Today’s rapidly evolving global climate of war and continual growth in adversary capabilities continues to create and sustain challenges for the combat search and rescue mission.
This has driven the 55th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., to re-think combat readiness training to better meet the demands of current and future conflicts.
In the past, 55th RQS flight sorties would look largely the same day after day as unit schedulers and leaders chased metrics of readiness and aircrew currency. This approach to aircrew training denied aircrew the deep-learning that actually underpins combat readiness. The 55th RQS’ Phase Training Program provides the focused learning opportunity lacking in the legacy model of training.
The training program, instituted by previous squadron leadership and carried on by current leadership, is a building-block approach in which the squadron executes training modules, or blocks, focused on very specific mission elements. The 55th has executed multiple iterations with focuses such as basic helicopter maneuvering, air combat maneuvering, weapons employment, surface-to-air threat and advanced air integration. This deep-dive into mission employment areas allows squadron aircrew to build experience, knowledge and skill to such a depth that later recall of the skill becomes more fluid and they can more effectively and quickly adjust their tactics to dynamic and uncertain situations.
“Over the past few decades we have operated and trained with the preconceived notion that we will have air superiority,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Mark Ross, 55th RQS HH-60 pilot.
“Based on the National Defense Strategy and the forward outlook of the Air Force where we are anticipating having to operate against near-peer threats in contested and degraded operating environments, we need to be prepared and honed to operate in a situation where we don’t own all of the airspace.”
Preparing for near-peer adversaries and threats allows the 55th to help reduce the risk of loss to aircrew and aircraft. Nearly 50 years ago, on the January 28th, 1970, Jolly Green 71 was shot down by a MiG-21 near the North Vietnamese-Laotian border. That loss serves as a sharp reminder, even today, that CSAR has always been a dangerous and difficult mission.
“The loss of Jolly Green 71 is still relevant today because an enemy was able to get through the protective fighters we had overhead and engage a rescue vehicle,” said Ross. “This is still possible in situations where our defensive air is going to be utilized but we will still be pushing as far forward into the fight to execute our mission. Having the skill set to be able to defend ourselves and remain survivable is important so we are not rendered as an easy target. This will allow us to fend off an enemy fighter trying to engage us, giving friendly forces more time to respond and defend us.”
Combining the loss rates of both helicopters and the overall combat search and rescue mission highlights the risk that the 55th RQS and other rescue units face in combat. Honing skills from basic helicopter maneuvering to more advanced air combat maneuvering proves invaluable to the safety and survivability of the pilots and aircrew.
“If you look at combat search and rescue vehicles, helicopters specifically, we have incurred some of the highest loss rates throughout history,” Ross said. “As a rescue asset, the likelihood of us going down while pushing far behind enemy lines to execute our mission is a real threat. To make ourselves more survivable for the future, we need to have honed all of our skills that are going to allow us to be able to execute in hostile environments, rescue the survivors and bring them back to friendly territory.”
The 55th Rescue Squadron’s success and improved combat readiness is seen as an extension of the learning and skills first gained during the initial fixed-wing training all helicopter pilots receive at Undergraduate Pilot Training under Air Education and Training Command.
“We have a unique advantage as U.S. Air Force helicopter pilots because we started our training in AETC as fixed-wing pilots,” said Ross. “Flying the T-6A [Texan II] gave us our foundation as far as air sense, maneuverability and other things.”
Training, from the earliest stages, is designed to ensure that Airmen are as well-prepared and as safe as possible.
“The risk mitigation for operating near the edge of our helicopter performance envelope starts with fixed-wing UPT,” said Lt. Col. Brandon Losacker, 55th RQS Operations Officer.
“The Air Force expects its CSAR helicopter crews to fly into dangerous combat environments at night and dynamically organize and execute a rescue mission inside the territory of an enemy that doesn’t want us to be there. Our ability to successfully do this requires us to fly, employ and maneuver our helicopter in ways expressly prohibited to other U.S.
military helicopter aircrew. We can see a direct linkage between the foundational skills of energy management from acrobatics and formation flight discipline learned during T-6A training and the way we employ our HH-60G helicopters in combat.”
Through the Phase Training Program, the 55th RQS is taking foundational training and developing their pilots and aircrew to be as ready and lethal as possible to win the high-end fight.