Rescue on the Ragged Edge

Oct. 1, 2011

The Air Force’s personnel recovery units are now heavily engaged in four combat zones at once, and it’s pushing them to the breaking point. Members of the personnel recovery enterprise—which encompasses pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, and survival escape, resistance, and evasion specialists—believe that the current operating tempo can’t be sustained indefinitely.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, USAF vice chief of staff, put it bluntly. He told a House panel in July that personnel recovery is on the “ragged edge.”

“As we continue to be challenged by new tasks around North Africa and other places, we are right at the limit” of supporting US Central Command with “low-density, high-demand assets,” Breedlove said. Hardest hit among the scarce specialties are those in personnel recovery and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, which are being “pretty much consumed” by current demands.

USAF’s limited rescue assets are supporting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as they have for most of the last decade, but more recently they’ve been tasked with ongoing operations in Libya and the Horn of Africa, all on top of steady-state demands imposed by commitments in Europe and the Pacific.

SSgt. Kevin Welander, 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, scans his sector from the door of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter near Kandahar, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Eric Harris)

While morale and retention among the personnel recovery enterprise remains good, the force’s elderly HC-130 and HH-60 aircraft are struggling. High operating tempo has driven availability rates to some of the lowest in the Air Force, and while the HC-130s are due for replacement soon, there’s no near-term relief planned for the helicopter fleet.

On the operational side, the past few years have been a growing experience. Early on in Afghanistan, critical assets such as the HC-130 were positioned in Pakistan. They were safely outside the conflict zone, but more than an hour away from Afghan airspace and as much as three hours away from stranded or injured troops, depending on their location. While the helicopters were staged much closer to the fight, such as at Kandahar Airfield, they still depended on the HC-130s’ refueling capability for long-range missions.

The Pave Hawks rely on the HC-130s not only to extend their range but to speed ahead, dropping pararescue jumpers who can prepare time-critical patients for extraction before the helos arrive. Likewise, the HC-130s depend on the helicopters’ guns in hostile areas and their ability to extract survivors at the scene.

In theory, USAF can accomplish recoveries beyond the reach of the other services. In practice, getting to a victim in time—preferably within the first, “golden hour” after injury—requires proximity to combat.

“Initially, going into this war [in Afghanistan], I don’t think we were postured right,” said CMSgt. Lee Shaffer, pararescue career field manager at the Pentagon.

“We had the right forces, we just weren’t in the right place,” he said.

Shifting to central operating hubs such as Kandahar and Bagram Airfield was a first step in rectifying the problem. As the war spread deeper into Afghanistan, however, isolated patrols or helicopter crewmen trapped in wreckage could be three or four hours’ flight time away, even from Kandahar.

“These guys are either sitting getting shot and wounded or isolated. … For us to [get to] them took a long time,” noted Lt. Col. Stephen Goodman, combat rescue officer branch chief.

Today in Afghanistan, all this has changed. Rescue detachments are dispersed to forward operating bases across the country, often only minutes away from a fight.

TSgt. Patrick Ledbetter preflights the engine of a Pave Hawk from the 56th Rescue Squadron onboard USS Ponce on a mission for Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. (USN photo by Mass Comm. Spec. 1st Class Nathanael Miller)

“Now, sometimes you’re sitting out there on the ramp and you can see the guys going across the fence and you know that you’re probably going to get the call … soon,” said Goodman. “Our leadership has cracked that nut and we are postured where we need to be. The closer we are to the fight, the more people we’re going to extract from the battlefield,” he asserted.

The Golden Hour

In early 2002, HH-60s had just shifted to Kandahar and the HC-130s providing air-to-air-refueling, command and control, and support were across the border in Pakistan. Not long after, midway through a night mission, HC-130 pilot Maj. Terry Crabtree and copilot Maj. James Woosley received an urgent call to divert. An Australian special operations forces soldier had driven over a landmine on a patrol near Afghanistan’s border with Iran.

The mine “severed the SOF troop’s leg right below the knee, [as well as] his arm. Part of his face had some massive trauma. … Fortunately there was a medic on scene, but he was requesting help and immediate assistance,” recalled Woosley, now head of USAF fixed wing personnel recovery assets at the Pentagon.

Two HH-60s immediately scrambled from Kandahar and were aloft minutes later with pararescuemen aboard. Fortunately, the HC-130 was airborne over southwestern Afghanistan, but its cargo bay was full of equipment from its original mission.

The HC-130 landed at Kandahar, and as soon as it was down, the crew heaved the equipment out “literally on the side of the runway,” Woosley said. They “just dumped it out and civil engineering came out to recover it for us,” he added. Throwing the throttles forward, the crew lifted off, departing directly from the runway’s remaining length. Overtaking the HH-60s in flight, the HC-130 arrived on scene roughly 25 minutes after the wheels left the strip at Kandahar.

