One of the missions that special operations forces are sometimes tasked with is Personnel Recovery (PR).  Personnel Recovery is the sum of military, diplomatic and civil efforts to effect the recovery and return of military, DoD civilians and contractors, and others who are isolated, missing or captured. The premier exercise – at least from the U.S. Air Force perspective – for Personnel Recovery is the Angel Thunder Exercise [1] held in the Southwestern United States each year. Angel Thunder is considered to be the world’s largest combat search and rescue exercise.

The Angel Thunder exercise was established in 2006 at Davis-Monthan AFB. The Air Force unit responsible for planning the exercise is Detachment 1 of the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air  Force Base in Arizona.

Participants of the Angel Thunder exercise include many of the military services, U.S. governmental agencies, and members of foreign nations. The number of individual participants will sometimes reach up to 2,000 with over 80 aircraft taking part in the exercise. Air Force participants include air crews flying the HC-130J Combat King and the HH-60G Pave Hawk. Other Air Force personnel are Pararescuemen (PJs), Combat Rescue Officers, and SERE specialists. The FBI will sometimes participate – with one of their Hostage Recovery teams present for the training. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been a participant in past exercises – bringing along some aircraft and personnel from their Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST).

The exercise focuses on real world scenarios during its training events. Different events take place at various locations to include a barren mountain village in Playas, New Mexico just across the Arizona border. A high-threat scenario that has anti-access, area-denial attributes takes place at Melrose Range at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. There usually is a maritime component, sometimes off the coast of California, as well.