U.S. military services are moving to improve their ability to find
and rescue personnel who find themselves lost behind enemy lines
or in danger from natural disasters.
The recovery of captured, missing or isolated U.S. men and women
is "a matter of the highest national priority," Robert
L. Jones, deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of
war and missing personnel affairs, told a recent conference in Arlington,
To strengthen the services’ ability to accomplish that mission,
the Pentagon, in 1999, transferred primary responsibility for personnel
recovery from the Air Force to a new Joint Personnel Recovery Agency
(JPRA), within the U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM).
JPRA, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., "represents one-stop
shopping for personnel-recovery expertise," said Navy Vice
Adm. Martin Mayer, deputy commander in chief of USJFCOM. JPRA’s
goals are to:
Efforts to locate and recover isolated troops have evolved over
decades, Mayer noted. During World War II, he explained, the United
States and its allies created organizations in the European and
Pacific theaters to help 47,000 downed pilots and prisoners of war
(POWs) escape and evade enemy forces. Of the 1,690 U.S. aircraft
shot down during the Korean War, the Air Force—using rescue
helicopters for the first time—managed to recover 254 aircrew
Following the Korean experience, the Joint Chiefs assigned primary
responsibility for escape and evasion to the Air Force. Other services
were required to meet training and operational standards set by
the Air Force. President Eisenhower established the "Code of
Conduct," mandating that members of the armed services "liable
for capture" receive specific training to help them withstand
enemy interrogation and to explain their obligation to do so.
These changes seemed to help, Mayer indicated. During the Vietnam
War, more than two thirds of the 4,120 who found themselves isolated
within enemy territory were recovered. Three quarters of the rescues
were accomplished within two hours, typically by CH-3 helicopters
nicknamed "Jolly Green Giants," made by the Sikorsky Aircraft
Corporation, of Stratford, Conn.
When the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the North
Vietnamese released 591 U.S. POWs, some of whom had been held for
years under harsh conditions. Many more were listed as missing in
action (MIA). A total of 1,990 are still unaccounted for today.
In fact, the number of MIAs from all U.S. conflicts since World
War II exceeds 88,000.
The United States is still searching for those MIAs. Each year,
remains-recovery teams—each one led by a board-certified anthropologist—excavate
dozens of old crash and battle sites around the world. The teams
catalog the finds, which are verified by the anthropologist. Then,
they are transported to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory,
in Hawaii, for forensic analysis.
In 1998, forensic scientists at the laboratory were able to use
a new technology called mitochondrial DNA to identify the Vietnam
Unknown, buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National
Cemetery, in Virginia. He turned out to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael
J. Blassie, shot down over South Vietnam in 1972.
In November 2000, the laboratory announced the identities of 19
World War II Marine Raiders, killed in action on Butaritai Island
and listed as MIA since August 1942.
In the regional conflicts that have followed the Vietnam era, U.S.
efforts to rescue its people while they are still alive have been
stretched—sometimes to the breaking point.
In 1980, an attempt to free 53 hostages from the U.S. embassy in
Iran failed spectacularly, when two aircraft collided on the ground,
deep inside Iran, killing eight men. The failure was a major factor
in President Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the election
later that year.
The incident also led to the 1987 founding of the U.S. Special
Operations Command (SOCOM)—made up of elite units from the
Army, Navy and Air Force—to conduct sensitive, unorthodox
missions. The special operators have had many successes, but the
services as a whole continue to have problems mounting rescue operations.
During the Persian Gulf War, 38 coalition aircraft were lost, and
63 personnel were isolated, Mayer said. Only seven personnel-recovery
missions were launched, he added, and of those, only three were
Of the remainder, Mayer said, 25 became POWs, one escaped by walking
to safety, and until recently, the rest were believed to have been
killed in action. In January of this year, however, the Navy—after
a lengthy investigation—changed the status of Cmdr. Michael
Scott Speicher from killed in action/body not recovered (KIA/BNR)
to MIA. Speicher’s F/A-18 aircraft had been shot down by enemy
fire on the first day of the air war over Iraq, Jan. 17, 1991. Ten
years later, however, the Navy concluded that Speicher might have
survived the crash.
