Air Guardsmen first to demonstrate digitally aided personnel recovery

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- California Air National Guardsmen based here successfully demonstrated coalition personnel recovery operations using net enabled data link capabilities for the first time ever during the U.S. Joint Forces Command exercise, Bold Quest 2009, Oct. 27 to Nov. 5.

The 129th Rescue Wing sent 23 Guardsmen and an MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft equipped with a prototype situation awareness system to BQ09 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. The exercise featured a series of demonstrations to assess technical and procedural solutions to improve the combat effectiveness of coalition forces, according to the JFCOM Web site.

In the past, rescuers were constrained to voice only communications in their life saving mission. Air Guard rescue forces responding to Hurricane Ike last year identified the data link capability as being the highest priority improvement for homeland emergency response operations on a large scale.

"Voice communications have always been an Achilles heel in the coordination of time-sensitive rescue operations," said Lt. Col. Steve Butow, deputy director of the 129th Operations Group and deployed commander during BQ09. "The voice communications frequencies rapidly become saturated during disasters because of the volume of information being passed."

The 129th RQW's operational experience provided momentum for generating a data link solution that underwent an operational utility evaluation in April at the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Test Center, or AATC, in Tucson, Ariz.

"The Air Guard has taken a lead role in the test and evaluation of situational awareness capabilities, enabling personnel recovery for the warfighter and for homeland emergency response operations," Colonel Butow said.

Testing the Air Guard's situational awareness capabilities in digitally aided personnel recovery, or DaPR, BQ09 was an opportunity to integrate data link-enabled air and ground forces from joint and coalition components in a simulated battlespace, Colonel Butow said. The architecture, forces and concept of operations were representative of Afghanistan, and scenarios involved austere, woodland and urban environments.

The 129th RQW rescue MC-130P crews flew eight missions as Airborne Mission Commander, or AMC, supporting more than 20 personnel recovery events. AMC duties were performed by Combat Rescue Officers who coordinated recovery efforts with Joint Terminal Area Controllers on the ground.

"The crews were developing new tactics, techniques and procedures pretty much every time they flew," said Maj. Jose Agredano, 129th Operations Group chief of tactics and deployed director of operations during BQ09. "The system is new to rescue so we were literally discovering different ways to utilize SADL every event."

The personnel recovery events involved the employment of a variety of aircraft and forces, including U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, Air National Guard F-16C Fight Falcons, Canadian Air Force F-18CF Hornets, and Quick Reaction Forces from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.

According to Colonel Butow, the DaPR events produced the following achievements:
- Data link minimized voice communications, allowing more effective coordination of recovery tasks.
- The rescue MC-130P maintained superior situational awareness in the terminal area and coordinated critical support requirement with the Air Support Operations Center.
- The rescue MC-130P streamed secure video to the JTAC during recoveries, increasing the ground force commander's situational awareness and relieving intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets that would normally perform this function.
- Precise position information and identification was digitally distributed over land and air data link networks enabling the rescue MC-130P to coordinate recovery as the AMC.
- A personnel recovery coordination cell located within the ASOC provided real-time intelligence and command and control information to the AMC.
- NASA COSPAS Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking was utilized to collect beacon activations and provide GEO coordinate information to the BQ09 C2 network.

Because of these accomplishments, all members of the personnel recovery task force shared a common operating picture enabling unity of effort, Colonel Butow said. "The Bold Quest experience has proven invaluable in assessing current capabilities and defining requirements for the rescue H/MC-130 role in digitally aided personnel recovery."

"The spin-off benefit is that we have gained a new capability for wide area catastrophic events such as hurricanes or earthquakes," he added.