In May 2014, rescue forces from around the world gathered in Arizona as part of an extensive and realistic training exercise. Joe Copalman makes his GAR debut as he reports from Exercise Angel Thunder 2014.
On 2 May 2014, the 563rd Rescue Group (RQG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona received an urgent tasking from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. A Chinese fishing vessel had caught fire and sunk over 1,000 miles off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The survivors had been picked up by a Venezuelan fishing boat, with two having sustained severe burns and in need of immediate care. The 563rd RQG, which had been preparing to participate in the US Air Force (USAF)’s Angel Thunder personnel recovery exercise starting two days later on 4 May, launched a Lockheed HC-130J ‘Combat King’ from the 79th Rescue Squadron (RQS) with several Pararescue Jumpers (PJs) from the 48th RQS on board. Once over the Venezuelan vessel, the PJs parachuted into the Pacific and made their way to the ship on Zodiac boats. The PJs stabilized the burn patients, then escorted them to Cabo San Lucas aboard two Sikorsky HH-60G ‘Pave Hawks’ from the 55th RQS, where they were loaded onto another HC-130J from the 79th RQS and flown to San Diego, California to be treated at a burn center.
While Angel Thunder exercise director Brett Hartnett was not surprised by such a mission being assigned to the 563rd, the timing was certainly interesting. Hartnett told GAR: “That exact mission was in the exercise – very close, it wasn’t a tuna boat – but the desired learning objectives were pretty much the exact same thing. And then, surprise, it basically happened.” That a mission Angel Thunder’s planners included in the exercise became a real-world affair speaks volumes about its realism. In the following days, the 563rd Rescue Group, along with hundreds of search and rescue personnel, civilian law enforcement, and military special operators would engage in dozens of realistic training scenarios aimed at honing their rescue skills.
Angel Thunder began in 2006. At the time, Hartnett was an HH-60G pilot based at DM, and he and several colleagues realised that the ‘Flag’ exercises they had traditionally participated in did not provide training opportunities that reflected the diverse mission sets that had become more common as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq progressed. The classic downed-airman scenario had given way to a variety of missions in which the rescue triad – HC-130s, HH-60Gs, and ‘Guardian Angels’ – were evacuating wounded ground troops from active firefights, parachuting into remote areas where special operations forces were struck by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and providing stabilising care until HH-60s arrived, and accompanying special operators on raids against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.
Having cut his teeth as an ‘exercise guy’ during tours in Alaska and Europe, Harnett saw that DM was the perfect base to run a rescue-specific exercise out of, given the presence of the 563rd RQG, the proximity of numerous ranges and military operating areas (MOA), and numerous other bases in the region that were home to units that could support the exercise while mutually benefiting from it themselves. Hartnett also took note of the fact that many of these training areas could be utilised with little or no cost to the USAF, it was just a matter of establishing the relationships needed to secure that access. He tells GAR, “Our budget is very low compared to other exercises, and we do that through a lot of goodwill. An awful lot of the stuff we get, a lot of the training areas, we get for free. That really allows us to stretch the budget and do what we do. If we didn’t have that networking or goodwill, there would be no Angel Thunder.” In an era of tightening fiscal constraints, to not only establish but sustain and grow a new-start exercise that provides the depth and breadth of training scenarios that Angel Thunder does while adhering to a modest budget is quite a feat.
Another factor allowing Angel Thunder’s planners to mitigate costs is the involvement of personnel and role-players from outside the USAF. While the first iteration of Angel Thunder was a local exercise for DM-based units, the establishment of an exercise specifically dedicated to personnel recovery attracted outside attention. At the time, Colombia was still considered the ‘kidnapping capitol of the world,’ and the Colombian military, along with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and US Army Special Forces (both of which had personnel in Colombia serving in an advisory capacity in Colombia’s internal conflict against narcoterrorists) expressed interest in participating in the next Angel Thunder, which occurred in 2008. Since then, Angel Thunder has grown, in Hartnett’s words, ‘like a weed,’ with more US joint forces, federal agencies, and foreign militaries participating each year. Angel Thunder 2014 involved troops from all four branches of the US military, the militaries of seven allied nations, well over a dozen federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and a few civilian organisations.
