Personnel Recovery: The Risk of Cutting “Insurance” Cover

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief  | January 5, 2015
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Members of the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron conducting simulated exercises. Photo by USAF Staff Sergeant Caleb Pierce

With the reduction in general defense spending now slicing capability from virtually every area across the military spectrum, the skills and dedicated assets of personnel recovery (PR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces appear to be easy pickings when it comes to saving money.

Speakers at IQPC Defense’s Joint Personnel Recovery conference held in London between Dec. 19-20, 2014 were broadly in agreement that this particular area of military specialization was one that is now almost under constant funding review.


Lt. Col. Guillaume Vernet, Deputy Commander, 167th Helicopter Squadron, French Air Force, defended such expenditure: “Personnel recovery is like life insurance for a country. It is expensive and you want it to be worth the investment.” The problem is that the money invested for its occasional use is weighing heavily in the pockets of defense planners who want more immediate capability, even if assets are part of the multi-mission force.

The ability to prosecute PR missions necessarily includes add-ons such as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialists, extraction forces (and their training), and protection assets that may include rotary and/or fixed-wing aircraft, not to mention airborne warning and control (AWACS) planes such as the Boeing E3 Sentries.

But ask any combat soldier or civilian who has been extracted from a life-threatening or dangerous situation whether the investment is worthwhile, and there will only be one answer.

Vernet, a French Air Force officer with over 200 missions in Afghanistan to his credit, emphasized the point that combat troops will dig in much harder and be more resolute when they know they can rely on a trained force to lift them out of harm’s way if they are wounded or need extraction. One example of European cutbacks has been the transferral of the United Kingdom’s helicopter Search and Rescue (SAR) responsibility from the military to the civilian contractor Bristow, which will result in degeneration of the military’s knowledge base and techniques over the coming years. The move may have taken the financial burden off the Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) budget, but only time will tell how this will affect search techniques and the ability to source PR-trained crews for future mis-sions of this type.

With multi-mission capability being the watch-phrase of the age, investing in assets and personnel who specialize in rescuing isolated individuals is an expensive business. Whether rescuing fellow soldiers or allies, or perhaps isolated civilians who are either hurt or under threat, having the right mix of aircraft and trained personnel ready and available is what some defense accountants may consider to be a luxurious accessory. Arguably it is only the United States that has the breadth of assets and training to mount the most complex of missions into high-threat areas.

European PR

Two W-3PL GÅ‚uszec helicopters take part in this year’s European Air Group (EAG) Combined Joint Personnel Recovery Standardization Course (CJPRSC) in Florennes, Belgium. Photo courtesy AgustaWestland

“The EAG nations cannot create a viable CSAR capability in high to medium threat environments,” stated Lt. Col. Uwe Schleimer, director of the European Personnel Recovery Centre (EPRC).

In Europe, the European Air Group (EAG) has decided to further organize its development of PR procedures and techniques through the establishment of the new EPRC, which will be relocated from its current base at High Wycombe in the UK to Poggio Renatico, Italy, in July 2015. “The EPRC will become a trusted PR point-of-contact for NATO and forces within the European Union,” said Schleimer.

However, earlier this year and under the current EAG structure, the eighth Combined Joint Per-sonnel Recovery Standardization Course (CJPRSC) was staged from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10, 2014 at Florennes Airbase in Belgium. This EAG project is open to member states and is designed to give military participants procedures to work with, particularly useful when engaging in coalition operations and deployments. This year it involved over 23 aircraft and more than 400 participants from 11 countries including Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, UK, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.S. It is structured to provide participants with several academic days followed by seven increasingly complex missions, two of which are at night toward the end of the exercise period.

Currently, the allocation of dedicated European forces to PR duties can be sporadic, and the training base offered by the EAG has helped to familiarize an increasing number of personnel who could be involved in future combined PR missions. The goal is to increase familiarization with the requirements of mounting PR missions incorporating a greater understanding of communications requirements; tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs); night operations; and the interoper-ability of equipment. The need for this kind of international interoperability is ever more apparent as each nation’s PR resources are financially squeezed.

Next year’s CJPRSC course will be staged from Sept. 9 to 24 at Pápa Air Base in Hungary.

Angel Thunder

According to Angel Thunder Director Brett Hartnett, the annual exercise staged in Arizona and California is the biggest and most realistic joint, multinational, multi-service agency in the world. It is conducted with the 23rd Rescue Wing at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It exercises the whole government concept of PR and has official Joint National Training Capability accreditation for combat air force, joint, allied and interagency participants. The exercise involves around 2,700 USAF rescue forces and various other agencies in a variety of personnel recovery missions.

“It was never formally planned,” admitted Hartnett during the conference, which he chaired. “The organizational structure will now move to the 414th Combat Training Squadron reporting to the USAF Air Warfare Center. It will stay as its own separate entity but will report to where all air combat command exercises are managed.”

