2003 UAV CSAR recovery
Twenty years ago, while attending the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), I published an unclassified 36-page paper – later a book – entitled ‘Integrating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) with Current Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) Doctrine’. The paper reviewed the then current CSAR doctrine, missions, and tasks as they were defined in early 2000s Joint and US Air Force (USAF) doctrine. The paper also reviewed the current UAV capabilities as they related to Air Defense (AD); Command and Control (C2); Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); Fire and Maneuver Support; and Mobility and Combat Service. The paper’s final sections provided recommendations for UAV CSAR integration based on the then available UAV platforms and potential CSAR applications with those vehicles to recover isolated personnel. Such UAV CSAR platforms are an updated version of the 1960s Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, but with greater flexibility. This article addresses how far the use of UAVs in a CSAR recovery role has progressed in the 20 years since that 2003 paper with a focus on civilian and military doctrinal capabilities and innovative technologies.
2003 UAV CSAR capabilities and doctrine
When published in 2003, my paper made several assumptions regarding the development of UAV CSAR recovery integration including a desire to minimize casualties on the battlespace (ie to prevent a Vietnam-era Bat-21 rescue scenario), addressing the political and social pressures to keep captured US military personnel from becoming strategic ‘pawns’ for our adversaries; an assumption that US military force manpower structures would eventually shrink following the end of the then current Afghanistan and Iraq wars; and that UAV technologies would continue to advance at such a pace to make certain crewed aircraft systems less relevant or obsolete. In my review of then-current USAF and Joint CSAR doctrine – such as the ‘Joint Publication 3-50.2 Doctrine for Joint Combat Search and Rescue’ and ‘Air Force Doctrine Document 2-1.6, Combat Search and Rescue’ – recovery of personnel was, and continues to be, the responsibility of the individual services. Although the 1995 rescue of USAF Captain Scott O’Grady by a US Marine Corps (USMC) unit in Bosnia proves the rule is more ‘honored in the breach than the observance’.
The various US and NATO armed forces bring to the fight what assets are available at the time of a CSAR operation, although a service like the USAF still maintains a dedicated CSAR force. With that said, in the late 1990s and early 2000s CSAR utilization of UAV platforms was still limited to ISR support roles given the design limitations of platforms like the Pioneer, Predator and Global Hawk aircraft.
Both the US Army and US Navy did and continue to look at the viability of uncrewed helicopters, gliders and steerable parachutes to support troops and ships in combat areas
With platforms like Predator adapted by the CIA and US military to serve in attack roles using Hellfire missiles to interdict high value Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, the opportunity for an expanded role for UAVs outside the ISR and kinetic roles were possible. Also discussed during the early 2000s was the use of UAVs for mobility and combat service support to troops in forward areas. Both the US Army and US Navy did and continue to look at the viability of uncrewed helicopters, gliders and steerable parachutes to support troops and ships in combat areas. The advantages of such uncrewed systems are manifestly obvious in terms of manpower, equipment and cost reductions. For example, by 2009, the US Navy tested the MQ-8 Fire Scout UAVs for underway replenishment and ISR support to the fleet, while as late as 2022, the US Army tested the UH-60 Black Hawk Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, which began under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with software developed by Sikorsky to fly the helicopter with no pilot onboard. Recommendations of using similar uncrewed systems (with a focus on the MQ-8 Fire Scout and remotely piloted C-130 Hercules) were proposed in my 2003 paper, with the MQ-8 selected as the UAV platform with greatest advantages for performing CSAR recovery roles. With that said, no formal command support or doctrine existed in the early 2000s that specifically addressed UAV CSAR recover operations. Twenty years later, the story is different, and the potential is much greater.
2023 UAV CSAR capabilities and development
Responding to an online questionnaire on the topic of the current state of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) in civilian and military medical evacuation, Jeff Sherwood, Director of Business Development with the Canadian firm SKYTRAC, stated that in recent years, UAS have proven to be an effective method for providing critical medical support in hard-to-reach environments. These airborne assets can be the first to arrive on the scene of a medical emergency, where they can provide crucial support and situational awareness until other emergency personnel arrive. Companies like Zipline and Swoop Aero have flown thousands of missions delivering medical supplies such as blood, vaccines, Covid-19 tests, and other smaller packages to remote regions for many years. Other UAV manufacturers, such as Schiebel and their Camcopter S-100, have developed robust UAVs designed to operate in harsh environments for surveillance, and search and rescue (SAR). Since 2019, the UK Maritime Coastguard Agency and Bristow Helicopters have been successfully using their Camcopters for SAR operations in the waters surrounding the UK. While these UAVs can be deployed quickly for ISR and resupply, minimize operational risk with remote pilots, and provide additional support and situational awareness to other assets involved in SAR and more complex CSAR operations, the recovery of personnel by UAS is still in development.