In addition to keeping costs down, the involvement of external/non-USAF participants provides for much more realistic training, giving US military participants the experience of working with foreign militaries and federal agencies, as well as with civilian law enforcement organisations. Within the framework of Angel Thunder, civilian police play the roles of host-country law enforcement, the likes of which many US units will work with overseas at some point, especially where personnel recovery is concerned. As Hartnett explains, “All of the internationals coming in are basically enablers to the larger exercise. It’s an Air Force exercise and a US exercise, so that’s where the priority is. However, in everything we do, we pretty much do in coalitions these days, so they are a huge asset to us to get our younger guys who have not worked in our environment, and ourselves, just working out processes and procedures. Everyone usually gets the 80% solution and they walk out happy, but it’s a win/win for everybody.”
The ultimate goal of Hartnett and his staff is to provide world-class training for the benefit of the whole-of-government US Government rescue community across the full spectrum of personnel recovery operations. To that end, the scenarios they devise are crafted to allow a degree of free-play among the participants greater than one is likely to find anywhere else. Units participating in Angel Thunder receive taskings just as they would in the real-world, and rather than launch a scripted response they were given days if not weeks to prepare for, they launch when they get the call, formulating a game plan on the fly, again, exactly as they would on real-world missions. With many personnel recovery missions occurring in foreign countries and outside the control of an American combatant commander, the involvement of the State Department and US ambassadors is critical in facilitating these types of rescues.
Angel Thunder participants work with actual State Department personnel as well as former US Ambassador Charles A. Ray, who has volunteered his time and expertise during Angel Thunder for the last several years. And when rescue forces do arrive at their objectives, they find ‘survivors’ wearing crude-but-convincing make-up and prosthetics to simulate a broad range of injuries, from compound fractures to minor lacerations to sucking chest wounds. They have to evaluate and interact with these patients in order to determine the nature and extent of their injuries (rather than simply reading a tag affixed to a role-player’s clothes detailing that information), and they often have to do so while responding to external threats from blank-firing OPFOR role-players as well. This level of realism is uncommon, especially in the rescue community, and Angel Thunder is the only place to get training this thorough and with as many players with some ‘skin’ in the proverbial ‘game’ when it comes to personnel recovery.
Angel Thunder 2014 ran from 4 to 17 May, and involved over 2,000 participants from every branch of the United States Armed Forces, seven foreign militaries, and well over two dozen law enforcement and search and rescue organizations.
Major Military Participants
Being hosted at DM, Angel Thunder saw heavy participation from the locally-based 563rd RQG, with the group’s subordinate units participating in most major scenarios. The HC-130Js of the 79th RQS put the full range of the type’s capabilities to work, providing on-scene command, aerial refueling of helicopters, and moving rescue forces to and from numerous operating areas throughout the southwest. The 55th RQS worked several contested/degraded CSAR missions on the Barry M. Goldwater Range (BMGR) with its HH-60Gs and staged out of NAS North Island to work some air-sea battle scenarios over the Southern California Offshore Range. The pilots and aircrews of the 55th RQS were joined in these missions by the Guardian Angels of the 48th RQS.
