Rescuing the Rescuers: A Guide to Revitalizing an Air Force Community

March 29, 2021
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In April 1943, Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, Sgt. Richard Passey, and Cpl. William MacKenzie parachuted into Burma to save 20 crewmembers and passengers of a crashed C-46. After nursing them back to health, the team led the survivors out of the jungle to safety. The rescue required skill, audacity, perseverance, innovation, and a willingness to accept personal risk — all characteristics that would become hallmarks of Air Force rescues. Indeed, this is the “origins story” of the Air Force pararescue and rescue communities. Subsequent missions and operations built upon the foundation established in 1943 to create a culture guided by the motto “That Others May Live.” The Air Force’s “Rescue Triad,” composed of its Guardian Angel, HC-130 Hercules, and HH-60 Pave Hawk units, is the modern inheritor of this legacy.

Air Force rescue, the community of airmen dedicated to the Air Force’s personnel recovery mission, today finds itself in a crisis of culture, the consequence of a slow erosion of its foundational characteristics. Rather than demanding the capacity for bold action, leaders talk of rescue’s limitations and inability to compete with adversary technology, placing limits around the community’s efficacy. With few exceptions, a view of personnel recovery as a “pickup game” driven by rapid response and in-motion coordination has been replaced by the view that personnel recovery cannot be accomplished without a lengthy planning cycle to evaluate every contingency and mitigate every risk imaginable prior to launch. The innovation that drove techniques such as parachuting to isolated personnel, the use of helicopters, and the development of air-droppable deflated boats has been squandered, replaced by a staid insistence on rescue platforms and tactics largely unchanged since the 1960s. A new concept is more likely to be met by a chorus of reasons that the concept is doomed to failure than a willingness to explore and test the idea. In short, the Air Force rescue culture has become calcified and intransigent, on a path that, unless corrected, will fail to be equal to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Brown’s admonition to “accelerate change now.”



The roots of the community’s shift from an agile, mission-focused force to one bound in hardened equities and risk aversion are many. Organizationally, the rescue community has lacked a good home since the Air Rescue Service was deactivated and responsibility for combat search and rescue was assigned to special operations forces during Operation Desert Storm. A brief flirtation with organizing under Air Force Special Operations Command ended quickly, the command having treated the mission as secondary to its other missions. Rescue organized under Air Combat Command has been equally fraught, as the mission has generally gotten short shrift when competing for attention and resources. Led by airmen intent on preventing mission failure, little attention is given to a community built on the premise that someone else’s mission failure is inevitable. The lack of command leadership, organizational focus, and concomitant under-resourcing of Air Force rescue are contributing factors to the community’s eroding culture.

The constant threat of lost program dollars has led rescue leadership to commit what resources the community receives to programmatic “safe bets,” to the detriment of innovation. This results in minor improvements to proven capabilities, creating the potential for repeated missed opportunities, with investments focused on tactics and systems little changed in six decades. Mismanagement of the Combat Search and Rescue-X program set Air Force rescue back a decade by forcing a reboot of the helicopter procurement process. Having overseen the cancellation of one program, a new helicopter now appears prioritized over all else, even if the “new” helicopter will be essentially a minor upgrade from the current aircraft. Between incremental improvements to the HC-130 fleet obtained through HC-130J procurement and similarly incremental improvements coming with the HH-60W, the rescue fleet of the future looks barely different from today’s, or that of 20 years ago. Because advocacy for devoting programming to incremental improvements is prioritized over innovation, Air Combat Command is locking Air Force rescue into a singular model for personnel recovery, one which limits the capacity of the rescue community to think outside the box in achieving its mission set.

To find recent innovation in personnel recovery, one must look outside Air Combat Command’s strictures. When Gen. David Goldfein, who has personal experience with Air Force rescue’s expertise, briefed the 2017 Air Force Association convention on Air Force personnel using the Android Tactical Assault Kit during hurricane relief operations, what went unsaid was that the kits were purchased by either individual units or the Air National Guard. While Air Combat Command was hung up on the kit’s lack of integration with current fixed- and rotary-wing situational awareness systems, the National Guard rescue community used its modernization funds and individual units dug into their operating budget to buy the system, to the success Goldfein highlighted. Further, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command pioneered multifunction color displays in HH-60G cockpits, and continue to push innovation by advocating for improved armaments for the HH-60G. Additionally, the Air National Guard and Air Reserve Test Center is partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory on a grant to explore alternative means of infiltrating and extracting Guardian Angel teams, employing powered parachute all-terrain vehicles to expand possible personnel recovery methods.