To prepare the casualty for evacuation ahead of the helo’s arrival, pararescuemen in the cargo bay readied their chutes for a drop. After the flight crew managed to correct a malfunction with the air-drop sighting and navigation system, the PJs conferred with the aircrew and jumpmaster.

“We needed to coordinate … [and] make sure we’re on the same page to running them in to where they really intend to drop … that they’re aware of any threats we’re aware of, that they also know the timeline for when the HH-60s are coming in,” explained Woosley.

Jumping into a minefield at night with a weapon and full medical equipment, the PJs avoided the dimly glowing red chem-light markers tagging the mines. Beyond the minefield lay an unmarked swamp and possible insurgents, seriously curtailing landing options for the HH-60s following behind.

An HC-130 pulls away after refueling two HH-60 helicopters over the desert near Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. The youngest active duty HC-130N/P entered service in 1965. (USAF photo by SSgt. Joshua L. DeMotts)

Given all that, and the extent of the SOF soldier’s wounds, the PJs elected not to move from the marked drop zone. Confident the HH-60’s rotor downwash wouldn’t trigger the mines—a real hazard with larger helicopters—the rescuers on the scene decided to bring the helo in directly.

Avoiding Iranian airspace and accidental illumination of the PJs on the ground, the HC-130 vectored the HH-60s to the landing zone. Upon touchdown, the PJs were within a “minute of having the patient secured for travel,” minimizing the helicopter’s exposure in the landing zone. “It took about 40 minutes for the HH-60s to get from Kandahar to touchdown, which is very fast—they couldn’t have delayed more than a handful of minutes before they were airborne,” Woosley observed.

Forming up with the HC-130 at low level enroute back to Kandahar, the HH-60s refueled in-flight with the patient onboard.

With forces postured so far away, “it was the best timeline that individual could have ever encountered from rescue,” said Woosley. “Unfortunately the patient did not recover from his injuries; they were too massive.”

While it will never be known if a faster response could have saved the soldier, distance alone pushed the evacuation outside the “golden hour,” despite an otherwise flawless response.

Lesson Learned

Going into Libya, correct placement of recovery forces was a focus from the outset. HH-60s deployed aboard the Navy’s amphibious vessel USS Ponce to provide combat search and rescue to coalition aircraft during Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Still, a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey snatched the only airman extracted by recovery forces—an F-15E pilot who ejected over Libya. Had the situation been worse, however, USAF assets were in place. “It’s not always a bailout of a pilot that ejected and can walk away from the scene,” said Goodman. “It is very much a cooperative effort to … respond with the best alternative.”

Schaffer says rescue should be included in posture planning in any future action and be put in place “before the war even starts.” After watching the struggle in Afghanistan, “I don’t want to ever see that happen again.”

Capt. Nick Morgans (l) and TSgt. Anthony Wood, both with the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, on a training mission near Kandahar. (USAF photo by SSgt. Eric Harris)

Libya, on the other hand, raised the issue of just how far high-demand rescue resources can feasibly stretch. USAF’s 385 or so PJs, along with a limited number of CROs and SERE specialists, currently cover four separate combat mission areas with only six deployed rescue teams.

Japan’s earthquake-tsunami disaster earlier this year illustrated the thinness of resources. Despite having rescue units permanently assigned to Pacific Air Forces at Kadena AB, Japan, it was pure luck that USAF had rescue assets available to help, as they are often tasked elsewhere.

“Had that happened at any other time, we may not have had the rescue forces available on Okinawa to forward locate on mainland Japan,” said Goodman.

Overseas units, such as the 33rd Rescue Squadron, which technically are assigned to provide search and rescue support for US Pacific Command, routinely deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Djibouti as needed.

Had there been no assets available to help with the Japan disaster, Goodman said, there would have had to have been choices made about what would be left undone.

“If something like that humanitarian mission happened and we had nothing, we’d have to make a decision … [about]how important is important?’ he noted.

As a result, contingencies such as Japan often become a “pickup game of sending who you have.”

Nowhere was this slice-and-dice approach more apparent than in Libya. Air Forces Africa, designated the lead command for the mission, had no assets of its own. For the rescuers already in high demand, this literally meant pulling assets from another operational theater, initially the Horn of Africa.

The 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron had to break off from covering the joint task force conducting anti-piracy and counterterror operations in the Gulf of Aden, standing in until assets from Europe became available for the Libya mission. The unit permanently assigned to US Air Forces Europe—the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, UK—had just returned from a 120-day rotation in Afghanistan when the call came in.

“They were home for 10 days when the Libya thing kicked off,” noted Maj. Victor Pereira, HH-60 pilot and personnel recovery rotary wing branch chief.