The largest contingent of non-Davis-Monthan aircraft participating in Angel Thunder came from Moody AFB’s 347th RQG. A major component of Angel Thunder 2014 was the “Personnel Recovery Task Force,” which involved basing HH-60s, HC-130s, and Guardian Angels at a facility other than a military airbase, which in this case was Flagstaff Pulliam Airport in Northern Arizona. The 347th’s two-week deployment to Flagstaff was facilitated by Travis AFB’s 621st Contingency Response Element, which is tasked with providing everything needed for expeditionary operations, including command and control, aerial port services, maintenance, security, weather, and intelligence support. The goal was to validate the 347th’s ability to, in the words of Brett Harnett, “deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice with the global response force.” Harnett continues, “The forces from Moody went into a bare base up in Flagstaff, so they’re having to deal with all of the issues of working with the local community and establishing those relationships versus going into a base where all of that is pre-done. Just dealing with the folks in Flagstaff has been really good training.” The 347th RQG’s Angel Thunder detachment participated in numerous scenarios, including mass casualty and search and rescue evolutions in Northern Arizona and air-sea battle operations off the California coast, with the HC-130Ps of the 71st RQS supporting those operations directly from Flagstaff. Guardian Angels from Moody’s 38th RQS also worked with PJs and a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) specialist from the German Air Force, which is establishing its own pararescue capability.
The Wyoming Air National Guard participated with a C-130H from the 187th Airlift Squadron and a medical team from the 187th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. The Wyoming crews also worked with members of the Canadian Forces Aeromedical Evacuation Flight. Any evolution requiring long-range transportation of casualties involved the Wyoming/Canadian Forces team, with mass-casualty events being the most demanding. When not participating directly in exercise scenarios, the guardsmen kept busy moving role-players, VIPs, and equipment to various exercise sites. Hartnett praised the 187th for this work: “Much of what we did this time around would not have been possible without the support of the Wyoming ANG. Their backside logistical support was absolutely critical to the success of the exercise.”
With the Fairchild A-10C Warthog being integral to the CSAR mission as a rescue escort (RESCORT) and rescue mission command (RMC) platform, two A-10 squadrons – the Michigan ANG’s 107th Fighter Squadron “Red Devils” and the DM-based 354th FS “Bulldogs” – participated in Angel Thunder. The “Red Devils” flew long-range air-sea battle/personnel recovery missions off the California coast, providing RESCORT for helicopters, service as “Sandy 1” RMC, and close air support. All A-10 sorties in support of these operations originated and terminated at DM and were supported by KC-135s from the 179th ARS out of Phoenix. The A-10s on these missions also received support from Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes from VAW-117 and Boeing EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-139. Additionally, the 107th worked closely with Eurocopter EC725 Caracals from the French Air Force’s Escadron d’Hélicoptères 1/67 “Pyrénées” and HH-60Gs from the 55th and 66th Rescue Squadrons in day and night operations over the BMGR. Pilots from the 107th also acted as downed airmen in CSAR scenarios near Tombstone, Arizona. Having A-10 pilots acting as survivors on the ground was also good training for the Colombian Air Force, which had Embraer A-29B Super Tucanos and a Bell 212 participating specifically to further develop its CSAR capabilities. The 354th FS primarily worked with the Colombian A-29s in the Tombstone area on both RESCORT missions and on providing Forward Air Controller – Airborne services as part of the Colombians’ training.
The workhorses of the exercise were a trio of UH-60A Blackhawks from the Arizona Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion/285th Aviation Regiment, based at Papago Army Airfield in Phoenix. The 2/285th’s Blackhawks served on both the tactical side of the exercise – performing insertion and extraction of ground participants – and the “admin” side, ferrying role-players, exercise referees, and distinguished visitors to and from numerous sites. Altogether, the three UH-60s flew almost two dozen sorties during Angel Thunder. Another Arizona ARNG unit, Detachment 1, C Co, 5/159th Air Ambulance, participated in one of the more peculiar scenarios, a Nonconventional Assisted Rescue (NAR) mission that involved hoisting soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group (SFG) out of the bottom of Meteor Crater, a large meteor impact crater and tourist attraction in Northern Arizona. The Arizona Guard also provided two AH-64D Apache gunships from the 1/285th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion to provide overwatch during a few scenarios. Among these were CSAR evolutions on the BMGR and a mission in Florence, Arizona, in which the pair flew cover for French and USAF helicopters that transported multinational SOF teams.
