60 minutes to save a pilot behind enemy lines
NEW YORK // When Jordanian air force pilot Maaz Al Kassasbeh ejected from his F-16 above ISIL-controlled Raqqa last December, his chances of evading capture — and thus of survival — began to diminish rapidly after an hour.
Combat search and rescue veterans call this the “golden hour” after a pilot is downed behind enemy lines, when the chances for rescue and surviving injuries are greatest. But in truth, the Jordanian airman probably had even less time. It was daytime and the nearest populated areas were held by ISIL; beyond that was the open desert.
The US launched an “intensive airborne search” operation immediately after the plane went down, according to a State Department spokeswoman, who declined to give any details on how long it took the aircraft to arrive. That is likely because the nearest search and rescue units were more than 1,100 kilometres away, on a military base in Kuwait.
“Not having a rescue package nearby could have cost the pilot his capture,” said Brandon Webb, a former Navy Seal and author of a forthcoming book, Among Heroes. “Flying … from Kuwait is a half day travel by helicopter, that’s an eternity in a CSAR [combat search and rescue] operation.”
Even with the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, designed to fly faster than conventional rescue helicopters, it would have taken more than two hours to reach Raqqa.
ISIL is known to have shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that are effective at lower altitudes, but their capabilities are nothing like Saddam Hussein’s air defences that were able to shoot down more than two dozen US aircraft during the first Gulf War. The US-led coalition bombing ISIL has flown more than 2,230 missions over Iraq and Syria, and Kassasbeh is the only pilot to have been captured.
But the failure to rescue the airman soon after his crash, and the apparent lack of coalition quick-reaction search and rescue capabilities in place, have made the issue a contentious one in recent weeks. Washington’s most able Arab ally, the UAE, halted its airstrikes against ISIL for several weeks over concerns about the lack of preparations. The US in response last week said it had moved search and rescue personnel and aircraft to Erbil, in northern Iraq.
The repositioning will cut the response time significantly, especially if a pilot is downed or captured in northern Iraq, though bases in Turkey would put the rescue teams less than an hour away from the area surrounding Raqqa, according to Jim Reese, a retired Delta Force commander who has taken part in rescue missions. So far, Ankara has only allowed reconnaissance flights from its territory.
But even with the faster response time, rescuing a downed pilot or freeing hostages held by ISIL are the most difficult operations for the specialised search and rescue units and US special forces tasked with carrying them out.
“In a non-permissive environment, hostage rescue and combat search and rescue are the hardest operations in the world,” said Mr Reese. “The hardest.”
Iraq is considered “semi-permissive”, according to Mr Reese, without regime air defences and with friendly Iraqi forces and US military personnel in the country. Syria, on the other hand, is “100 per cent non-permissive”, with no friendly Syrian forces on the ground and Damascus’ substantial air defences.
One of the reasons the US likely chose to keep the search and rescue teams in Kuwait, relatively far from the areas where the coalition jets are operating, is because of their large logistical footprint. “They have all the maintenance support there, it’s a very secure location and these assets sit on alert 24/7 with support crews and teams rotating in and out,” said Mr Reese. “To pick up that whole package is a lot of logistics and costs a lot of money.”
The air force’s dedicated combat search and rescue component, the 347th Rescue Group of the 23d Wing, consists of two squadrons of planes and helicopters and a squadron of “Guardian Angels”, according to 2nd Lt Brianca Williams, a spokesperson for the 23d Wing.
“The Guardian Angels are a non-aircraft, human weapon system composed of Combat Rescue Officers, pararescuemen, and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists,” Lt Williams said.
US officials have not specified what assets were being moved to Erbil, or how they compare to those in Kuwait.
One of the potential problems is that search and rescue capabilities are spread thin around the world. “We have dedicated platforms, but we’re in lots of places around the world — Africa, Afghanistan, the Pacific theatre — so there are limited assets to do this,” Lt Williams said.
Dedicated combat rescue teams from the US air force and navy along with the pilots who fly the aircraft and medical staff equipped to conduct operations on injured hostages or pilots on the aircraft remain on standby at bases near where US forces are operating.
The number of combat rescue personnel and aircraft deployed to rescue a downed pilot depends on the situation. The teams are required to take off within 30 minutes of receiving a distress call, but often are ready much before that, according to a combat rescue officer.
“When we get the initial information, we assess the risk, the threat, and we launch,” the officer said, adding, in “ten minutes we could have all our information, everybody’s packed up on the aircraft.”
“It’s a foot race between the enemy and the friendly force as to who can get there quickest, and you try to do your best to make sure you position yourselves to be the quickest to respond from ground alert or an airborne alert, to be able to get there.”
If the search and rescue teams lose that “foot race”, then “tier one” special forces units are tasked with formulating a rescue plan. “The mission can change from a search and rescue op to a hostage rescue op very quickly,” Mr Webb said.
“It’s a dedicated mission that the US is very skilled in and practices. You rehearse the whole package, constantly, and there are certain criteria that you want to be sure are in place … you rehearse those scenarios,” said Mr Webb.
But even with the preparations and training, more often than not, the attempts to rescue hostages held by militants fail.
“It’s tough,” Mr Reese said. Jordanian special forces backed by US airstrikes reportedly attempted to rescue Kassasbeh before he was murdered, but were met with stiff resistance from ISIL and were forced to retreat. US special forces have carried out a number of recent missions to rescue American hostages held by ISIL in Syria — including Kayla Mueller, who was confirmed on Tuesday to have been killed while an ISIL hostage — and Al Qaeda in Yemen, but all have failed.
Downed pilot and hostage rescue missions require “surprise, speed and violence of action”, according to Mr Reese, but those elements all hinge on good intelligence, and the US has woefully little reliable local sources of “human intelligence” in Syria. This lack of good information rendered the US special forces otherwise successful infiltration of an ISIL facility in Syria in July to rescue American hostages useless, as it turned out the pair had been moved days before.
In Yemen, an American journalist and a South African teacher were both shot when the US special forces lost the element of surprise. The rescue aircraft had trauma centres on board, but medics could not save either man.
“A lot of the time there is so much pressure to get these people out, you launch on a single intelligence source and the chances of that being successful are pretty slim to none,” said Mr Reese.
While difficult-to-cultivate human intelligence is a major gap in the coalition’s ability to fight ISIL, especially in rescuing hostages, some analysts say other forms of intelligence are more readily available.
“Intelligence that’s more critical to CSAR is geospatial intelligence” such as video from a drone, “and signals intelligence”, intercepted communications, said Ben Connable, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer in Iraq who is now with the Rand Corporation. “They are usually not launched unless they know there is a good chance of success. Sometimes the timeline or the terrain or the enemy forces just don’t allow for a SAR mission.”
But even with the best intelligence, the missions are fraught with variables that can jeapordise success.
“Unfamiliar buildings, blind hallways, the number of armed enemy, and booby traps are just a few things that come to mind that special operations troops have to plan for,” said Mr Webb. “It’s a tough situation to put yourself into no matter how well trained you are.”
Updated: February 11, 2015 04:00 AM