"Not one rescue [in the Persian Gulf War] was accomplished
inside the two-hour window used with great success during Vietnam,"
Mayer complained. "Even with the lessons learned from Vietnam—the
foremost being how vital Code of Conduct training is—12 of
the 25 POWs did not have proper training."
Other significant problems, Mayer noted, included a lack of dedicated
combat search and rescue assets, too little deliberate personnel-recovery
planning and problems locating and identifying missing personnel.
In 1993, U.S. troops were unable to rescue Army rangers and Delta
Force members ambushed by Somali clansmen in downtown Mogadishu.
Before the fighting ended, 18 U.S. soldiers had died. One of them
had been dragged through the city streets and the scene televised
throughout the world. As a result, U.S. forces were withdrawn from
Somalia, and Defense Secretary Les Aspin resigned two months later.
In the Balkans, thus far, rescue efforts have fared better. The
pilots of all three U.S. aircraft shot down in the area were recovered
safely. The 1995 downing of Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady
in Bosnia, however, "highlighted deficiencies in our ability
to locate and identify personnel," Mayer said. It was five
and a half days before a Marine TRAP (for tactical recovery of aircraft
or personnel) unit from ships offshore could swoop in and pick him
Three U.S. soldiers captured by Serb forces were released through
the intercession of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, but not
until images of their bruised and bloodied faces had been distributed
to the international media.
Growing public dissatisfaction with the Pentagon’s personnel-recovery
efforts led the U.S. Senate in 1992 to call for a single office
to manage the issue. The Defense POW/MIA Office was created the
following year to assume responsibility for all Defense Department
programs related to recovering live personnel and accounting for
The JPRA’s role is to coordinate all of the department’s
efforts to reclaim living personnel, including training, planning,
intelligence and actual operations. Within the past year, the agency
has assigned representatives to all U.S. regional unified commands,
known as CINCs, around the world.
"We also have made it our goal to try to support fully at
least one CINC exercise annually, from end to end," Mayer explained.
Additionally, he said, high priority is placed on developing academic
courses on personnel recovery for every level of command. Several
courses are already fielded, including one for CINC and service-level
staff planners and another for officers attending the Joint Forces
Staff College. Still another course is being developed for allied
and coalition personnel.
Each of the services has the capability to conduct search-and-rescue
(SAR) operations. The Air Force—which has the most aircraft—takes
the lead role, operating the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center
(AFRCC) at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
The AFRCC coordinates all on-land federal SAR activities in the
48 contiguous United States. It also provides SAR assistance to
Mexico and Canada. The Coast Guard performs the same function in
oceans surrounding the United States, the Great Lakes and all navigable
U.S. rivers and lakes. Regional CINCs have the responsibility for
SAR within their areas. In addition, Navy aircraft carriers and
Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) can conduct SAR missions from
SAR missions are launched to help civilians in life-threatening
cases—such as sinking ships, downed aircraft, missing hunters
and medical emergencies in remote areas—when other resources
are not available. Since the AFRCC opened in 1974, SAR missions
have saved more than 12,834 lives.
All services can conduct combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) operations,
at least to a limited extent, officials said. The Army, for example,
has no dedicated personnel-recovery assets, they noted. Instead,
it organizes its aviation, ground forces and watercraft to deal
with problems on an ad hoc basis.
The Air Force and Navy are capable of CSAR in low to medium-threat
environments, officials said. But only the Special Operations Command—with
its Army Special Forces and rangers, Navy SEAL teams and highly
trained Air Force crews—can prosecute personnel-recovery operations
in a high-threat environment.
Some missions are too dangerous even for them to undertake, leaving
diplomatic initiatives as the only reasonable means of securing
the safe return of individuals involved.
"One of the big challenges for the future is how to fix the
technological shortfalls currently hindering personnel recovery,"
said Mayer. "We still have problems with location and identification;
poor communications, both non-secure and secure; lack of ‘state-of-the-art’
tagging, tracking and locating devices and many other technological
A joint CSAR test and evaluation group—chartered by the defense
secretary’s office—found that more than half of all
personnel-recovery problems are the result of deficiencies in command,
control, communications and intelligence (C3I), according to Arthur
L. Money. He was assistant secretary of defense for C3I at the time
of the conference.
Platforms likely to be involved in recovery operations should be
equipped with over-the-horizon, two-way secure communications, Money
said. "UHF satellite communications or even the Iridium system
may be suitable," he added.
