Some combat personnel fight for glory, others out of a sense of duty or patriotism. More than anything else, they fight for each other, operating as a unit and a team. Mantras and mottos – official and informal – are common in the military, and these can exemplify the tenets that serving personnel live by, such as ‘Leave no man behind’ for the United States (US) Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams; ‘These things we do, that others may live’ of the US Air Force Pararescue teams; or the ‘Stay with your wingman’ that military pilots subscribe to. These are just different ways of expressing the same idea, the simple pledge that has been made for millennia: ‘I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine.’ Combat search and rescue (CSAR) is built on that pledge and concept.
CSAR IS NOT NEW
Soldiers risking their lives to rescue fallen comrades is the stuff of legend. Homer wrote about many such instances in the Iliad. Herodotus and Thucydides glorified such exploits in their classic histories. Such rescues typically involved the fallen soldier’s fellow warriors – the same ones they lived, trained, and traveled with; the same ones who ate together and fought together, side by side. Soldiers realize the risks they take every time they go into combat. They know their comrades will come to their aid should they get injured, and they are committed to doing the same for them.
Up until the 20th century, the approach to CSAR was essentially the same as that adopted by the ancient Greeks: when a soldier was killed or captured in battle, their comrades would do their utmost to rescue them or, at worst, to recover their body. Even today, it is often the unit to which a soldier, sailor or aviator is attached that initiates the first steps when they are reported lost or missing in action. After all, at least during those first critical hours, it is the local unit that is most likely to have the best information to facilitate search and recovery efforts. These units frequently accomplish a successful rescue on their own. Accordingly, the typical CSAR mission starts at the unit level.
New technology has radically changed the challenge confronting CSAR
What is needed is a dedicated, organized and trained combat search and rescue force
The 20th century brought with it vast technological innovations. Foremost among these was the explosive development of combat aviation. No longer were opposing armies limited to a few miles on either side of the line of battle. Suddenly it was possible to project a force hundreds of miles inside enemy territory. Local units that were well positioned and equipped to rescue fallen comrades close to the lines of battle now lacked the resources and expertise to carry out the long-distance rescues deep inside enemy territory that they were being faced with.
Captain George Galdorisi, co-author of ‘Leave no man behind: the saga of combat search and rescue’, observed: “[What is needed] is a dedicated, organized and trained combat search and rescue force.” And so, the US Air Force created a stand-alone unit for CSAR, a unit equipped with the material and personnel resources required to carry out long-distance rescue missions in the face of substantial resistance.
The leader’s perspective
When asked to explain his decision to authorize a mission to recover Captain Roger Locher, a pilot who was shot down 40 miles from Hanoi on 2 June 1972, General John Vogt observed: “I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews just to get one man out. The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that is ever in doubt, morale would tumble. That was my major consideration.”
We’ll do whatever it takes to bring our people back safely
Other leaders have adopted the same approach. They have demonstrated their unflagging commitment to the people who serve under them by authorizing any course of action necessary to find, protect and recover anyone downed or otherwise stranded behind enemy lines. Cost in terms of dollars and cents has never been a deterrent, nor has the potential for losing additional lives or equipment. Their mindset was best characterized as: “We’ll do whatever it takes to bring our people back safely.”
Bat 21 rescue prompts a re-evaluation of CSAR protocols
Every rescue mission carries risks; for instance, aircraft and crew could be lost or captured. What begins as a mission to rescue one person could easily devolve into something far more serious. The Bat 21 rescue in the Spring of 1972 is a case in point. The initial mission was to rescue Lieutenant Colonel Iceal ‘Gene’ Hambleton, the navigator of an EB-66 aircraft (call sign ‘Bat 21’). Before it was finished 10 days later, it became the largest, longest and most complex rescue operation of the Vietnam War. More than 50 years later, it still holds that dubious distinction. Five additional aircraft were shot down, 11 more airmen died, and two others were captured by the enemy in the effort to rescue Hambleton.
The horrible sacrifices associated with the Bat 21 mission, both in terms of human lives and lost aircraft and equipment, prompted a major re-evaluation of CSAR protocols. Without compromising the commitment to our combat staff, this process sought ways to reduce the risks to those same people when they embark upon a mission to rescue a comrade in arms – fully recognizing that the rescuers themselves freely accepted those risks.
All aspects of CSAR were reviewed during the re-evaluation. These ranged from establishing the criteria to be considered before launching a mission to specifics such as the types of platforms and equipment to be utilized, the available communications technology, and enhancing the skillsets of rescue team members. Such evaluations have been ongoing since the Vietnam War with the goal of ensuring that rescue efforts do not become suicide missions.
Evaluations have been ongoing since the Vietnam War with the goal of ensuring that rescue efforts do not become suicide missions
On the modern battlefield
In 2015, the US Air Force tasked the Rand Corporation with examining the operational risks associated with rescue missions. As tensions between the United States, China and Russia intensify, the prospects of a conflict involving combatants with comparable technology and weapons capabilities become frighteningly real. Consider the dilemma for CSAR crews: fifth generation aircraft such as the F-35 can fly farther and faster into enemy territory than ever before. Should one of these jets be shot down, what’s the appropriate response? When the enemy can track and destroy any helicopter tasked with the rescue mission, how does CSAR live up to its motto?
The authors of the Rand study and other experts who have studied this dilemma paraphrase a recent Hollywood blockbuster: “When technology levels the playing field among combatants, the focus shifts to the people who must execute the mission: it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot, both the one shot down as well as the one flying the rescue plane.”
Before a combat tour, soldiers and aircrew complete extensive survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training. This is designed to prepare them should they find themselves behind enemy lines. Rescue pilots undergo continual training to sharpen and expand their retrieval skills. The Navy has created a special training school for this purpose – a ‘Top Gun’ for rescue pilots and part of the same command.
Meeting the future
Looking ahead, the US Air Force is also reevaluating its primary rescue aircraft. While the MH-60 series helicopter has performed admirably, it has significant drawbacks as well. It is large, loud, slow-moving, carries limited armament and has virtually no defensive capabilities. Such limitations were not major factors when conducting rescues in most post-Vietnam conflicts. However, against a more sophisticated and better equipped opponent, they can be fatal. Of greater concern is, if an MH-60 is shot down, the scope of the rescue must be increased.
Drones will most likely be used in a support capacity for the immediate future, perhaps to bring food, medical supplies or to monitor the stranded person’s location
Smaller, faster aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities are being explored, but no viable candidates have yet been identified. Uncrewed drones are a possible option as well but, like the MH-60, they have their limitations as well. Although smaller, quieter, and thus more difficult to track, they are even slower and have about half the range. Presently, only a few have the capacity to carry even one person. None can adapt to help the injured aboard. Drones will most likely be used in a support capacity for the immediate future, perhaps to bring food, medical supplies or to monitor the stranded person’s location.
Finally, the military is investigating improved communications devices for downed aircrew. The ability to communicate directly with them can greatly facilitate their rescue, enabling real-time coordination of events. The impact upon the morale of all concerned would be off the charts.
CSAR is about one thing: taking care of the people who take care of us. People have been doing this since the first battles were fought and their modern counterparts have embellished this tradition with their own special flare. Technological developments, especially military aviation, have stretched and, on occasion, exceeded the capabilities of traditional CSAR methods. Today, CSAR teams must adapt to the challenge of executing rescues against sophisticated opponents with advanced technology. They will meet that challenge in the same way they have met so many others: with better preparation, improved skills, creative applications of new technology and their unyielding commitment to ‘have the backs’ of their fellow service personnel.