With airstrikes now underway in Syria it strikes me (pun not intended) that it's time to go back and look again at something I brought up before, if only briefly, and that's the possibility of the UK setting up a dedicated Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) unit for recovering personnel from behind enemy lines.
CSAR was effectively pioneered, albeit unintentionally, in 1916 by Squadron-Commander (later Vice Admiral) Richard Bell Davies of the Royal Naval Air Service, on operations in Bulgaria. He received the Victoria Cross for his actions, landing in hostile territory to recover a fellow pilot whose aircraft had been shot down. And now? There doesn't seem to be any formal unit whose sole task is assigned to this role in the UK armed forces. Which seems very odd to me.
Thankfully Britain has not found itself in a situation where it needed such a unit that often, but there have been a few cases. Some Tornado pilots over Iraq in 1991 were downed by anti-aircraft defences and subsequently captured. The infamous Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol also went missing during this same campaign, though for a variety of reasons predominantly related to communications it is debatable whether a CSAR unit would have been able to find them. Though no pilot from the UK has been shot down over either Syria or Iraq during the current operations, one unfortunate Jordanian pilot ejected and was captured by Daesh, after which he was burnt alive. That knowledge surely has to linger in the back of the minds of RAF pilots as they take to the skies now.
As such this would seem the perfect time to address the CSAR gap. And we even have a unit in the British order of battle that would seem to be well placed to take the role.
That unit would be II Squadron, RAF Regiment. On paper its role is to capture and hold forward airfields by air assault for the use of friendly air forces, hence why it is parachute trained. Quite how an over strength company is supposed to single handedly capture and then secure an entire airfield is a different matter however. As I've suggested before, probably a better role for it would be to attach it to 16 Air Assault Brigade (which has recently regained 1 PARA and its old Pegasus badge) and have them used as the security element of 16 AAB alongside formed units of the reserve 4 PARA battalion, securing a safe zone for the brigade where HQ operations, artillery, medical, resupply, prisoner handling etc would take place.
The alternative is to let it form the basis of a new CSAR unit along the lines of the USAF's pararescuemen. It's already parachute capable so has that element down, but would need additional work to gain capability in water based rescues etc, and could potentially serve on the future carriers providing the CSAR element for Royal Navy aircrews as well. It's a tricky subject in many ways. The US learned through bitter experience in Vietnam that there are limits on what a CSAR mission can realistically achieve and what resources can realistically be risked for the sake of recovering one man. But the US at least has a formal process for assessing the risk and making that decision, and a formal organisation in place to action a plan should the decision to attempt a rescue be made. I'd like to see the UK follow this lead and develop a proper, full time CSAR unit.
And really it's not just CSAR for pilots alone. US pararescuemen have had their specialist skills put to a variety of uses. They've been involved in domestic search and rescue operations on the continental US, they've been sent abroad to help search and rescue efforts following natural disasters, they were deployed frequently to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect US medical helicopters sent to pick up wounded soldiers in contact with the enemy, they've supported US special forces by providing a quick reaction unit to support them as well as providing rescue parties to help organise the extraction of SF soldiers in trouble, and were even involved in the Battle of Mogadishu, fast roping in to help secure one the crash sites.
So it's reasonable to presume a UK CSAR force would not solely become a one trick pony. Like much of the armed forces it would likely end up being deployed for a variety of tasks. Predominantly though it would be tasked with making sure people like Daesh don't get their hands on any UK pilots who find themselves having to eject over hostile territory. I think II Squadron RAF Regiment is probably best placed for this right now but I really don't care who does it. Perhaps a role for a reserve unit? And frankly I would rather we gain this capability before its actually needed than wait until its too late.