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.

For those in the Special Operations community there are scenarios that have an ‘irregular warfare’ or ‘unconventional warfare’ flavor. The U.S. Army will typically send one or two Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (SFODA); many times to take part in a Non-conventional Assisted Recovery (NAR) scenario. Although each of the military services plans and conducts PR in support of its own operations many times the PR mission will fall to units of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) based in Tampa, Florida.

Wounded treated during Angel Thunder Exercise
Simulated wounded patient treated during Angel Thunder Exercise

During the Vietnam War U.S. Army Special Forces provided specialized teams to conduct Personnel Recovery missions (usually in conjunction with AF PJs). During Operation Desert Storm the 10th Special Forces Group provided Combat Search and Rescue Teams (CSAR) for downed pilots in northern Iraq. This CSAR mission continued for many years – providing PR coverage for Operation Provide Comfort [2] and the No-Fly Zone over northern Iraq. [3] In the late 1990s during the NATO bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia U.S. Army Special Forces detachments (as well as Marines and AF personnel) provided CSAR teams.  There are many other historical examples of U.S. Army Special Forces providing teams to conduct Personnel Recovery.

The Angel Thunder exercise is the ideal opportunity for SOF teams to train up on the Personnel Recovery mission. There is much to learn from an exercise with participants from all services, many of the law enforcement agencies, and members of foreign militaries. The opportunity to observe and participate in an exercise that employs a diverse set of aircraft over a multi-state region with a wide variety of scenarios to include Non-Assisted Personnel Recovery is immeasurable.