The Great Escape

This article is published in our April/May 2016 Issue.

The USAF’s HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopter
The USAF’s HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopters are due to be replaced by a new aircraft which will use the MH-60G design as its base. (US DoD)

Although still considered a niche capability, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) is being employed by a growing number of armed forces worldwide, who recognise the importance that such an asset can play in getting their personnel out of danger when things go wrong.

CSAR traces its roots back to the First World War, when the Royal Navy’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) introduced its Armoured Car Section. Employing Rolls-Royce armoured cars under the leadership of Commander Charles Samson, the RNAS used these vehicles to rapidly reach and rescue RNAS aircrew that had been forced to land in hostile territory. Becoming the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, the unit eventually comprised 20 squadrons and was deployed both in the Western European and Mediterranean/Middle East theatres. The CSAR concept was refined still further during the Second World War when both the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) operated fast boats to rescue aircrew who had been downed in the North Sea and English Channel during dogfights, and specific CSAR aircraft, often in the form of flying boats, for a similar mission.

However, it was during the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, between 1965 and 1975 when CSAR really came of age. This was thanks in no small measure to the perfection of the helicopter, in the years immediately following the Second World War, and its subsequent employment in warfare, initially by the French armed forces during the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962. For CSAR, the helicopter was revolutionary because, unlike a fixed wing aircraft, a CSAR helicopter had the ability to hover directly above, or near, downed aircrew and then winch them to safety. That conflict saw dedicated CSAR helicopters, often medium-lift utility rotorcraft, escorted to a crash site by attack helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, sometimes supported by tankers, if the mission was of a long range, and Special Forces commandos were used for the location and recovery of the aircrew. The CSAR helicopters would also be outfitted with medical equipment to provide treatment as soon as possible if the aircrew had sustained injuries. 

The United States armed forces have progressively honed the CSAR concept since its use en masse during the Vietnam War. (USMC)

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Since the advent of modern CSAR during the Vietnam War, this capability has been used successively in major conflicts. During the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which saw the United States armed forces battling the Somali National Alliance (SNA) and Al Qaeda elements between 3 and 4 October that year, CSAR was deployed in the form of the United States Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron which played a major role in the rescue of crewmembers from two US Army Sikorsky UH-60 family medium-lift utility helicopters shot down by SNA cadres. This mission was later made famous by Mark Bowden’s 1999 book, Black Hawk Down. Two years after the Somali operations, the US armed forces were once again in action, this time over the Balkans during Operation DENY FLIGHT, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) initiative to enforce a United Nations-sponsored No Fly Zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent Bosnian Serb forces from initially using their aircraft to attack Bosnian civilians. The mission later expanded to allow NATO to attack Bosnian Serb artillery shelling civilians in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. On 2 June 1995, USAF Captain Scott O’Grady ejected from his General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter landing in enemy territory. After several days on the run evading Serb forces, he was rescued by US Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Although the US armed forces have arguably written the rule book as far as CSAR is concerned, the interest of other nations in this capability, both within and without the NATO area, is growing. CSAR provides a means, not only to rescue downed aircrew, but also to rescue other troops who may be in danger, or have been captured, or civilian hostages, as well as means of infiltrating and exfiltrating Special Forces to and from their targets. More information regarding recent developments in the Special Forces domain can be found in Andrew White’s Special Operations Compendium in this issue. Italy is one country which has picked up the CSAR baton, announcing in early March that it would deploy four NH Industries NH-90TTH medium-lift helicopters, reinforced with the same number of AgustaWestland/Finmeccanica AH-129A/C/D attack helicopters, to Iraq to support US-led multinational efforts to roll back the territorial gains in western Iraq and eastern Syria made by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgent group throughout 2014. These helicopters will be based in Erbil, in the north of Iraq, with aircraft being drawn from the Esercito Italiano (Italian Army) 5th and 7th Army Aviation regiments, with this CSAR force following a similar composition to that deployed by Italy to Herat in south-western Afghanistan to provide Combat Search and Rescue as part of ongoing NATO operations in the Central Asian country. 

NH-90TTH helicopter
Italy has recently deployed NH-90TTH helicopters to assist CSAR efforts in Northern Iraq. The country has also deployed a similar capability to Afghanistan. (Italian Army)

Growing CSAR interest and uptake has been helped in no small measure by the range of robust and capable medium-lift utility rotorcraft which are on the market, such as the NH-90TTH, the AgustaWestland/Finmeccanica AW-101 family, the Sikorsky S-92 and the Airbus Helicopters/Eurocopter H-225M Super Cougar. Russian offerings in this regard include the Mil M-17 family while the US Marine Corp’s new Bell UH-1Y Venom and the Bell-Boeing CV/MV-22B Osprey tilt rotors, the latter of which are also used by the US Air Force, will no doubt find themselves deployed in the CSAR role during their future careers.

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The H-225M has emerged as a popular CSAR choice, since the aircraft was first delivered to the French armed forces in 2005. France was the first customer for this aircraft, which is now in service with both the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) and the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (French Army Light Aviation), which both use the aircraft to support CSAR and Special Forces missions. To date, the two forces operate circa 14 of the aircraft. Other orders for the H-225M have since been forthcoming from Brazil, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Thailand. France performed the first deployment of the aircraft in the summer of 2006 to assist the evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon during Operation BALISTE following the commencement of hostilities between Israel and the Hezbollah Palestinian militia organisation on 12 July 2006. Since then, these aircraft were deployed to Afghanistan in December of that year to support the multinational NATO-led force fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban elements operating in the country. Subsequent to this deployment, these aircraft were upgraded with the addition of door-mounted Nexter machine guns and a Sagem Forward-Looking Infrared System (FLIR).

