Planning Under Pressure: How USAF Airmen Brought Mission-Mindedness to the Thai Cave Rescue

Maj. Charlie Hodges, commander of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, ?and US Indo-Pacific Command airmen meet with Royal Thai military officials and civilians during a deployment to advise and assist with the Thai cave rescue. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait.

Two USAF airmen who deployed to Thailand to advise and assist with the now-famous rescue of a youth soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave said their mission-planning skills helped turn the tide in the one-of-a-kind mission.

Maj. Charlie Hodges, commander of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron at Kadena AB, Japan, said both American and Thai sides of the rescue team brought their strengths to the table.

The Thai contingent, he said, boasted “the sheer force of manpower” in the form of multiple SEAL platoons and an abundance of civilian volunteers at the ready.

“The volunteerism that we saw around the mouth of the cave was incredible,” Hodges said at a Monday press conference about the rescue. “I’ve never seen that many people come together to help out on … unpaid status.”

What the Americans lacked in squad size, they made up for with strategic thinking.

“Thailand never had any sort of galvanizing, catalyzing event like Hurricane Katrina,” so they worried that “their coordination in something like this was severely lacking,” he said. “I think that’s where we were able to give them that key.”

Hodges summed up their role in the scenario as being auditors, of sorts. He said the Americans helped the Thais identify and organize their resources, determine limits, decide who had “to be the sign-off authority on accepting some of this risk,” and then walked “them through the process.”

“As nonglamorous as that sounds, I think that was one of the key things that we were able to provide for ‘em,” he said.

One example of how the men helped put strategic thinking into play was when they led the response team in rehearsing and refining the rescue multiple times before actually carrying it out. During this process, the airmen used improvised props—such as water bottles and rope—to simulate cave routes and equipment, and walked the civ-mil crew through each step of the rescue.

“It may seem elementary, but rehearsal-of-concept is exactly that—and all the civilians had never seen that,” Hodges said.

While the strategy was met with some resistance from at least one allied military volunteer, Hodges said, they came around once they realized the walk-through alerted them to potential inefficiencies in the rescue plan.

“We tackle any problem or any mission that’s handed to us with a lot of the same, methodical, step-by-step processes, which helps you develop courses of action,” added MSgt. Derek Anderson, a USAF pararescueman who also deployed on the advise-and-assist mission, during a press conference at the Air Force Association’s 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

Anderson said “whether you’re on the battlefield or a civilian,” this way of thinking—beginning with your objective and then planning backwards—helped winnow down response options and brought order to a rescue made chaotic by the presence of “hundreds, if not thousands, of people trying to help” in addition to the core response team.

“Being able to really focus on the thought process that we use and really kinda share that … allowed all these different organizations that kind of fit into a different piece of the puzzle come together,” he said. The important thing was “just having a very structured command and control.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein praised the men and their teammates for working “hand-in-hand with their [Royal Thai] Navy SEAL counterparts to develop the plan that was executed to save the 12 boys and their coach” in his Tuesday keynote at the conference. He called their efforts “an incredible story we all watched play out: American airmen leading a coalition, getting the job done.”