International Development and Co-operation - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, November 2003
Andrew Brookes, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, describes military personnel rescue methods and hardware.
Search and Rescue (SAR) has always been an important feature of security operations. For many years, it tended to be a humanitarian pursuit paralleling the retrieval of dead and wounded from the battlefield. During the Second World War, German and British air-sea rescue units were allowed to operate freely to rescue downed aircrews facing the natural elements, rather than any military opposition. Rescuing personnel cast adrift in icy or choppy waters demanded precise and timely response, whereas anyone cut off from their own forces on land was expected to make the best of a bad job.
After 1945, the most difficult downed aircrew to find were those who ejected from fast jets. They tended to 'bang out' in a hurry, with little or no opportunity to transmit position reports. Survival thereafter depended on automatic activation of a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), of which the prime in-service type with UK Forces and those of over 40 other countries was the SARBE (Search and Rescue Beacon Equipment).
Personal Locator Beacons have been around for six decades and, for many years, they simply sent out a signal on the international distress frequency for searchers to home onto, backed-up by a line-of-sight voice facility when help hove into view. Early SARBE homing was an art form and the other great downside was battery power. If the PLB was switched on too early, it could drain before rescuers got within range.
As PLB technology improved and miniaturised, so the scope of SAR operations has expanded. Back in 1944, US General Mark Clark found it exasperating that, while his GIs were battling up Italy, the British were forever drawing back from committing forces en masse. 'All their actions are always dictated by their desire to save manpower', he wrote in his diary on May 1944, 'and let someone else do it'. 60 years on and the US are also willing to pay a very high price to avoid the loss of military life.
And this is more than just about saving expensive aircrew. On 23rd March 2003, Private First Class Jessica Lynch, a 20 year old US Army supply clerk, was ambushed along with her 507th Maintenance Company near the city of Nasiriyah during Operation 'Iraqi Freedom'. US Army investigators subsequently concluded that the convoy blundered into an ambush after getting lost, that Lynch was injured when her Humvee crashed into another vehicle in the convoy after it was hit by a rocket propelled grenade and that many of the unit's weapons malfunctioned during the battle. Yet Lynch was rescued in daring fashion by US Special Forces, who raided the Iraqi hospital where she was being treated. Welcome to the age of 'can do' Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR).
Personnel recovery has become an increasingly important military mission. No longer are the dead buried where they fall; bodies are brought back home expeditiously and relatives with access to worldwide media expect the living to be treated likewise. A Pentagon press release set the tempo when it stated that, 'Presidential interest was high concerning the safety of US military forces and our ability to recover them if necessary'. Consequently, US military planners now arrange for CSAR recovery assets to be among the first to arrive in theatre, to support combat operations.
The USAF has been designated as the lead service for CSAR, for which it has equipped and trained specialised rescue forces. Their primary operational task is to locate, communicate with, and recover downed aircrews and isolated personnel. This can be broken into three sub-tasks. The first is to locate the isolated survivors by visual or electronic search methods, to pinpoint their location and allow recovery. The second is to communicate with survivors by radio or visual signalling to avoid being suckered into a trap, and finally, to return survivors to friendly control while rendering any necessary medical assistance.
To accomplish the primary CSAR task, the USAF relies on the HC-130 Hercules military transport and the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. The HC-130 provides long range search capability in a no-to-low threat environment, day or night. The HC-130 also provides a limited command and control link for all rescue assets during a rescue mission, and extends the range of the rescue helicopter by providing in-flight air refuelling. The HH-60 Pave Hawk provides limited search and recovery in a medium threat environment, day or night. If survivors require immediate medical attention and cannot wait for the arrival of the recovery helicopter, specially trained Pararescuemen can be airdropped to stabilise the casualties and prepare them for recovery.
In medium to high threat situations, CSAR teams will be supported by air-to-air, air-to-ground and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense air assets, and by Special Forces on the ground. But the key to success is still, as it ever was, to find and keep tabs on the survivor until rescue comes.
Location, location, location
The latest SARBE Personal Locator Beacon is a multi-role beacon/radio unit, which incorporates GPS to accurately pinpoint the location of any missing personnel. The SARBE Global Reach Recovery (G2R) can be programmed to operate in the normal SAR or CSAR role, and in either case, it transmits a pre-programmed identity and current position in latitude and longitude. When using 406MHz, it gives global satellite coverage, along with near instantaneous response by rescue teams. The use of GPS allows location identification to within 10 metres to greatly improve chances of survival. The G2R can also be used as a personal radio, to boost the survivor's confidence and to aid combat identity verification.
When operating in CSAR mode, frequency transmissions and data format are enhanced to minimise the probability of interception and detection. Features such as encryption, randomised data bursts and one-touch silence mode improves the chances of a successful rescue mission. SARBE G2R has been designed for use by both aircrew and ground forces.
The Decoder Unit is the SARFIND, which displays the identity and position of each SARBE G2R detected. SARFIND is designed to 'track' the position of all detected G2Rs, enabling beacon movement history to be studied as an aid to location and pick-up. SARFIND is a 'carry on, carry off' unit, which only requires connection to the aircraft watch receiver, which is then tuned to the mission operating frequencies. The system requires no aircraft modification, and can be readily employed on helicopters, fast jets, Maritime Patrol Aircraft and AWACS. The important point is that CSAR detection, via the SARFIND airborne decoder, provides a complete rescue and recovery system, with beacon identity and exact co-ordinates, enabling accurate tracking, and ultimately fast and efficient pick-up of missing individuals.
The ever widening, post-September 11th gulf between US defence spending and that by European nations means that, in purely military terms, the US could have undertaken operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq on its own. But successive administrations and American public opinion wanted other nations to ride alongside US forces, and this paid substantial dividends in terms of allied interoperability and intelligence sharing.
Yet this might prove to be a double edged CSAR sword. Just as they rescued Jessica Lynch in Iraq, the Americans were justifiably proud of rescuing F-117 and F-16 aircrew downed over Kosovo. The US could do this because it had an excellent CSAR capability, honed back in 1995, with USAF Captain Scott O'Grady located and extracted five days after his F-16 was brought down over Bosnia. But that rescue involved 500 flying missions of one sort or another, which was roughly half the total British strike sorties flown during the entire 78 day Kosovo conflict.
The British MOD report entitled 'Kosovo: Lessons from the Crisis' stated baldly that: 'We relied on our Allies, particularly the US, for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) capability. The effect on the morale of Allied aircrew of the successful operations to rescue the US aircrew on two occasions was very considerable, and showed the professional competence of the Allies, while denying Milosevic propaganda opportunities. We are looking at the requirement for a UK or European capability.'
Despite NATO and European Air Group studies into co-ordinating and developing a meaningful CSAR capability, Europe still lacks the dedicated satellites, C4I and assets to mount Jessica Lynch or Scott O'Grady operations on its own. The UK got away with it in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, but Europe is still too disturbingly reliant on US intelligence, technology and reach to pluck its downed aircrew or captured ground troops out of harm's way.
Adequate investment in platforms such as the RAF's Merlin HC.3 helicopter transport for CSAR missions, and modern homing kits such as the SARBE G2R, has to be the way forward.