Combat search and rescue

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Combat search and rescue (CSAR) differs from traditional lifesaving or search and rescue to aid people in peril at sea or in the wilderness. It differs because while Nature is a practical enemy in a sea rescue, there are no armed and determined personnel intending to stop that rescue. CSAR usually takes place in area where there are just such personnel, ready to engage in combat if necessary to stop the rescue effort; this reality adds the "combat" to "search and rescue".

Civilian search and rescue (SAR) is challenging enough. The situation often arises from extreme weather conditions, which causes the original distress and may interfere with accurate position reports from the persons in distress, assuming they have appropriate communications. The SAR responders have to find the victims, who may be in an hidden location (e.g., avalanche) or in a sea state where spotting them is difficult. The same conditions make the actual rescue difficult, even if the victims are not injured: it is much harder to get even a cooperative person into a helicopter's rescue basket if strong winds and waves interfere.

CSAR, by definition, takes place in enemy territory or contested areas, areas that the CSAR team does not no nearly as well as the enemy. Adversary forces are also looking for the people that need rescue, but to capture or kill them. There is much political sensitivity about losing the original people, but also additional casualties among the rescue units.


CSAR is a responsibility of the relevant joint force commander (JFC) of the relevant Unified Combatant Command (UCC) or sub-units reporting to the UCC. Such JFCs have the authority, within their areas of responsibility (AORs)/joint operations areas (JOAs), including civilian personnel, such as Civil Reserve Air Fleet crew members and deployed technical representatives. As always in multinational operations, JFCs must consider the policies, laws, and capabilities of a friendly Host Nation from which the rescue will be launched, and the laws and policies of the hostile area in which the rescue will take place.[1]

As of the late 1990s, current joint doctrine stresses individual service CSAR, joint operations being conducted only after service assets are exhausted. Current doctrine, however, has moved to joint CSAR being the default assumption. [2]

Before the need arises, the JFC usually should establish a Joint Search and Rescue center (JSRC) by tasking one of the component commanders to designate their component rescue coordination center (RCC) to function also as the JSRC.

As part of the planning process, it may be appropriate to preposition rescue assets in a "lifeguard" mode. Submarines took on this role in World War Two; George H.W. Bush was one of their "saves". Rescue aircraft, including air superiority fighters electronic warfare assets, and close air support may be needed to support a helicopter. Such aircraft may orbit the area of operations or be on immediate readiness.[3]

What triggers CSAR?

In many situations, the person needing CSAR communicates the need, perhaps just before he ejects from an aircraft, or sees enemy troops approaching his observation post. There is a tactical and ethical responsibility, however, to check for indirect evidence of a rescue requirement; in the case of the U.S., no greater reminder is the fate of the USS Indianapolis: torpedoed, while sailing alone, on 30 July 1945, an estimated 900 (out of 1,196 aboard). Five days later, the 317 survivors were accidentally spotted. The manual Movement Reporting System (MOVEREP) of the time did not correlate her sailing with her nondeparture[ today, it is to be hoped, the non-arrival would start an alert. [4]

Events that should trigger an assessment of the need for CSAR should be triggered by:[5]

  • Mayday.
  • Nonreturn from a mission.
  • Overdue contact.
  • Receipt of emergency beacon transmission.
  • Sighting of aircraft or vessel going down.
  • Report of personnel being isolated by enemy activity.
  • Receipt of ground emergency codes used by survivors of downed aircraft

In an intense combat situation, there may be multiple incidents that call for response, there may be multiple reports of a single aircraft going down, or some combination. Some reports may come from higher-level assets such as the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).

Aircrew and special operations personnel, but not all possible victims, have methods to authenticate a real distress call, rather than an enemy deception trying to entrap CSAR assets. Authenticated distress calls should start the CSAR planning mission, even if the sad conclusion may be that there is no way to rescue the service member. Otherwise, an attempt should be made to contact the person/unit by radio. Local threats may prevent individuals from responding at all, turning on rescue beacons, or doing more than clicking their transmitter without speaking. If there is a signal but no specific communications, it may be wise to contact signals intelligence organization and ask that they do direction finding on the signal position, and apply any techniques they can to validating the report. Other sensors, such as ground imaging by visual, radar, or infrared may be appropriate.

