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.
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.
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.
When the call comes, those plans and personnel are launched with the confidence of prior planning, helping to mitigate the world of risks that are out of your control. What is unknown at the moment is how much of that was possible. While Russian forces are on the ground there in Syria, their footprint is small. Their level of preparation, planning, and capability for this contingency is still a mystery. American doctrine has long included such plans as a matter of course, but it has also had a great amount of developmental experience operating in denied territory, and that has informed the creation and implementation of that doctrine.
An interesting point of note in the video of the Russian helicopter used in the attempted rescue mission: the blades of the Hip aren’t turning. That helicopter is completely shut down and out of the fight. As a combat helicopter pilot, if I know there’s hostile activity in the area, I’m not going to spend more time on the ground than I absolutely have to. As it turns out, reports say the Mi-8 came under intense small-arms and Triple-A fire—most likely 12.7, 14.5, and 22mm cannons—and was forced to land. The TOW missile shot to finish the job was the coup de grâce.
Russia’s mission to rescue its pilots was a really, really bad day at work for a lot of people. Not to be ignored is the law of unintended consequences; the Turkish action, while understandable given recent history and the politics of the area, placed the Fencer crew at the mercy of the Free Syrian Army, and we all saw the results. Given that they shot the aircraft down, the Turkish government obviously was less than concerned with the lives of the Russian aircrew. However, I’m sure no one would have predicted the outcome that did come from that state-based, self-defensive action.
*This special contribution was written by Matthew Gardner
(Featured photo courtesy of Sputnik News)