The department, in December, awarded a two-year, $72 million contract
to Iridium Satellite LLC, of Arnold, Md., for use of its global,
space-based telephone network. The system, which includes 73 state-of-the-art
satellites, provides mobile telephone services to small handsets
anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day.
The Iridium system is supposed to be cryptographically secure,
Money said. "But if detectability of the transmissions is an
issue—as it may well be in many situations—then other
means must be found, such as the proposed Global Personnel Recovery
System (GPRS)," he proposed.
GPRS is envisioned as a satellite-aided distress-alerting and communications-support
system, explained Lt. Cmdr. Paul Steward, from the Coast Guard’s
Office of Search and Rescue. As planned by the National Search and
Rescue Committee, chaired by the Coast Guard, this system would
be based on equipment placed aboard the next generation of Global-Positioning
System (GPS) satellites, he said.
These satellites—the first of which is scheduled for launch
in the 2003-2005 timeframe—are anticipated to be the primary
GPS platform for the following quarter century or so. The cost,
estimated at more than $300 million, would be shared by the Coast
Guard, Defense Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) and NASA, Steward said.
In addition to improved communications, personnel-recovery platforms
"should have the ability to receive and display threat and
situational-awareness information," Money argued. This, he
said, could mean equipping them with systems such as SADL or Link-16.
SADL—for situational awareness data link—networks are
designed to provide periodic updates of position data to help users
find friendly forces quickly. Without such information, searchers
can spend precious and dangerous time looking for missing personnel
in enemy territory.
Link-16 is a tactical, secure, jam-resistant voice and data communications
system. The latest version features new capabilities for interoperability
with coalition forces.
"If these are too costly, too large or otherwise unsuitable,"
Money said, "then other means must be found."
Recovery platforms also need some means of communicating safely
with the isolated individual, he said. They "should employ
... specialized sensors which can locate and even identify that
individual without any other communication," Money said. Such
systems already exist, he complained, but "it is many years
before they’re budgeted to be installed in platforms likely
to be involved in recovery missions."
The information needs of the isolated individuals—who may
be downed aircrew members, infantry or sailors—are "especially
difficult to satisfy," Money pointed out. They often will be
in hiding or on the run. "Their ability to assist in their
own recovery, to remain free or even to survive at all can come
down to whether or not they have two-way communications, wherever
they may be, whenever they need it—without giving themselves
away to an enemy."
Providing equipment that fits into a user’s hand, that can
be operated on the run, with very minimal expertise, and does not
increase the user’s jeopardy is "a challenge," Money
admitted. The current CSEL system will do some of these things,
"but certainly not all of them," he added. CSEL, the combat
survivor locator, is a 31.8 oz., hand-held unit that uses GPS satellites
to provide user identification, precision location and two-way secure
Another major concern is the increasing age of the helicopters
used in personnel recovery. The H-60 and H-53 series of helicopters
are approaching the end of their service lives.
The Air Force has embarked upon a service-life extension program
(SLEP) for its older HH-60 Pave Hawks, now approaching 20 years
of age. The choppers are receiving digital data receivers, blue-force
tracking, altitude hover-hold systems and improved infrared countermeasures.
The Navy is phasing out its H-53s and trying to decide whether
to upgrade its existing H-60s or buy new ones at an estimated cost
of more than $2 billion.
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), at Hurlburt Field,
Fla., got rid of its MH-60s in 1999. The command is now in the process
of phasing out its MH-53s, which it plans to replace with the embattled
V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. The future of the V-22 is not clear,
pending a Pentagon investigation into its safety and reliability.
The services need to do a better job of handling recovered personnel,
said Army Col. Rhonda L. Cornum, commander of the 28th Combat Support
Hospital, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. During the Persian Gulf War,
while performing a search-and-rescue mission in a Black Hawk helicopter,
she was shot down and captured by the Iraqis. A week later, she
was repatriated to friendly forces with two broken arms and legs,
which required multiple orthopedic surgeries.
Once in Bahrain, Cornum said, the debriefing by U.S. personnel
was "like getting interrogated by the bad guys again."
She was questioned by " a long line of indistinguishable people,
all asking the same questions. I really didn’t appreciate
that. They need to do a better job of coordinating that process."