The execution by Daesh of a downed Jordanian F-16 pilot in 2015 highlighted the importance of personnel recovery in combat zones. In this post, Andrew Fisher argues that the Australian Defence Force can already take steps to develop a personnel recovery capability that will provide the force with an insurance policy for its people and capability.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
Nobody likes paying for insurance. We all believe that ‘it won’t happen to me’ or that ‘I’m a defensive driver’. In most cases reason takes over and we part with our hard-earned money to buy some peace of mind that should the worst happen, we will be covered.
Take that analogy and apply it to our military personnel and equipment. The Government, through the Defence White Paper 2016 (DWP16), is investing large sums of public money in state-of-the-art training, facilities, and equipment to maintain a capability ‘edge’ over potential adversaries. But where is the insurance policy that gives our personnel at higher risk of isolation and exploitation, such as Special Forces and aircrew, peace of mind that they will be covered in all operational environments– that we have the intent and capability to recover them? DWP16 notes that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) does not have a dedicated combat search and rescue (CSAR) capability and speaks of investigating options from 2023 onwards. It is vital to start confronting the question of personnel recovery (PR) in preparation for the delivery of that capability.
It’s easy to ignore the need for an insurance policy when you haven’t needed it in over a generation. The conflicts that Air Force has been involved in since Vietnam have taken place in more or less permissive airborne environments. The moral obligation to recover our people established in joint doctrine since 2006 has not translated to a full-spectrum PR capability in the ADF. Recent experience has resulted in a focus on search and rescue, in permissive environments and a tendency to ‘fight the last war’ rather than prepare for the CSAR that is likely in the next high-end conflict. The example of the Jordanian F-16 pilot ejection and subsequent capture and execution by Daesh in Syria in 2015 serves as a stark reminder to both leadership and operators that something could go wrong on operations. Operations in that theatre also highlight Australia’s dependence on dedicated US PR capabilities in expeditionary operations.
United States Air Force Pararescuemen of the 129th Rescue Wing move injured role players to the landing zone for extraction by HH-60 Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter during Exercise Angel Reign 16, a CSAR exercise conducted in Townsville. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]
This reminder is timely in the midst of the wholesale capability transition in Air Force, often associated with the term ‘fifth-generation Air Force’. Part of what this means is developing a force that is capable of maintaining a capability advantage rather than a numerical advantage over a range of potential adversaries. Personnel are operating more sophisticated and in most cases highly classified weapon systems. These weapon systems are driving an increased focus on force protection ‘in garrison’. Higher security clearances and higher classification rated facilities are some of the measures that are required to operate these weapon systems.
So far, we seem happy to invest in broad force protection when operating at home but not necessarily when deploying forward. The acquisition of the KC-30A has enhanced our ability to project air power, but what happens when we leverage the air power characteristic of reach to penetrate contested or degraded environments? How are these enhanced force protection measures applied in a deployed setting and what if something happens when operating at the edge of that projection? Where is our insurance policy?
A principle of search and rescue planning is that the time to rescue should be equal to or less than survival time. A corollary to this should be that in uncertain or hostile environments, the recovery of personnel in possession of highly exploitable information or equipment which provides that capability edge, should be achieved in less than the time that it takes to exploit it. By assuming that we’ll be covered by the United States, we are running the risk of not assuring the security of our advanced capabilities and failing our obligation to look after our people. Additionally, reliance on the United States means that we will not have an organic, expeditionary PR capability for unilateral or minor operations in our near-region that the United States may not support.
Where do we start in developing a systemic approach to PR? The ADF has traditionally looked to how the United States does it, which is a useful starting point as it allows us to leverage decades of hard-earned experience. But as a comprehensive model it fails in the Australian context due to the size of our fighting force. It takes significant resources and genuine command commitment to have a dedicated PR force, a difficult proposition for a mid-sized force. This investment has to balance the likelihood of isolation and exploitation that personnel may face in future conflicts and the consequences to personnel and equipment of such events. A dedicated PR capability is not something that can be stood up from scratch within the rapid deployment timeframe, for which Operation OKRA has become a benchmark.
As a medium-term option, we can do everything as an organisation to ensure that our people are prepared for the worst case. We do have the ability to put those personnel identified at higher risk of isolation and exploitation through more robust survival, evasion, resistance and escape training. We have the ability to consolidate the functions of ADF PR into a single body to drive the capability with a single joint voice, rather than the piece-meal approaches that are currently being taken. We have the ability to shape joint and single service doctrine to make PR considerations more prominent and to start to make PR part of our DNA. Equally as important is that we shape our training so that the first time our aircrew experience a PR event either on the ground or from the air isn’t on operations.
Royal Australian Air Force staff from the Combat Survival Training School demonstrate a combat search and rescue recovery during the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course at the Townsville Field Training Area. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]
PR is an insurance policy for a fifth generation Air Force. By investing in a PR system in anticipation of the long-range CSAR options outlined in DWP16 we will be protecting the people and equipment that will ensure we maintain a capability edge into the future. Investing in a PR system tailored to our future PR needs will protect the people and the equipment that will ensure our capability edge into the future.
Squadron Leader Andrew Fisher is a serving Royal Australian Air Force Air Combat Officer with experience in maritime patrol and joint personnel recovery operations. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.