Despite accounting for each and every missing soldier in the Iraq war--a first in U.S. military history--the combat search and rescue community is stretched thin and grappling with gaps raging from policy to training.
Officials said that success is a double-edged sword. Gaining support for additional resources and new ways of operating can be difficult given the performance in recent conflicts.
"The personnel recovery community is in an interesting position the job is getting done. What more can you ask for?" said Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While personnel recovery is associated with the Air Force and its special operations forces, each military service has its own rescue elements and its own way of doing things. And for most, personnel recovery is an additional duty.
Now, military commanders are moving to make personnel recovery operations more interoperable, through a greater emphasis on joint training and new technology. But a number of high-level officers agree that there still is a long way to go.
"Personnel recovery" is the umbrella term for the aggregation of military, civil and political operations to obtain the release or recovery of those captured, missing or isolated from uncertain or hostile environments and denied areas. Personnel recovery includes a vast array of operations such as theater search and rescue (SAR); combat search and rescue (CSAR); survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE), and the coordination of negotiated as well as forcible recovery options.
What the military leadership should he seeking is a joint, dedicated personnel recovery force, Schwartz said. "Interoperability is as much a result of people on the ground making it happen as much as it is a result of adequate planning," he said at a recent National Defense Industrial Association personnel recovery conference. "We need a dedicated versus dual-use personnel recovery force."
Current dedicated recovery forces are stretched thin by supporting ongoing combat operations, he said. Most of these consist of special operations forces. "They can't afford to respond to requirements inefficiently," he said. "With the war on terrorism, those forces are in even higher demand for their primary combat tasks.
The war in Iraq--where insurgent organizations recognize the value of exploiting kidnappings and captures for political gain--has challenged the notion of personnel recovery. Added to the mix are civilians from the United States and allies (see related stories p. 38; p. 39) wire are increasingly being taken hostage. The Defense Department faces the challenge of changing its policies to encompass all elements, officials said at the conference.
The urban guerilla war now taking place in some Iraqi cities makes it easy for the enemy to hide kidnapped personnel, said Marine Maj. Lance Landeche, from U.S. Central Command. "The main difficulty is locating the missing," he said. "Once we know where they are, it's fairly simple to go in and get them."
Despite the fact that kidnapping and hostage taking are on the upswing in the Middle East, "personnel recovery does not have a priority internally in any military service for the personnel, equipment and funding commensurate with its frequently stated importance," said a July 2004 report on interagency national personnel recovery architecture, published by the Institute for Defense Analyses. Furthermore, there is no approved joint doctrine for personnel recovery, according to the report.
For Operation Iraqi Freedom, CENTCOM pooled resources from other combatant commands to establish 27 rescue centers. The Joint Search and Rescue Center for the area has a staff of about 17. This consolidation has degraded other commands' personnel recovery capabilities, said the IDA report.
By its own definition, the JSRC is the primary recovery entity that is designated by the joint forces commander or the joint forces air component commander for planning, coordinating and executing joint CSAR operations. …