saint Kitts and Nevis | Saint Lucia | Saint Vincent and the Grenadines | Suriname | Trinidad and Tobago | Uruguay | Venezuela