Combat search and rescue (CSAR) is one of the highest-risk missions that exist on the modern battlefield. The situation is often fluid and very dynamic; the “known” information is extremely small and the risk to the rescue force is usually high. The critical factor to the confidence of the fast-mover pilots flying over denied territory is this: They must trust someone will come for them should things go badly.

Recently, we saw that happen when a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24M “Fencer” was shot down after allegedly violating Turkey’s sovereign airspace. The downed aircraft, and a wingman, were inside Turkey for a grand total of 17 seconds while flying from east to west at an altitude of 19,000 feet. The aircraft were less than two miles inside Turkey’s southernmost border as they passed through, and while one aircraft veered back to the south, one was engaged by two Block 50 F-16Cs of the Turkish Air Force.

Once the Fencer was stricken and no longer able to fly, both pilots inside ejected, and thus began the Russian Air Force’s attempt to locate and extract their downed airmen.

Inside Russia's Mission to Rescue Its Pilots
Russian Mi-8 helicopter during combat operations in Syria. (Photo courtesy of Sputnik News)

Combat search and rescue missions are often divided in to two categories: immediate and deliberate. The missions define themselves: In one, a force is immediately dispatched to rescue the downed aviators or isolated personnel. In the other, time is taken to build an intelligence picture, a rescue package consisting of ground, rotary-winged, and close air support (CAS) elements, all working in well-planned and organized concert to the goal of repatriating the personnel in question.

The distinction is twofold, and is always chosen based on the risk vs. reward equation. If the distance is short and the likelihood of capture or injury to the isolated personnel is high, then often the risk of a quick launch mission is validated. However, this risk is high indeed. Without taking the time to build an intelligence picture, to determine the location and condition of the personnel to be rescued, and to leverage a larger force for greater control of the airspace and ground situation, you are launching into a staggering amount of unknowns. In such a case, the mission can go badly in a hurry, as seems to be the case in Syria.

Added into the mix is the complete confusion that is Syria and the surrounding areas at the moment. Two disparate forces are operating across the airspace with limited coordination, and the ground picture is even worse. Syrian Assad loyalists, the Free Syrian Army, and Daesh forces abound, and are often working at cross purposes with all the other forces in play.

Inside Russia's Mission to Rescue Its Pilots
A Russian Air Force Su-24M Fencer plummets toward earth after being shot down by a Turkish F-16. (AP/Reuters)

Without an easily defined enemy, without clearly defined areas of control or responsibility, and without consistent airborne command and control over the area, the mission launched into a maelstrom of weapons, forces, allegiances, and capabilities. An immediate CSAR mission is already a high-risk job. Into these conditions, the level of risk exceeds easy definition.

To make the attempt at a mission like this is understandable; all of those who have experience in this world know the moment that you are presented a mission that, on its face, is guaranteed to be a bad day. What helps is having a solid plan, a force of both air and ground forces that are specifically tasked and trained for this mission. They practice together, they establish standards and common terminology, and understand the responsibilities and limitations of all the players.