As a scenario during the Valiant Shield 2012 (VS12) exercise, two US Navy sailors volunteered to lose themselves in the wilderness of Guam so that US Navy and Air Force members could work together to find them.
Taking part in the simulated personnel recovery operation were assets and personnel from the Navy’s Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5) and Air Force’s 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing.
Petty Officer 1st Class Dave Bernhardt and Petty Officer 3rd Class Tanner Brown, sailors serving with units onboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, acted as the simulated survivors of an F-18 aircraft downed behind fictitious enemy lines.
The exercise featured a battery of obstacles typical in a real-world combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission, including simulated air-to-air hostilities and a hostile ground force portrayed by personnel from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Five, although live ordnance was not used.
US Navy Cmdr Craig Bennett, VS12’s lead personnel recovery planner, helped orchestrate the event: “This complex event demonstrates our military’s capability to carry out a CSAR mission, which is a principle objective of Valiant Shield.”
Bernhardt and Brown played their part from a region of Guam called Dandan, near the town of Inarajan. Dandan is a remote parcel of US government-owned land once used by NASA to track Apollo astronauts in orbit. On this occasion, the retired tracking station itself was scrutinised from above, as Navy and Air Force aircraft combined resources to find their missing service members somewhere in the dense brush below.
Air Force Col Jack Stokes, VS12 Chief of Air Force Operations, believes that exercising inter-service co-operation can prove crucial when hypothetical scenarios become real: “When we come together as a multi-service force, it gives us a chance to hone our skills. That builds a confidence in each other and allows us to work more effectively as one force. If we don’t practice, we won’t have the know-how we need when it comes time for real combat.”
An Air Force E-3 Sentry airborne warning plane co-ordinated the search from the above, while Navy fighter jets flew protective cover for two Navy SH-60H Seahawk helicopters, which recovered Bernhardt and Brown from Dandan and returned them to the aircraft carrier after nightfall.
US Navy Lt James E. Fischer, one of the Seahawk pilots assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Fourteen (HS-14), expressed slight trepidation from a communication standpoint prior to the exercise. It was his first as mission lead of the rescue vehicle, and he wanted the exercise to run as smoothly as possible: “Co-ordinating between so many units is going to be difficult. We’ve just got to make sure we stay on top of it and keep communications open to the [maximum].”
Valiant Shield, this year held 11 to 19 September, is a US-only exercise held every two years to allows the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp to gain real-world proficiency in sustaining joint forces in response to a broad range of missions.
Image: Members from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Fourteen (HS-14) confirm the identity of US Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dave Bernhardt, at right, prior to extracting him from the landing zone as part of a simulated CSAR operation (Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Okula / DVIDS)