The US military has some 7,000 troops operating in and around the continent of Africa, most assigned to counterterrorism operations in and around Somalia, and the rest building partner relationships and supporting counterterrorist operations in locations such as Libya and Niger. Yet across the entire continent, there is just one Air Force combat search and rescue team solely responsible for US special operators.
USAF HH-60G Pave Hawks, HC-130s, and Guardian Angel personnel are on call for operations in Somalia and largely unable to respond to emergencies elsewhere on the continent, according to US Africa Command officials. The shortage has at times forced delays in ground missions because personnel recovery assets were unavailable.
Job one, for me, is to ensure we are synchronized with those types of activities that are occurring outside the wire, … to make sure that if something happens, we’re there. USAFE Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian
In the central region of the continent, US forces rely on private contractors to assist with medical evacuations, and in the West, France—which operates its own large counter-terror operation in Mali—has been called on for assistance.
“Job one, for me, is to ensure we are synchronized with those types of activities that are occurring outside the wire, that we need to be in the proper overwatch position to make sure that if something happens, we’re there,” USAFE Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian said in a recent interview with Air Force Magazine.
After Tongo Tongo
When four US Army troops were ambushed at Tongo Tongo, Niger, in October 2017, it took nearly six hours for French helicopters to come to their aid. By then, four soldiers were dead.
No American military medical evacuation forces were available to support those troops. AFRICOM’s report on the incident states that the first evacuation aircraft, two French helicopters operating out of neighboring Mali, arrived 5 hours and 43 minutes after the initial contact and evacuated survivors. Shortly after, civilian helicopters from Berry Aviation in the Nigerien capital of Niamey, which were on contract and on alert, arrived to evacuate the deceased soldiers. This response was “consistent with the casualty evacuation plan that was in place for this particular operation,” said then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. at a Pentagon briefing on the investigation.
The investigation highlighted risk-taking by the command, but did not recommend specific changes to the casualty-evacuation process. USAFE’s Harrigian, who assumed his job more than a year-and-a-half after the incident and a year after the initial investigation came out, said the incident remains an issue across USAFE and AFRICOM.
“It remains on people’s minds, that particular incident,” he said. “It’s one though that I think takes a constant revisit and reminder to make sure that we don’t forget.”
Harrigian has met with AFRICOM boss US Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend to ensure air assets are adequately available when needed to support US operations in the region.
“There’s been a refreshing look at when do we actually need to do those things, and what’s the approval authority,” Harrigian said. As a result of the Tongo Tongo report, leaders have focused on the need “to ensure that the right level of leadership had visibility and then the risk decision was appropriately viewed through the lens of: Do we need to do this now, and do we have the risk management sorted out over the top to be able to allow that operation to go?”
Building Partner Capacity
To further improve recovery and response, USAF air advisers and AFRICOM personnel have focused in recent years on improving the personnel recovery capability of partner nations so they, too, could be called on if needed, as well as be better prepared when their own forces are in need.
This personnel recovery mission was the main focus of AFRICOM’s African Partnership Flight in Kenya in August, when USAF instructors, led by the 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron and the Massachusetts Air National Guard, joined air force representatives of Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda at a Kenyan base for a week of training and instruction.
The USAF members, along with other US personnel from multiple commands, trained local forces to locate and rescue injured and isolated personnel. The training culminated in the combined force “Exercise Linda Rhino 2” at Larisoro Air Strip in Kenya, where USAFE-AFAFRICA personnel joined members from other nations to practice a joint operation.
Ground forces and military ambulances loaded simulated casualties into fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, with strike helicopters flying security in a showcase to each nation’s air force leadership.
“I hope the East African nations will be able to take the information they’ve learned here and not only make their own personnel recovery programs better, but build a program where we can count on one another and ensure all of our isolated personnel come back to their families and countries,” said TSgt. Jared Todd, 818th MSAS survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) air advisor, in an AFRICOM news release.
The goal with exercises like this is to “leverage what they have to help us with personnel recovery,” Harrigian said. “Because frankly they know the terrain better. The challenge becomes the distances you have to cover and how you have a lay down that leverages partners, whether they be the French in the Sahel, Lake Chad region, or as you move back into the more central portions. Those partners help us have a better level of understanding of what it would take to recover someone.”
Mission in Somalia
While partner nations are being trained to help in other regions, USAF’s personnel recovery specialists must stay focused on operations in Somalia. Though there is a small contract presence further south of the country, USAF pararescuemen and aircraft are on nearly constant alert; when USAF units are stretched too thin, missions are sometimes delayed, AFRICOM officials said.
More than 100 Reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick AFB, Fla., deployed to support combat search and rescue missions in the Middle East and Africa in late September. Three HH-60G Pave Hawks and the combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, SERE specialists, and personnel recovery experts from the 308th Rescue Squadron joined Pave Hawk crews from the 301st Rescue Squadron, plus maintainers from the 920th Maintenance Squadron and 920th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. They are supported by wing staff, operations support and logistics airmen, and communications specialists.
Airmen with the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., performed the mission through much of 2018. The group’s 48th Rescue Squadron recently received multiple awards, including the Jolly Green Rescue Mission of the Year and the Air Rescue Association’s 2019 Rescue Mission of the Year, for a particularly intense rescue operation in Somalia in which the team took heavy fire, saved the lives of US and local forces, and brought home a fallen US soldier.
The award citations offered a rare glimpse into the usually closely guarded clandestine US special operations mission in Somalia. In early June 2018, a team of five pararescuemen and one combat rescue officer forward deployed from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to an operating base where they stood by to provide medical support to a US Army Special Forces team, according to a Davis-Monthan release.
A separate statement released shortly after the mission by AFRICOM said an 800-member combined US, Somali National Security Forces, and Kenyan Defense Force team was conducting a multiday mission to clear al-Shabaab from contested areas and liberate villages near the town of Jamaame. The combined mission “was specifically designed to increase the [Federal Government of Somalia]’s ability to provide vital government services to innocent civilians living under al-Shabaab’s rule,” according to AFRICOM.
Three days after deploying, the Special Forces team came under attack from multiple machine gun nests and a mortar position. Receiving a casualty evacuation request, rescuers piled into their HH-60G Pave Hawk, arriving at the engagement site within 14 minutes. Taking heavy machine gun fire, the Pave Hawk responded with its own guns to provide suppressive fire. Communications were degraded, but the helicopter was able to land, and pararescuemen were able to locate the Special Forces medic and load critical patients first.
Once patients were loaded, the lead helicopter took off, but it could not immediately depart the area. “The lead had to stay over head to continue to provide suppressive fire for the trail,” said Lt. Col. Blake George, commander of the 48th RQS from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in an Air Force release. “So they had to keep providing care while the HH-60G went into hard banks and fired the .50-caliber machine gun. They had to provide high-level trauma medical care while the aircraft was in the middle of a combat mission.”
Pararescueman TSgt. Benjamin Cole was aboard that lead helicopter, and in the midst of battle, “secured a surgical airway and gained interosseous access to administer a blood transfusion” to the patient.
Back at the FOB, the team learned the combat troops had sustained more casualties, reloaded the aircraft, and returned to the site. Once again, the lead aircraft delivered suppressive fire and close air support for ground forces while a trail aircraft landed.
“We were forward and very reactive so we got overhead very quickly,” George said in the release. “Those lives were saved because we were prepared and able to get overhead very quickly.”