In the event real-life injuries were sustained by participants or role-players, a single HH-60M from F Company, 7/158th AVN, an Army Reserve unit from Fort Carson, Colorado, was on-hand for real-world medevac support. The HH-60M is a new Blackhawk variant outfitted specifically for the Army’s “dustoff” medevac mission. While much of the medical equipment (on-board oxygen generators for patients, a mechanical litter system, etc.) has added considerable weight and impacted the helicopter’s flight performance, it provides what Specialist Jason Smith, a flight medic from the 7/158th describes as “legitimately a flying Intensive Care Unit.” The 7/158th also participated in some scenario-based training with USAF and French aircraft.
A single Raytheon MC-12W Liberty from Beale AFB’s 427th Reconnaissance Squadron provided Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) support for Angel Thunder. The MC-12 flew mostly over the Florence Military Reservation providing ISR support to a team of special operations forces and DEA agents preparing to take a high-value target into custody. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Lowe, from the Joint Exercise Control Group, sheds some light on the work done by the 427th: “The MC-12 does ISR – basically provides a full-motion video picture to your commanders at the operations center, and then also for your tactical leaders that are on the ground before they go into an objective area. The role players have been out here this entire week, and they’ve built a pattern of life that that ISR has been watching.”
Air operations at remote sites were managed by an air traffic control team from the US Navy’s Tactical Air Support Squadron 22 out of Little Creek, Virginia. TACRON sailors controlled the flow of Angel Thunder-related traffic at Winslow Airport in Northern Arizona, Coolidge Municipal Airport in Central Arizona, and at AUX-6, a remote airfield on the BMGR.
Angel Thunder 2014 saw the exercise’s largest foreign aircraft contingent to date, with the Colombians bringing three A-29Bs, a single C-130H, and a Bell 212 helicopter, and the French Air Force bringing two EC725R2 Caracals.
Captain Esteban Cabrejo, a Bell 212 pilot with the Colombian Air Force’s Escuqadrón de Combate 411 Rapaz, gave GAR an overview of Colombia’s participation in Angel Thunder 2014: “Our objectives here are to train, to learn how to integrate our operations with another armed force like the United States Air Force, and to learn new personnel recovery procedures, then take this doctrine and put it in our tactics, techniques, and procedures manuals.” The Colombian A-29 and Bell 212 crews spent most of the exercise in a largely self-contained scenario near Tombstone, working on attached RESCORT and responding to calls-for-fire from JTACs and Forward Observers. The Colombians worked with JTACS and FOs from the 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), a Marine unit that provides supporting arms coordination for allied troops. The C-130 was used in multiple scenarios supporting various mission types. Along with providing basic airlift, Colombia’s C-130 crews participated in special operations missions and at least one mass casualty scenario, with a flight surgeon and his medical team providing in-flight treatment to “survivors” of a mock terrorist attack. The Colombians also sent a detachment of nine commandos from the Agrupación de Comandos Especiales Aéreos (ACOEA) to work mostly with a team from the US Army’s 3rd SFG and agents from a DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team (FAST).
Having had to pass on previous invitations due to operational commitments, the French Air Force was finally able to participate this year, sending two Caracals from EH 1/67 and a team of pararescue commandos from Commando Parachutiste De L’air Nº 30 (CPA 30). The FAF’s Caracals and PJs kept busy, participating in most of Angel Thunder’s major scenarios. The contingent did Special Purpose Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) rig training, flew contested/degraded CSAR missions over the BMGR, worked a mass-casualty scenario in Flagstaff that involved air-to-air refueling from a 79th RQS HC-130J, and participated in special operations missions in Florence, Arizona with German PJs and Marines from 2nd ANGLICO.
The Swedish Air Force participated in the exercise, with a small detachment of personnel recovery specialists and medics from the Swedish Air Force Rangers. Unique among all the participants this time around was the Swedes’ inclusion of two search dogs and their handlers. With one dog trained in search and rescue and the other in explosives detection, the SwAF K-9 handlers kept busy in both the civilian mission sets and those that were more kinetic. The Swedish medics also worked closely with several law enforcement departments from Arizona on tactical combat care procedures.