There are many reasons innovation in Air Force rescue may flow not from its lead command but from other sources: the reserve component’s tighter connections with the civilian world due to its part-time force, the tactical-level innovation engendered by the reserve component’s decentralized modernization process, the freedom that comes from not being a primary force provider, and the flexibility of National Guard/Reserve Equipment Account funding are a few examples. Regardless, Air Combat Command’s fixation on protecting resources for “safe investments” has a negative impact on the culture of innovation and mission accomplishment. Zeroing in on an aircraft that will be deprecated before it’s even fielded constrains the view of the possible, particularly for those tasked with flying an antiquated aircraft into a future fight. Such restrictions continue to inch rescue toward declaring defeat before the first mission is tasked, buying into the belief that the only way to execute personnel recovery is by using the tools it already has.

As Air Force rescue has maturated from its World War II roots, a creeping aversion to accepting operational risk has set in. Evidence of this shift can be seen in Operation Desert Storm, where concerns about helicopter survivability led the leadership tasked with executing rescue to establish strict criteria to be satisfied prior to launching forces. As a consequence, Desert Storm saw a low success rate for rescue missions, prompting Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson, director of the coalition air campaign, to comment:

The problem is at the commander level or the number two guy that wanted assurance before they would generate much effort. You can’t do that in CSAR [Combat Search and Rescue] if you are going to expect be successful. You will minimize the losses of the people trying to do the CSAR but you will lose a lot of people you should have picked up.

Indeed, the war’s most successful rescue involved rescue crews ignoring the de facto dividing line between sectors, accepting the risk posed by enemy in the area without permission from higher headquarters, and executing the pickup during the day rather than waiting for the nighttime rescue envisioned by planners. This leadership-level risk aversion continues today. As the complexity of adversary defenses has increased, concern for Air Force rescue’s ability to execute its mission and concern about the likelihood of losing forces to combat has increased. Prudence dictates respect for an adversary’s capabilities, but the pendulum has swung too far, with an outsized respect for the adversary baking in an unhealthy aversion to mission execution.

While one might presume that Air Force rescue’s extensive engagement in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have curbed the trend toward risk aversion, the opposite appears to have occurred. Indeed, though the community’s record of bravery speaks for itself, rather than fostering a sense of ability to overcome significant risks, it has become the foundation for explaining why conducting personnel recovery operations against a near-peer adversary will be virtually impossible. The last two decades of operations are dismissed as facile in comparison to conflict with near-peer adversaries. What Air Force rescue achieved in low-intensity conflict is viewed as possible because of those conflicts’ permissive nature. The implication is that such feats would be impossible in the semi- and non-permissive environments of a near-peer conflict. While the challenges are undeniable, this mindset ignores the other conclusion that can be reached from the last 20 years: that Air Force rescue repeatedly found a way to execute its mission. This mentality, if fostered appropriately, could lay the foundation for success in other environments. Instead, the focus on distinguishing between low- and high-intensity conflict has led many to view personnel recovery in the future as essentially unfeasible.

If a mindset defensive of resources, shy of innovation, and averse to operational risk has been insinuating itself in the Air Force rescue community, what can be done to reverse the trend? The slow transition from risk acceptance to risk aversion is perhaps inevitable in the absence of conflict. Indeed, the idea that the Air Force has become risk averse is not unique to rescue. Breaking some of the trends that have led to Air Force rescue’s cultural erosion could stymie the momentum, however. At a time when the Air Force is working hard to generate innovation, rescue leadership could accept risk in the near term in exchange for potential long-term gain by cutting short procurement of a helicopter that represents scant capability improvements and instead maximizing investment in capability leaps, either through research and development, investment in the Army’s Future Vertical Lift, or heavy engagement in alternative means of personnel recovery, such as those envisioned by Agility Prime. If history is any guide, Air Force rescue is on the cusp of spending the next 30 years flying a helicopter barely more capable than its current aircraft. Any of these alternatives would accept short-term pain for speed and range increases essential to addressing the future fight’s tyranny of distance or alternatives that could radically change how the mission is executed.