Even without jumping from one combat deployment directly to another, active duty HH-60 helicopter crews are already at the Air Force’s “red line” one-to-one deployment-dwell ratio, meaning they are deployed as many days as they are at home station.

While rescue personnel were frequently near the one-to-one ratio even in peacetime, such high deployment rates play havoc with pilot currency. Time at home station is required simply to keep up to date on the range of specialized flying skills needed for the mission.

“We have multiple skill sets that we need to be proficient in and that’s why we go for a little bit shorter duration,” observed Pereira.

While only at 74 percent of authorized strength, the PJ career field is the largest it has ever been. The CRO force, stood up in 2001 to provide officers to lead in the field, represents a new pool altogether. Though only at 64 percent of its authorized manning, the career field is slowly growing and the added leadership and manpower have been a huge morale boost to the all-enlisted PJ force. Measures such as the screening of rescue candidates have reduced attrition greatly in the pipeline, resulting in lower washout rates. Retention bonuses have successfully kept experienced airmen in uniform.

While the same does not hold true for aircrew, the high operational tempo actually boosted retention among PJs, CROs, and SERE specialists. The only real retention concern centers on experienced HH-60 pilots.

After eight to 10 years of flying, helicopter pilots who would normally rotate into instructor pilot slots are leaving the force instead. It’s not necessarily because they are burned out, however. “You will lose them if you don’t use them. These guys want to be in the fight,” said Schaffer. “Is there stress on them? Of course there’s stress. Does it matter to them right now? Not necessarily.”

Maj. Victor Pereira pilots a Pave Hawk during refueling. HH-60 helicopters are severely stressed equipment, and reached their highest-ever utilization rate last year. (USAF photo by SSgt. Joshua L. DeMotts)

Highest Use Ever

While the people persevere, the hardware has limits.

“It’s the iron that’s stressed, not the people,” Schaffer said. “If we want to continue to do the things that we’re doing, we need a better HC-130” as well as “more HH-60s, or even a bigger helicopter,” he said.

Underscoring the point, most of the HH-60 fleet rolled off the assembly line in 1981. The average helicopter in the rescue inventory has 5,300 flight hours on it, with some surpassing the 10,000-hour mark.

“To keep these helicopters operating at 100 percent can’t be done,” said Pereira. The Pave Hawk fleet suffers one of the worst availability rates in the Air Force, an abysmal 60 percent. While maintainers work tirelessly, there is only so much they can do.

Making matters worse, the helicopters boast the highest use rate of any rotary wing fleet now engaged in combat operations. USAF’s fleet of 99 Pave Hawks reached its highest-ever utilization rate just last year.

In the short term, USAF will keep the Pave Hawk inventory up by procuring 13 combat loss-replacement helicopters converted from Army Black Hawks. Without a true replacement program in the works, though, this handful of aircraft is a mere stop-gap to replace HH-60s that have crashed or otherwise been lost. Replacements will “bridge the gap until the recapitalization of the HH-60 is awarded and fielded,” Pereira said.

With the Air Force’s announcement that initial operational capability for an HH-60 replacement may be delayed as late as 2018, relief is still a long way off.

With the J model HC-130 on the horizon, the fixed wing fleet offers “a little brighter message,” Woosley said, but even they face a long road ahead.

The first HC-130J took to the air last July, but conversion to the new aircraft will not begin until next year, when the first airframe arrives at Kirtland AFB, N.M., to train crews. Even with fresh HC-130Js entering service, the pinch actually worsens before it gets better. To change over, Air Combat Command will be forced to stand down a squadron—the 79th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.—for operational conversion. In the meantime, “the high operational tempo gets even worse for the units that are still flying the legacy platform,” said Woosley.

Between March 2010 and July 2011, HC-130 crews logged 1,045 combat recovery missions in Afghanistan alone. Whether stateside or deployed, the fleet routinely operates from unprepared strips, refuels helicopters at low level, and maneuvers aggressively to evade threats—practices that severely punish the equipment. The fact that the youngest active duty HC-130N/P entered the force in 1965 does not help.

“It’s a leadership and logistical challenge, but it’s one that’s mapped out … pretty efficiently,” said Woosley. Though Air Combat Command is petitioning for more, the current plan calls for a total of 37 HC-130Js.

“The next few years will be a challenge, but it’s one that we’re looking forward to because it’s an advance we’ve needed,” he added.

The HC-130J offers longer range, improved loiter times, and for the first time, the ability to be refueled in midair itself. Besides the added advantage of flying an aircraft with a modern digital cockpit and upgraded defensive suite, the new aircraft features medical-grade interior lighting and an onboard power system, allowing improved treatment for patients. Together, all these will give wounded troops a better chance of survival.