There were at least two factors behind last year’s decision to terminate the funding for the U.S. Air Force’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) aircraft. The first was the obvious one that it saved money by an incoming president eager for quick wins. It meant not beginning another procurement chain and not re-starting a program that still had a lingering bitter aftertaste following the win by Boeing’s HH-47, followed by a vehement challenge, then the success of overturning the decision. It is easier to drop such a program totally than re-open a “can of worms.”
The second factor involves political gambling. The gamble is that most politicians believe in the principle of ‘it will be alright on the night’ in regard to CSAR. The lessons of Vietnam are forgotten. Another era—different challenges, replaced by an unstated belief (and hope) that the professionalism and ability of the armed forces to throw a rescue mission together with the existing assets at their disposal in the face of adversity will, unless they are very unlucky, result in success. And the frequency. There should not be too many Captain Scott O’Grady missions.
Let me illustrate how a belief in opportunist rescue could lead to a reduced reliance on specialist CSAR assets—either within the U. S. or Europe. During Operation Glacier 2, focused on the Jugroom Fort in lower Helmand Province on Jan. 15, 2007, and on the spur of the moment, two British Apache AH-64D helicopters each with two Royal Marines perched precariously onto the side pods and “bungeed” on to the aircraft, launched a rescue mission to save an isolated soldier (believed to be still alive) into the very teeth of insurgent forces. The units involved had no training or specialization in this kind of combined rescue. The board of inquiry later stated that: “the courage and professionalism of those men that recovered his body was exemplary and in the best traditions of the UK’s armed forces.”
While at the time this was judged as the right decision to take during the battle, many a government bean counter will subsequently wonder why there needs to be a specialization in personnel recovery (PR), or CSAR, depending on your name for rescuing military people (usually aircrew but not exclusively) isolated and needing help in battle (in many cases behind enemy lines).
The story of the Jugroom Fort rescue is superbly narrated in Ed Macy’s book “Apache.” It is a testament to military daring, the best of the element of surprise and prosecuting a plan of action totally unexpected by your enemy. In the cold glare of day, however, it should be admitted that they were very lucky to get away with it.
But then war can be like that. A well-planned mission can still fail due to some chance event, and equally one that is thrown together at the last moment can sometimes succeed—largely as it is something the enemy, and perhaps even your own side, least expects. If your forward elements haven’t modified their behavior, then why should the enemy expect anything different?
During the Jugroom Fort rescue, all the elements usually required for a classic personnel recovery mission, as most of today’s practitioners would agree, were on hand. They had the rescue vehicles (albeit those were AH-64D Apache Longbows) and escorts (another two Apache Longbows flying higher above them as they entered the danger area).
They even had the assistance of a B1 bomber flying very high overhead that added to the confusion of the insurgents. The ground protection force comprised a handful of the Royal Marines who had initially volunteered for this extraordinary mission. Finally, there was an AWACS on station to tie the communications together. And it worked!
Although there is a procedure for rescuing fellow downed aircrew using the AH-64 Apache, it was not in general use. There was also no Plan B to extract themselves had anything gone wrong during Plan A—especially if the rescue force had begun to take casualties during the rescue. Considering that a couple of the crewmen assisted in the recovery outside the aircraft, this potentially could also have resulted in the loss of an Apache.
What they did was not wrong, but it would be unlikely to achieve the same results again. The danger lies in that the people who are making decisions on what to support and what not to finance might start to believe that ‘spur of the moment’ CSAR is the way forward. It isn’t. The danger also multiplies in a joint operating environment such as exists in Afghanistan, where multiple national forces operate side-by-side.
A small team within the European Air Group, based at Air Command in the UK, runs an annual Combined Joint Personnel Recovery course that has been supported over the years by France, Italy, Germany and others. They are but a small team, doing a good job, but also short of funds.
What personnel recovery/combat search and rescue specialization, equipment and training delivers is the preparation and knowledge to plan for, and deal with, the unexpected. To limit casualties and extract to a plan when things go wrong. Without dedicated CSAR, it rapidly turns into a deadly game of chance.