Major General James L. Hobson, Jr. was both a hero and barrier breaker during this period of Air Force history. Early in his career, he served as a special operator during the Vietnam War, when unconventional warfare came into its own. Two decades later, as a squadron commander, he played a critical leadership role in Operation URGENT FURY, where aerial operations were dominated by special forces.
Air power had emphatically demonstrated its value in World War II, most notably in the form of strategic aerial bombardment. Yet in spite of the fact that strategic deterrence dominated the Air Force priorities for most of the Cold War, the conflicts and operations in which the Air Force actually engaged involved little or no strategic bombardment. Tactical air was a significant force, but in many of the major conflicts, unconventional warfare, or special operations, also played a key role, a role that has become increasingly important in today’s conflicts.
Special air warfare was certainly critical in World War II, not only with the legendary Air Commandos of the China-Burma-India theater, but also in North Africa and Europe. You could even argue that the pre-World War I U.S. operations against Pancho Villa incorporated elements of unconventional warfare. There was a small, practically unknown, unconventional warfare contingent in the Korean War. In Vietnam, in spite of the numerous instances of more conventional interdiction, close air support, and even the use of strategic bombers (in a variety of roles), the conditions and demands of the Vietnam War opened the door to increased unconventional warfare and a greater involvement of special forces.
Early in his Air Force career, Hobson briefly flew the C-130 tactical airlifter but soon transitioned to the MC-130E Combat Talon I special operations aircraft, an asset designed for such operations such as infiltration, resupply, airfield seizure, and psychological warfare. General Hobson himself described the MC-130E as the “forerunner of modern Air Force Special Operations.” As an MC-130E pilot assigned to the 15th Air Commando Squadron at Nha Trang Air Base in South Vietnam, Hobson flew 23 sensitive missions into North Vietnam. After his tour in Vietnam, he transferred to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and the JC-130, another special mission aircraft. In June 1974, Hobson went to his first assignment with the 8th Special Operations Squadron, a unit that would ultimately hold special significance for his career. He returned to the squadron in 1980 and became the operations officer in October, around the time when a second attempt to rescue the Iran hostages was under consideration. (This operation proved unnecessary when Iran released the hostages immediately after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.) Lieutenant Colonel Hobson remained in that position until July 1982, when he assumed command of the squadron.
In October 1983, a military coup on the small island nation of Grenada in the Caribbean caused considerable alarm. The leaders of the coup, Gen. Hudson Austin and Bernard Coard arrested and then assassinated the Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Bishop had been pro-Marxist, and under his leadership, there had been a disturbing flow of arms and “diplomats” from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Coard, Bishop’s deputy, and General Austin represented an even more hard-line Marxist faction. With the previous Iran hostage crisis in mind, President Reagan began to consider military intervention to rescue U.S. citizens who were attending a medical school in Grenada. At the same time, Cubans who had entered the country under Bishop had begun building an airfield at Point Salines with a 9,000-foot runway able to accommodate long-range military aircraft. Neighboring islands grew alarmed, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) requested U.S. assistance in restoring order and democracy in Grenada. On October 21, President Reagan signed a directive with three primary objectives: 1) ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in Grenada, 2) restore a democratic government in Grenada in cooperation with OECS partners, and 3) eliminate the threat of Cuban intervention on the island. Both the 8th and the 16th Special Operations Squadrons assumed a heightened alert posture.
Colonel Hobson was not only squadron commander but also led the flight of Combat Talons after the original lead aircraft lost its inertial navigation system and had to abort. Hobson’s flight successfully completed the airborne assault on Point Salines while facing antiaircraft fire, dropping paratroopers over the target at the precise time. For his heroic action and leadership, Colonel Hobson was awarded the MacKay Trophy, and he and others received the personal thanks of President Reagan for their role in Operation URGENT FURY, which achieved its objectives.
Hobson subsequently commanded two wings (the 39th Special Operations Wing at Eglin and the 435th Airlift Wing at Rhein-Main). He was one of the first advocates for the creation of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and served as AFSOC’s third commander before his retirement from active duty.