In the event that rescue cannot be conducted, and there is not an ongoing conflict with a regular prison system in effect, the effort may change from CSAR to Personnel Recovery (PR): the sum of military, diplomatic, and civil efforts to prepare for and execute the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel.[6] Friendly or neutral nations may be of assistance, such as the safekeeping, by Canada, of U.S. diplomats not in the Tehran embassy at the time of its seizure. U.K. and U.S. Marine forces at sea routinely plan for noncombatant evacuation operations.


The CSAR force must protect itself, which can include close escort, diversionary strikes by combat forces, etc. The ideal situation is one in which those needing rescue can safely communicate by radio, and give GPS or other accurate coordinates. Otherwise, if there is an indication of the general position, it may be necessary to do air, or possibly surface, search. There are general methods, but, wherever possible, SAR or CSAR specialists should advise on the best method. United States Coast Guard personnel, if available, have much expertise, as, of course, do United States Air Force pararescue.


Ideally, the actual rescue can be done by a single helicopter, flying as clandestinely as possible; it is best that the enemy is unaware of the entire process. On a case-by-case basis, the rescue commander may authorize air operations including close air support, fighter escort, electronic warfare, or diversionary operations. Depending on the location, it may be possible to use ground personnel, perhaps from a special operations network or allied personnel. Naval units may be able to send a boat, or even a submarine, to certain sites.

When a substantial force needs rescue, the logistics become much more complex, including the possible need for the seizure of an airstrip or the securing of multiple landing zones.

Case studies

The A-Team Compromise

On February 24, 1991, the first day of the ground war during Desert Storm, a Special Forces split-A detachment, on a special reconnaissance mission, was discovered 140 miles inside Iraq by local children. Special operations forces, as do pilots, routinely operate behind friendly lines, and rescue shoulr be part of the mission planning.[7]

The planned resources need to be available, as a quick reaction force (QRF). The QRF is normally assumed to be capable of the rescue itself, but may need help in locating the compromised personnel, and suppressing enemy forces trying to interfere with the rescue.

In this case, the unit came under fire, evaded, but then had to fight infantry until the rescue helicopters could arrive. They had some communications problems, but eventually were able to contact their QRF by radio. It took approximately 2 hours for armed F-16 aircraft to get to the location and start suppressing enemy who actively interfered. While the helicopters were closer, they were slower, and arrived after the fighter-bombers were on site.

Remember that this mission was compromised by children. While uniformed soldiers interfering with rescue were fair game, it was not just an ethical requirement, but a practical one affecting local views about foreign personnel, to minimize damage and injury to civilians offering no threat. If the civilians fire on ones' own forces, they become fair game as well; the challenge is what to do about civilians that are not directly interfering, but are keeping the enemy informed. Air Force F–16s and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) responded immediately to a call for emergency close air support and extraction.

Lessons learned

  • Habitual relationships between the forces being rescued and those who execute operations. the 160th SOAR worked closely with Special Forces so that pilots and soldiers were well acquainted.
  • Helicopter crews that exfiltrated the A-Team also took it in, giving them terrain awareness.
  • The aviation unit was an integral part of the mission and knew the threat.
  • unit members had studied the situation and terrain before the need for rescue arose. Any other force would have required more time, and the chance of success would have been reduced.

It is critical to have a dedicated rescue force intimately familiar with the specifics of an operational area, threat locations, system capabilities, and mission. Speed can make the difference between life and death. Had rescuers been even minutes slower the A-Team could have perished. Often the only opportunity for a rescue is immediately after the need becomes known, as the enemy, who may be closer, is starting his own search.


  1. Doctrine for Joint Combat Search and Rescue, Joint Pub 3-50.2
  2. Moentmann, James E.; Edward E. Holland & Gary A. Wolver (Spring 1998), "Joint Combat Search and Rescue—Operational Necessity or Afterthought?", Joint Forces Quarterly
  3. Joint Pub 3-50.2, pp. IV-2 to IV-4
  4. "The Story: Torpedoed Ship",, Second Watch
  5. Joint Pub 3-50.2, p. II-1
  6. Personnel Recovery, 5 January 2007, JP3-50
  7. Douglas C. Waller (1994), The commandos: the inside story of America's secret soldiers, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0671787179, pp. 20-28