The US Army, USAF and US Navy are all now discussing and developing heavy-lift UAVs – rotary-winged or tiltrotor – for recovering service members stranded or injured in combat located in contested great power areas of operations
The US Army, USAF and US Navy are all now discussing and developing heavy-lift UAVs – rotary-winged or tiltrotor – for recovering service members stranded or injured in combat located in contested great power areas of operations. According to USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, in remarks made to the American Enterprise Association: “I’m afraid we’re going to lose a bunch of people on a helicopter, or a CV- or MV-22. Part of the discussion is how do you use autonomous vehicles that might go out and pick isolated personnel up in a high threat environment? If you lose [an uncrewed] vehicle, maybe it’s not that big a deal, but we still want to bring that [service] member back and get them back to their family. That’s the goal.” Yet, while the technology for heavy-lift UAV CSAR recovery platforms does exist, according to Major Isaac Leung, a USAF MQ-9 Pilot: “Currently, most military UAV systems supporting CSAR are for ISR purposes only. Little unclassified significant development has taken place over the last 20 years for actual UAV CSAR recovery of isolated personnel.” While UAV CSAR platforms performing ISR roles is significant, the requirement to use manned recovery aircraft means the ‘last mile’ of CSAR recovery is still vulnerable to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies.
One of the most promising is the DPI DP-14 ‘Heavy Fuel Tandem Helicopter’, a multi-mission UAS designed for precision aerial resupply operating in a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) environment. The DP-14’s advanced tandem design enables class-leading cargo carrying capacity, range and endurance while minimizing footprint. The system can carry 200+lbs of payload to beyond 130km and sprint to speeds of up to 105kts. Since 2017, the US Army has conducted tests on the DP-14 for use on future battlefields where traditional US air dominance of the battlespace may not exist, thus prohibiting the use of crewed CSAR aircraft to recover isolated personnel. “There’s really a lot of opportunity to be gained if we learn how to leverage these unmanned systems for medical missions, as a tool to augment our existing medical assets,” said Nathan Fisher, an engineer with the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The TATRC’s Medical Robotics and Autonomous Systems Division has the overall responsibility to develop novel robotic solutions, controlled remotely or autonomously, that team with humans to reduce task saturation, perform in contexts that are unsafe for humans, and ultimately increase the capability and thus capacity of caregivers at the point of need. Although the US Army leadership has yet to authorize a human test of the DP-14, the opportunity to do so is not limited by the technology, and the future outlook is positive for use of UAV CSAR recovery platforms, especially in the civilian responder communities.
21st century combat, like the current Russo-Ukraine War, involves greater dispersion of personnel, greater isolation of units, and loss of air superiority necessitating armed forces to be more logistically self-sufficient.
21st century combat involves greater dispersion of personnel, greater isolation of units, and loss of air superiority necessitating armed forces to be more logistically self-sufficient
These conditions – like ones that the USA may see in the Far East against adversaries such as China, North Korea or Russia – will result in a significant loss of mobility for CSAR recovery, larger distances to cover, and significant shortfalls in both human and material resources. The numbers of crewed evacuation platforms are likely to be insufficient or too vulnerable for wide-spread multi-domain battlefields with peer/near-peer adversaries or A2/AD environments. Without BVLOS UAV CSAR recovery strategies, combatant commanders with mounting isolated personnel or wounded will face degraded medical resources and encumbered combat mobility. According to Lieutenant Commander Matthew Hall, US Navy (from US Naval Institute Proceedings 2021;147/2/1,416): “Imagine a future in which a marine, wounded in combat, pushes a GPS locator on his or her tactical vest, causing a staged UAV at the battalion aid station to launch within three seconds and deliver aid within a minute [or recovery of said marine back to the aid station]; this technology could significantly change battlefield care. At sea, this technology could be used to launch drones, autonomously or manually, from a central medical hub (likely an aircraft carrier) as emergency support to the battle group.”
It is important to remember that UAV CSAR recovery is not a ‘silver bullet’ for future expeditionary medical care or combat recovery in a peer-to-peer conflict. As a result, it will be important for military planners and UAV technology developers to continually innovate how existing uncrewed technologies can be maximized in peace and wartime. Current rotary-winged and tiltrotor UAVs platforms have the potential in high threat areas to search, locate, authenticate, support and recover isolated personnel in a contested environment. UAVs with their low visibility, acoustic, and infrared signatures as well as long station times could increase an isolated aircrew or soldier’s chances for recovery. To improve these UAV CSAR recovery capabilities will require innovating at the leading edge of the bow wave of uncrewed systems development both at the acquisition and field user end of the development spectrum. It is fitting that, as militaries adopt more innovative off-the-shelf systems for use in combat, the adoption of UAS designed for civilian SAR will also become part of the CSAR community.
It will be important for military planners and UAV technology developers to continually innovate how existing uncrewed technologies can be maximized in peace and wartime
Beyond the CSAR recovery role, the development of UAVs in civilian emergency roles are unlimited and could provide greater flexibility and cost savings for community first responders. According to Adrian Stettler, with the Switzerland based firm of UMS Skeldar: “Uncrewed systems give civilian first responders many advantages in the SAR role, including a smaller platform with the same capabilities as a crewed aircraft, smaller logistical and infrastructure footprints, and lower equipment price and insurance costs.” Like the military assistance to safety and traffic (MAST) system that led to the development of private ‘life flight’ companies providing the same services in the USA, the development of civilian UAS SAR recovery systems will see a greater role in future civilian first responder roles, as well as providing greater opportunities for the military CSAR community.