Germany’s presence during Angel Thunder 2014 was representative of the German Air Force’s efforts to build a personnel recovery capability based on the American model. Lieutenant Colonel Pueschel of 2nd Squadron, 64th Helicopter Wing at Laupheim was the commander of the German contingent and explained GAF participation to GAR: “Basically, we are here with four PJs, we are right now establishing the PJ thing in Germany, and we had three guys working at the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC), and one SERE guy.” Lt Colonel Pueschel continues, “The main focus was on having the training for those guys, and that worked out really good. We had a CRO (Combat Rescue Officer) and a PJ from the 38th RQS, and they were taken care of for the past two weeks by those guys, doing the rock drills and working with the HH-60s.” 2nd Squadron was recently designated as the GAF’s sole CSAR unit and the personnel that participated in Angel Thunder will be taking the lessons they learned and passing them on to their squadronmates back in Germany.
Other foreign participants included Ireland, which sent some SERE personnel, as well as Italy and the UK, both of which sent personnel recovery planning staff to work in the JPRC.
More than Just a Military Exercise
The most striking difference between Angel Thunder and most other military exercises is the high number of civilian participants. This is not an extravagance or a gimmick, but rather a highly accurate reflection of US national policy. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 12, Annex 1, which requires that a whole-of-government approach be used to recover any Americans who become “isolated.” The term isolated refers to the status of anyone who has been captured or taken hostage, or is in a position where the threat of capture is present. NSPD 12 Annex 1 covers everything from troops taken prisoner during combat operations, to aid workers whose vehicle gets separated from a convoy while traveling through potentially hostile territory, to tourists in the midst of an eroding security situation overseas. These scenarios clearly warrant different responses, and the whole-of-government approach allows for the broadest flexibility to respond appropriately to such incidents. Exercise founder Brett Hartnett has described Angel Thunder as “pretty much implementing national policy on personnel recovery. It all comes back to NSPD 12 Annex 1.” Through that prism, the involvement of federal agencies like the State Department, DEA, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all make sense, given that all have an overseas presence and some degree of organic personnel recovery capability.
Other civilian organisations that participated in Angel Thunder 2014 include the Peace Corps and the US Agency for International Development. While neither have a personnel recovery mission, both have personnel overseas continuously, and as such, Harnett explains, they have their own security staff who come to Angel Thunder “just to learn how to take care of their own personnel, how to interact with the personnel recovery structure so if they need to get rescued, they know how to ask for it.” The majority of civilian participants were law enforcement officers from all over Arizona, and whose participation opens up training venues such as rifle ranges and tactical wound care facilities. As with most non-USAF participants, these officers serve as enablers, portraying ‘Valsurans,’ with Valsura being the name of the fictitious country that the exercise takes place in. With NSPD 12 Annex 1 demanding a whole-of-government approach to personnel recovery, civilian participation is absolutely critical to the success of Angel Thunder, and the success of Angel Thunder is reciprocally critical to the implementation of national policy on personnel recovery.
“Train as You Fight” – Scenario-Based Training
GAR was present for two sets of Angel Thunder scenarios, the first a mass casualty exercise at Camp Navajo, an ARNG facility just outside Flagstaff, and the other a culmination of a week-long multinational special operations mission in Florence, Arizona.
The scenario at Camp Navajo involved an attack on simulated embassy housing that included vehicle-born IEDs, machinegun attacks, and suicide bombers. Injuries – all visually represented by make-up and prosthetics worn by ROTC cadets – ranged from minor cuts and scrapes to life-threatening head injuries, with some role players simply playing dead. The first on-scene were volunteers from the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit. These are civilian volunteers – mostly women in their 50s – with basic triage and wound-care skills. Their task was to locate survivors and, if possible, move them to a casualty collection point. While this was happening, an incident coordinator with the SAR volunteers was communicating with the JPRC, giving updates on the number and type of casualties and the activities of civilians in the area (soldiers in generically ‘middle eastern’ garb speaking broken English). An HC-130J from the 79th RQS orbited overhead, giving commanders a bird’s-eye view of events on the ground. An hour after the initial “attack,” a ground convoy of six Humvees arrived, carrying a mix of PJs from the 58th RQS, French commandos from CPA 30, and a team of Swedish Rangers. While some of the PJs tended to the wounded, others manned machineguns in the turrets of the Humvees to provide cover for the dismounted personnel.