The Angel Thunder exercises have, to date, been managed by civilians, but in the future they will be formed into a military contract team working under Air Force command. “In the end we are an Air Force rescue exercise. But we are building partnerships and capacity with international partners. The U.S. will be looking to allies to help get our people, so relationship building is important and we all need to develop towards speaking a common [PR] language.”

“There is a need to constantly evaluate what we are doing and we need to focus now on areas of responsibility (AORs) for U.S. forces around the world. We are rotating through those and next year’s theme will be focused on challenges that could be faced by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Specific training objectives that have been identified for the whole exercise in 2015 will include: PR Task Force in urban operations; the air sea battle (integrating U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps assets); contested irregular warfare environments; and denied area operations (where traditional routines will not work).

This year, the team rented a cargo vessel and PR operations were conducted off the coast of San Diego, Calif. The operations area for the whole exercise therefore covers much of the southwest of the United States, from Arizona to the Pacific.

“All the services are involved – including active, reserve and National Guard – as well as the Coast Guard. We are also the largest interagency exercise in the country and we have up to 20 international military participants including forces from Columbia, France and Germany. Non governmental organizations have just been added and were valuable to the exercise,” said Hartnett. He went on to explain that while NGOs and the military usually do not mix well, with distrust and mixed objectives in general, when it came to PR issues and challenges both contributed valuable insights into problem solving that the other side usually didn’t consider due to cultural differences.

The aircraft involved next year will range from Air Force HH-60s, HC-130s and even MQ-9 Reapers to Army AH-64s, UH-60s, CH-47s and even special operations aircraft. The German Air Force will be represented by its CH-53s and the French Air Force its EC725s.

Angel Thunder 2015 will be held from May 30 through June 13, 2015.

The challenge of Africa

One person who would be directly at the center of any PR event in the AFRICOM AOR is the local U.S. Air Force JPRC Director Rick Barnes. Giving a brief outline of the challenges in his AOR, Barnes said that Africa demanded different solutions to the prospect of having to rescue personnel in remote locations. Having experience in African operations since 2009, he was keen to stress the size of the African continent and the fact that PR was not just simply a matter of launching a couple of aircraft on demand.

“The big challenges are the distances involved, together with inhospitable terrain and a general lack of infrastructure,” Barnes said, adding that “many countries in Africa have a lot of willingness [to assist with PR] but just don’t have the capability.”

“One challenge we face is finding gas. It probably isn’t going to be available in the amounts that we need, the timeframe we want it in, and would probably end up being delivered by one truck after another,” he said.

Barnes said that a solution for many nations involved in various missions in Africa was to engage in partner coordination. “What do we do when we don’t have enough stuff to do it with?” he asked. The solution lay in working with partner forces such as the French who have had a lot of experience operating in Africa, recently in Mali.

“Any given day there are between 4,500 and 6,000 U.S. military personnel doing something in the continent of Africa,” he stated. With Djibouti being the only major U.S. military base in Africa, the loss of two HC-130s and three HH-60s due to unit relocations meant a reduction in trained forces available to conduct PR.

Earlier this year, AFRICOM sought responses from potential military contractors who could conduct search and rescue operations using rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft in West and North Africa. The list of requirements was extensive, with potential operators needing to be able to provide capability for medevac extractions, airlifting armed personnel and providing air drop services.

Barnes said that the substantial difference between operations in Afghanistan and the Horn of Afri-ca was that, in terms of the U.S. Code of Laws, Title 10 applied to Afghanistan while Title 22 was in force in Africa. In basic terms, Title 10 means that a general is the ultimate authority whereas with Title 22, authority is classified in terms of the Department of State and the president’s local representative, the U.S. Ambassador. Unlike Afghanistan, the sovereignty of African countries must also be respected in responding to any incident on the continent. “It’s a good idea – not having an incident to begin with, but if it happens we need embassy clearance to come in.”

The diversity of African nations meant that there was also a “phenomenal number of languages and dialects” to contend with, in addition to a wide range of geographical and climactic conditions.

Equipment such as personal locator beacons were a helpful aid to stop personnel from being lost, together with a Friendly Force Tracker, which was not necessarily given to each individual, but rather to groups who may need to operate remotely. “You can see where guys are and can text with them,” he said.

The Personnel Recovery conference also included several PR and SAR unit commanders, including Captain João Teixeira, commander of 751 Squadron, Portuguese Air Force. He discussed operations in Portugal’s huge area of responsibility in the North Atlantic conducted with the AW101 helicopter. This type has now been in service with the Portuguese Air Force for nearly a decade.

Ambassador Charles Ray, U.S. Government (Ret), warned of the continuing decline of the U.S. defense budget after the withdrawal of the majority of forces from Afghanistan. He reminded delegates about the trend for hostage taking linked to demands for ransom; the threat of maritime piracy; which continues to be a problem; and the variety of insurgencies still active around the world. It was a reminder that the call for PR forces is likely to be never far away.

Related: Military News

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