Moreover, there is an urgent need for an assessment of the Air Force’s current ability to execute personnel recovery focused on avoiding the pitfalls of presentism, namely the assumption that personnel recovery today is harder and more complex than ever before. This requires heavy wargaming and exercising. Call it “Rescue without Restraint”: Scenarios should disregard any notion of maximum acceptable levels of risk, allow for the possibility of heavy losses to friendly forces, and iteratively attempt to achieve success in near-peer scenarios, building from the Rescue Triad fighting alone to iterations that shut down the air war and devote all resources to a rescue. The iterations would gather more definitive intuitions about what can be accomplished with the Air Force’s current capabilities. Exercises and wargames could also aim to spur innovation and inform investments. Call it “Rescue without Rotors”: The idea would be to pursue means of personnel recovery outside of the traditional model, using ideas gathered from the field. Testing what are today viewed as unorthodox means in the highly contested environment would lend credence to the efficacy of generating innovative ideas and provide tacit approval to efforts to innovate in the field. Though neither are a guaranteed restorative, dedicating time and energy to moving Air Force rescue out of its conceptual rut could provide a useful nudge toward correcting its cultural issues.

Ultimately, however, leadership is necessary to shape a positive Air Force rescue culture. This starts with being honest about the mission and aggressive in its pursuit — honest in acknowledging that adversary advances make it harder, and aggressive in pursuing the belief that mission execution is possible. Rather than deriving a vision from the pursuit of resources, leaders must order the pursuit of resources in service to a vision. Leaders must encourage innovation. Faced with a structure unchanged since the 1970s, leaders must seek out and promote innovative ideas, even if many of those ideas will lead to failure. Air Force rescue’s organization — subsumed by a major command with numerous competing priorities — means that the community must grow and inform leaders not just from a rescue background but also those who rely on personnel recovery when they need it most: the pilots who will be looking to rescue when their mission does not end at a friendly runway. Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie touched on this when, reflecting on the decision to rescue Capt. Roger Locher less than 40 miles from Hanoi during the Vietnam War, he said, “in one of the great examples … of courageous combat leadership, Gen. John Vogt … cancelled the entire strike mission of Hanoi and dedicated all the resources, over 150 airplanes, to the rescue of Roger Locher.” The forces that veer leaders away from such an attitude are many, and it requires intention to develop the type of Air Force rescue leaders who would push for such a mission, and the type of Air Force leaders who would be willing to stop everything to make it happen.

Personnel recovery inherently demands risk acceptance, the ability to improvise and innovate, and a willingness to move first and plan on the go. Those characteristics feed into, and are fed by, a culture that allows for and encourages them. Recently, timid leadership, bureaucratic inertia, a focus on “safe” investments, and steadily rising risk aversion have combined to erode the culture created by daring rescue missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Thinking back on his decision to shut down the air war in order to rescue one man, Vogt said:

I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews just to get one man out. Finally I said to myself, Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that is ever in doubt, morale would tumble. That was my major consideration. So I took it on myself. I didn’t ask anybody for permission, I just said, “Go do it!”

Air Force rescue today needs not just the leader who would take Vogt’s approach, but the culture that would push and fight to make that mission happen. Seventy-seven years ago, Don Flickinger stepped into the void to rescue Americans in the jungle below. One could be forgiven for wondering if today’s Air Force rescue community would even consider such an innovation … and if it did, if present-day Flickingers, Passeys, and MacKenzies would be told to stand down before getting out the door. To be confident that the creed “That Others May Live” continues to have meaning into the future, and to “accelerate the changes we need … to compete, deter, and win,” the slow erosion of Air Force rescue culture must be arrested and reversed, starting today.



Christian Braunlich is an Air Force combat rescue officer with experience preparing, planning for, and executing personnel recovery missions in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Alaska. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Thomas S. Keisler IV)