Published: 1 June 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2008
Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm by Col Darrel D. Whitcomb, USAFR, Retired. Air University Press (http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/aul/aupress), 131 West Shumacher Avenue, Maxwell AFB, Alabama 36112-6615, 2006, 328 pages (softcover). Free download available from http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/aul/ aupress/Books/Whitcomb%20CSAR/Whitcomb.pdf.
Operation Desert Storm now has a secure place in the history books. Many surveys, books, and personal accounts of senior officers who led the planning and execution of the operation have scrutinized its air campaign. Despite the successes, all parties have expressed frustration with combat search and rescue (CSAR) during the war. Writers have inquired why our forces did not rescue more downed aircrews and other isolated personnel. Fighter crews felt betrayed when their buddies did not receive the same sort of CSAR effort as did the men who flew in Vietnam 25 years earlier. We know much about the plan and the sophisticated technology that were developed and employed, but up until now no one has examined the one part of the air campaign considered a disappointment. In Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm, Darrel Whitcomb takes on the challenge of finding out what went wrong and what went right.
Intimately familiar with CSAR, the author flew combat as a forward air controller in Vietnam, worked as a contractor within the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, and wrote The Rescue of Bat 21 (Naval Institute Press, 1998). He has also published articles on the subject in Air and Space Power Journal. In his latest thoroughly researched study, Whitcomb dissects the Joint Rescue Coordination Center’s (JRCC) mission logs and unit histories, and his firsthand interviews with the planners, senior officers, and aircrews who participated in CSARs—both rescuers and isolated personnel—lend further credibility to this important book.
The author sets the stage with several vignettes from Vietnam-era rescues in which Air Force Jolly Green forces made courageous pickups under such intense opposition that the pilots later received Air Force Crosses. One of them, Capt Dale Stovall, later became the vice-commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, and another, Capt Bennie Orrel, became director of operations for the 1st Special Operations Wing. A third officer, 2d Lt Richard Comer, assumed command of the 20th Special Operations Squadron, directed Air Force helicopters in Desert Storm, and was decorated for other actions in Southeast Asia. Whitcomb dispels the myth that these senior officers in Air Force Special Operations Command during Desert Storm were career special-operations types with no rescue background.
The author also looks at the command-and-control structure for CSAR, explaining why the Air Force did not deploy its Air Rescue Service during the operation. Regardless, Gen Norman Schwarzkopf tasked Lt Gen Chuck Horner, the air component commander, with the responsibility for theater rescue but not the authority to order the special-operations component’s Air Force and Army helicopters to launch on a mission. The special-operations commander (an Army officer) had CSAR as a mission but retained both operational control of his assets and launch authority. However, because he did not own the assets to perform the search, he had to rely on the air component (mainly Air Force) for that function.
Whitcomb then addresses why our forces did not rescue more downed Airmen than they did. Examining the low success rate (p. 259), he discusses whether or not the JRCC initiated a search and the feasibility of rescuing a particular aircrew, analyzing the circumstances of each mission by drawing on JRCC logs and interviews with crews. Many times he finds that the downed aircrew members knew they would land close to forces they had just bombed or near Bedouins whom Saddam Hussein paid to turn them over to Iraqi soldiers. The barren landscape as well as the distance the rescue helicopters had to fly further exacerbated their recovery efforts. Whitcomb suggests that many of the aircrews who made it to the ground faced long odds even if the rescue force had been closer.
The book also addresses the complaints that Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), specifically Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF), stayed too busy doing special-operations missions, that they did not have enough helicopters to perform both missions, and that AFSOF leadership did not want to risk special-operations aircrews to retrieve just one flyer. Whitcomb conducted in-depth discussions with the wing and squadron leadership to understand their decision process for all missions handed down to SOCCENT. He also spoke not only with several pilots who attempted to rescue Stroke 65 and Corvette 03 but also with the ones who successfully rescued Slate 46A in a daring daylight mission on 21 January 1991 and Benji 53 during a night rescue on 17 February.
The author devotes several pages and detailed analysis to the nonrescue of Corvette 03—the most controversial mission of the war. The pilot and weapons-systems officer evaded the enemy for three days, walking nearly 15 miles toward the Syrian border before they were captured. Clearing the air on this matter, Whitcomb presents the facts as to why no dedicated search for these men occurred prior to their capture. He does a credible job of highlighting these missions as well as SOCCENT leadership’s deliberate decision-making process and efforts to rescue downed crews.
Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm—a long overdue, objective analysis—thoroughly examines the facts without pointing fingers. On the modern battlefield, CSAR is no longer just a tactical mission to bring our countrymen home; rather, today’s around-the-clock news cycle gives it greater strategic status in the information war. Colonel Whitcomb’s book is a must-read for students of modern warfare, air planners, and personnel who may be tasked to perform CSAR in an effort to do a better job of leaving no man or woman behind in future conflicts.
Col Paul R. Harmon, USAF
Hurlburt Field, Florida
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.