With the area secure, a JTAC called in a pair of HH-60Gs from the 66th RQS, which were on standby five minutes away at Flagstaff Airport. The Pave Hawks, which flew together to provide mutual defensive fire support, brought in more PJs to assist with the care and transport of the wounded to the LZ before they started evacuating them – critical cases first – back to Flagstaff for transloading onto waiting C-130s to transport them back to Davis-Monthan. A single FAF Caracal joined the Pave Hawks in the evacuation flights, which continued well into the evening. Flagstaff Airport itself was a hotbed of activity, with Pave Hawks and the Caracal constantly in and out, while HC-130Js from DM’s 79th RQS and two C-130Hs – one from the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 187th Airlift Squadron and the other from the Colombian Air Force’s 811 Squadron – were either arriving, loading ‘patients’ for transport, or departing.
The final scenario of Angel Thunder 2014 was the culmination of a week-long mission at the Florence Military Reservation southeast of Phoenix, where a high-value target known as ‘Hadji M’ had been under surveillance. Participating in this scenario were soldiers from the 3rd SFG, Colombian ACOEA commandos, and DEA FAST agents, with the SF and DEA using Angel Thunder as a workup for pending Afghan deployments. For most of the week, the forces at Florence kept a low profile, gathering intelligence on Hadji M and his militia. The team was assisted by an MC-12W from the 427th RQS, which flew daily ISR sorties in the area to develop pattern-of-life data on the village. The team used this data to develop a plan to apprehend Hadji M while reducing the risk of casualties for the team and the civilians in the area. Staging out of nearby Coolidge Municipal Airport, the team inserted into the village on a trio of 2/285th UH-60As and were engaged immediately by the OPFOR role players. After a brief firefight, the Colombians captured Hadji M, turning him over to a DEA agent before they all boarded the H-60s for the flight back to Coolidge. While this was nominally the final scenario of Angel Thunder 2014, its conclusion opened the facilities at Florence for a few small direct-action missions for the American HH-60G pilots and PJs, the French Caracal pilots and PJs, the German PJs, and a few ANGLICO Marines, which continued late into the afternoon.
What started as a single unit’s attempt to enhance training opportunities has grown to include other Air Force rescue groups, non-rescue Air Force units, the three other branches of the US military, numerous allies, government and law enforcement agencies from the Federal level down to the local, and even Non-Governmental Organisations to become the world’s largest and most realistic personnel recovery exercise. Beyond that, it has also become the one place where the full spectrum of US national policy on personnel recovery is practiced and validated using a whole-of-government approach, while still remaining anchored to its Air Force CSAR origins. As Brett Hartnett summarises “Angel Thunder was designed first and foremost as a tactical deployment spin-up exercise for the USAF combat rescue triad. That is its core mission and always will be, and is the reason the USAF funds the exercise. At the same time it has been able to incorporate all the tenants of whole-of-government personnel recovery to become the only venue to fully exercise NSPD 12 Annex 1 across the full spectrum of operations, and is why the Joint Staff also supports the exercise with matching funds.” Hartnett and his team are currently preparing for Angel Thunder 2015, which will focus on training for personnel recovery operations in Africa.
Thanks to Brett Hartnett, Lt Col Pueschel, Majors Sarah Schwenessen and Gabriel Leguizamon, Captains Meredith Kirchoff, Aaron Cavazos, and Jaclyn Padilla Melton, 2nd Lieutenant Erin Ranaweera, Subteniente Michael Hernandez, Staff Sergeant Angela Ruiz, and Airman 1st Class Christopher Massey.