Away from France other H-22Ms, notably those flown by the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), have been used for non-combat missions, such as the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200ER airliner that disappeared on 8 March 2014 and has yet to be found. These aircraft were deployed once more in June 2015 during the relief effort following the Sabah earthquake in western Malaysia. Such operations have no doubt assisted the appeal of the H-225M, with open source reports stating in June 2015 that Kuwait has expressed an interest in this aircraft, with the possibility of acquiring up to 24 to equip its air force.


The United States remains the world’s largest user of dedicated CSAR aircraft. In October 2015, it was reported that the US had deployed a number of CSAR assets to Diyarbakir airbase in south-eastern Turkey to support Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, the US contribution to the ongoing anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. Assets deployed to this end include Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopters. These aircraft are operated by the USAF and also the Republic of Korea Air Force, which designate the aircraft as the HH-60P. Other HH-60G variants operated by the USAF include the MH-60G which is designed for Special Forces search and rescue missions, equipped with an air-to-air refuelling capability, long-range fuel tanks, an improved radar relative to other UH-60 family models and a FLIR. The USAF is now moving ahead with the HH/MH-60G replacement via the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) initiative. Launched via a USAF request for proposals in October 2012, the air force announced its intention to procure the legacy aircraft’s replacement. The requirement is being met by a joint Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin team, with Sikorsky supplying the aircraft, to be based on the existing MH-60 design, and Lockheed Martin providing the helicopter’s mission systems. An award was made to the team by the USAF on 26 June 2014 worth $1.3 billion to cover an initial delivery of four aircraft, with a subsequent 112 airframes to be procured for $7.9 billion, with deliveries of all of these aircraft being envisaged by 2029. The aircraft will be officially designated as the HH-60W Whiskey when they enter USAF service.

The USAF’s HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopter
The USAF’s HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopters are due to be replaced by a new aircraft which will use the MH-60G design as its base. (US DoD)

When performing CSAR and associated Special Operations missions, in USAF service, the HH/MH-60G aircraft are reinforced with the USAF Special Operations Command’s Lockheed Martin MC-130J Combat Shadow-II, which use the firm’s KC-130J tanker as its baseline design. In USSOCOM service, the MC-130J replaces the formation’s erstwhile MC-130E/P aircraft, with a new design which has an extensively modified in-flight refuelling system, a strengthened wing to extend the aircraft’s service life, and a so-called Enhanced Cargo Handling System, plus new optronics and provision for enhanced electronic warfare systems during the aircraft’s lifetime. The USAF has ordered a total of 37 MC-130J aircraft. On 28 March it was reported that Lockheed Martin had received a contract worth $1.5 billion to deliver eight MC-130J aircraft for the USAF, plus five HC-130J planes for the United States Coast Guard. Like the MC-130J, the HC-130J is also used by the USAF for the CSAR mission. Current plans call for the USAF to procure an eventual total of 78 HC-130J airframes, following the commencement of deliveries in November 2012. 

The USAF’s MC-130P aircraft
The USAF’s MC-130P aircraft are being replaced by the new MC-130J, one of the latest iterations of the long-running C-130 turboprop freighter family. (USAF)

Yet CSAR is not all about specialist aircraft; specialist subsystems form a vital component to the mission. In March, Cubic Global Defence was awarded a contract to supply AN/ARS-6(V)12 Personnel Locator Systems via a United States Department of Defence indefinite-quantity/indefinite-supply contract expected to continue until 2020. The AN/ARS-6(V)12 is used to locate downed aircrew and is in extensive use with NATO and US forces. Using radio frequency transmission across the Very and Ultra High Frequency bands of 118-407 megahertz, the system provides voice communications with combat survival radios such as the General Dynamics Mission Systems’ AN/PRC-112G, Elbit Systems’ AN/PRC-434 and Boeing AN/PRQ-7F survival radios. The AN/ARS-6(V)12 forms a vital part of the CSAR mission as it allows aircraft carrying the system to detect downed aircrew, and to communicate with them across their survival radios, to ascertain their location and thus their physical condition. The AN/ARS-6 family has been in service for over two decades, and the latest AN/ARS-6(V)12 version packages the capabilities of legacy AN/ARS-6 examples into a smaller and lighter system, while adding the new capabilities discussed above. 

General Dynamics’ AN/PRC-112G combat survival radio
General Dynamics’ AN/PRC-112G combat survival radio, in widespread use around the world, provide a means by which downed aircrew can be located. (USMC)

Looking forwards the future, the increasing ‘democratisation’ of the CSAR club is interesting. As this article has illustrated, new countries have entered this domain. Brazil and Malaysia’s acquisition of a CSAR capability via their respective H-225M acquisitions discussed above is instructive in this regard. These countries, however, are arguably acquiring this capability as an adjunct to an overall acquisition of rotorcraft which can support a range of missions, both for Special Forces and conventional operations, which also include CSAR. This maximises the investment of these countries as they gain a true multi-role rotorcraft. For now, dedicated CSAR units are expected to remain the preserve of a handful of forces such as the air forces of France, Italy and the United States. These are countries which desire, and can afford, to have a dedicated CSAR force, although these nations also do not confine their CSAR assets to solely supporting this mission as such aircraft are versatile and can assist other tasks. CSAR is undoubtedly here to stay as an indispensable capability, although it is one that will increasingly be performed by multi-role airframes as opposed to dedicated helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

CV-22B tilt rotor aircraft
The USAF has found its CV-22B tilt rotor aircraft ideal for the CSAR mission. Other countries which purchase the aircraft may employ it for similar missions. (USAF)

by Thomas Withington