Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Closer to the Action

With the recent execution of that captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS, the U.S. is taking steps to improve survival prospects for other aviators who are downed in terrorist-controlled territory.

According to Military Times, American commanders have moved search-and-rescue aircraft and personnel to northern Iraq, placing them closer to areas where U.S. and coalition aircraft fly combat missions.  That will reduce response times, and (hopefully) allow SAR forces to reached downed aircrew members before the bad guys.

Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said some aircraft were recently deployed into northern Iraq as a precaution.

"It increases our ability to respond rapidly," Warren said.

Warren declined to identify the number of troops or aircraft. Reports suggest it includes a detachment of V-22 Ospreys.

The United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, halted direct participation in the American-led bombing campaign in December shortly after a Jordanian aircraft crashed in Syria.

There are reports that the UAE, which flys state-of-the-art Block 60 F-16s, halted its participation because of concerns about SAR procedures.  Specifically, UAE officials questioned the basing of key rescue assets in Kuwait, including HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters; HC-130 tanker/C2 platforms and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.  Even with those crews on heightened alert (probably a 15-minute scramble time), they still faced long missions to target areas in northern Iraq and even greater distances to operating areas in Syria.  

The Pentagon hasn't disclosed where the SAR forces have moved, but it's a fair bet they are co-located with A-10s from the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing, which had been operating in Afghanistan.  A total of 12 A-10s from the wing moved to southwest Asia late last year, and have been flying almost daily missions against ISIS targets.  A-10s not only provide close air support for rescue missions; the lead Warthog pilot also typically serves as on-scene commander, coordinating the aerial ballet required to retrieve a downed airman from bad-guy land.  Initially, A-10s were limited to missions in Iraq, but more recently, they have begun operating over Syria as well.  

Describing USAF SAR crews as extraordinarily skilled would be an understatement.  Combat search-and-rescue tactics were developed in Vietnam and since that time, the Air Force has made every effort to rescue aircrew members brought down by enemy fire. A number of rescue pilots, chopper crews and pararescue jumpers (PJs) have given their lives for the SAR mission, in Southeast Asia and the conflicts that followed.  While the basics of the mission remain largely unchanged, the availability of A-10s, the Pave Hawk, night vision equipment and advanced navigation aids allow rescue forces to operate in all conditions.  In fact, most rescue commanders prefer to operate at night, when advanced gear provides a distinct advantage.  

Perhaps the only disconcerting element of the recent SAR controversy was the delayed decision to move assets closer to the fight.  To be fair, there are certain diplomatic requirements that must be met before moving more aircraft and personnel into another country.  Still, it's surprising that SAR elements didn't move at the same time as the A-10s (late November).      

There may be other explanations as well.  Creating an effective SAR operation requires thorough training in rescue procedures--for all aircrew members--and developing a database that can be used to identify downed personnel.  As anyone who's been through SERE (survival, evasion, resistance and escape) training can attest, the chopper crew isn't coming to get you until your ID has been confirmed, and it's safe enough to make the pick-up ("safe" being a very relative term in the rescue world).  If a crew member can't provide the info to verify their identity, or the Pave Hawk crew believes the threat  is too risky, the downed airman will be on the ground for a bit longer. 

At the time the Jordanian pilot punched out in December (reportedly due to mechanical problems) it was unclear if SAR assets were launched in a rescue attempt.  The Pentagon has also been tight-lipped about the familiarity of non-western pilots with our rescue procedures, and if we had the required data to identify a Saudi, UAE or Jordanian pilot in a SAR situation.  

With the re-positioning of rescue assets, those issues have likely been addressed.  It's also quite probable that some of the A-10s are now in northern Iraq, given its role in SAR missions.  However, the Air Force has disclosed little about the Indiana Guard's combat mission against ISIS; when the A-10s and support personnel moved in late November, their new bed-down base was believed to be in Kuwait.  To date, the only footage of the Hawgs in action has come from Iraqi sources, which recorded an A-10 going after ISIS targets in Anbar Province in mid-December

So far, the threat environment over Iraq and Syria has been permissive (readers will note the Warthog in that December video is not dispensing flares as it maneuvers for a target run).  But all it takes is one "golden BB" to bring down a jet, or in the case of the Jordanian F-16, an errant missile from your wingman.  That's why moving SAR assets closer to the action makes a great deal of sense, particularly if you're an aircrew member going after ISIS targets. 
ADDENDUM:  Sources tell Reuters the rescue aircraft, crews and support personnel are operating from an airfield near Irbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  If the A-10s aren't based at that location, they are probably using the field as a forward operating base, landing there to refuel and rearm between sorties against the terrorists.                                     



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