Monday, 7 December 2015

Uk CSAR gap

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.


  1. always interesting to read your ideas. Can I just ask where you have heard that '16 Air Assault Brigade (which has recently regained 1 PARA ... ' does that mean 1 Para no longer forms the core of SFSG who, incidentally, might be well placed to offer response teams for CSAR...

    1. The army produced a video the other day stating it, along with the return of the Pegasus badge. I'll have a look in a minute and see if I can find it.

    2. Starts at 1:40, but I've just realise I might have been a goon. They said "three infantry battalions from the Parachute Regiment", which I immediately took to mean 1, 2 and 3 PARA, but of course that's probably 2, 3 and 4 PARA.

  2. Hi Chris
    Before 28 (AC) Squadron disbanded. They had an RAF Regiment Flight, which was known as E Flight. This provided the Ground Extraction Element.

    (The below passage I found here: It is the thirteenth comment down. The passage was removed from the RAF Website.)

    "The Royal Air Force Regiment provides the Ground Extraction Force for Royal Air Force Combat Recovery. The Ground Extraction Force’s mission is to recover Isolated Personnel (to include downed aircrew) and high-value assets, by day or night, in all climatic and geographic conditions, in all threat levels over extended periods. Combat Recovery requires the small teams to insert primarily by Merlin HC Mk3 helicopters to locate, authenticate and recover the Isolated Person(s) or asset(s). The Ground Extraction Force are capable of operating in small, self-sufficient teams, behind enemy lines, utilising Royal Air Force Regiment tactics and certain items of specialist equipment, until the Isolated Person or asset are recovered. Operational environments will include desert, arctic, mountain, jungle and urban, in high threat levels. The Ground Extraction Force is a part of E Flight, 28 (AC) Squadron and is based at Royal Air Force Benson."

    I don't know if E Flight has been transferred to a Chinook Unit. But as most RAF Regiment personnel that have served in Afghanistan would have served as the Force Protection element of the Chinook MERT flights. The experiance is there for that type of operation. If you were trying to rescue a captured Pilot, you would need to use the SAS.


    1. Hello Simon, interesting little piece.

      If it (E flight) doesn't exist anymore then that's disappointing news. It really ought to, though I think Squadron strength is probably more appropriate in the long run. Agreed that if the pilot were already captured then you'd probably need the SAS/SBS to go get them, but I suspect in 99% of the cases where that has happened (at least in a conventional conflict) then you'd be risking too much to even try.

      I'll have to look into this a bit more tonight, over a glass or two (or three) of Amaretto. Cheers for the pointer.

  3. I've been recently thinking about CSAR in the UK Armed forces. While both SFSG and 2 Sqn RAF Rgt could perform the role, in USAF Pararescue (the example and one of two units in NATO) all the NCO's/Other Ranks in the GA Units are Medics, the operational officers are Combat Rescue Officers. So while 2 Sqn have experience in Parachuting as well as being Force Protection on MERT, is it feasible to train them all up as Combat Medics? Recruiting from across the three services it may be better to gather a group of armed forces medic recruits and train them in the freefall/diving/mountain/jungle skills as they can already do the medical bit. Just an idea. Being honest, most medics and military medics are a breed apart, have such as different mindset to other military personnel that recruiting from them makes sense, to me at least.