”Shout, 2 Aircraft, 9 Line to follow!”
The calm of the morning is shattered by the sudden surge of movement from the Combat Recovery tent as medics and crews run towards the two MRH-90 parked only meters away. 5 minutes later both aircraft are up and running as an operations soldier runs across from the Aviation Task Group headquarters, 9 liner and MIST in hand, and passes them to the pilots and medics. The MIST is incomplete and has little detail but the clock is ticking: two soldiers have suffered gunshot wounds as the consequence of an ambush.
This is an exercise. It’s the certification exercise for 7th Combat Brigade as part of Integrated Sea/ Land Series on Ex HAMEL 18. Ground forces are being run through their drills, testing and confirming readiness prior to coming online. It is an event that occurs every year; however something is different this year. An emerging capability is being spearheaded on this exercise, one that should reassure every soldier that they are supported.
“HUSTLER (Combat Recovery Aircraft callsign) you have launch authority!” This is the clearance the Combat Recovery crew have been waiting for, the authority from command to do what they have trained for the past three months to do.
That’s right! This capability is new and developing in Army Aviation. The concept is as old as the inception of rotary wing flight and the task of combat recovery from non-permissive environments has become a dedicated requirement for many nations. From time to time in the past, Australian Defence Force (ADF) helicopters have been tasked with Aeromedical Evacuation. However, this has been aligned more with patient transfer from secure, permissive locations, where patients are stable, to medical facilities.
As crews arm guns, the overwatch aircraft moves into position, medics check their weapons and medical equipment and aircrewmen focus their scan for threats. It is very obvious that this is different…
“HUSTLER copy, Break, ANGRY (ARH escort callsign), HUSTLER request locstat for escort and clearance into the zone”
“HUSTLER, ANGRY currently troops in contact, landing zone is HOT you are clear into the zone”
With adrenaline pumping and focus, the aircraft accelerates toward the extraction zone.
“1 minute, Mark now”
As smoke billows up from the vicinity of the Landing Zone (LZ), both aircrewmen check in on intercom confirming ‘guns hot’ The LZ is not secure, but soldiers have been wounded and the Combat Recovery unit is committed.
“Overwatch visual left side”
The second MRH-90, with no medical personnel aboard due to limited manning dedicated to this role, moves up to provide intimate support to the extraction zone. Aircrewmen check their combat first aid (CFA) kits for easy access, should additional extraction be required, and scan their arcs for threats close to the extraction zones.
As the extraction aircraft touches down in a cloud of dust the medics emerge from the aircraft, equipped in evolving ensemble including combat helmet instead of aircrew helmets, integrated headsets to enable aircraft communication, and rescue vests to enable vertical hoist insert and extraction. This was not covered on their basic Rotary Wing Aeromedical Evacuation (AME) course and the equipment is not supported by Army procurement; the training they have received is the efforts of a unit lead initiative to better enable the team to operate in the non-permissive environment with the front line soldiers they support. As they approach the ground medic they are met with surprise and confusion, ”I assumed the helicopter was going to be simulated” he shouts over the downwash of the aircraft. “Nope this is happening, it’s a thing” smiles back the medic.
Throughout Ex HAMEL 18 this would become the norm for soldiers of the 7th Combat Brigade, from exercise extractions to real time recoveries, including landing on the Rockhampton hospital roof top LZ for the first time for an Army platform, to integration with civilian agencies. The personnel involved became a close knit team and all members, from aircrew to medical team, played their part in the recovery of soldiers from the battlespace. But what now?
The Combat Recovery capability is very different from its civilian counterpart and has been developed with a different mindset. It is not designed to deliver surgeons or doctors, whose primary operating environment is well lit and sterile. Instead it delivers medics, who are combat trained, to provide stability to the soldier in the hostile, austere environment of the battlefield. It is the extraction of personnel from non-permissive environments, where security cannot be assured and where life is threatened. It is the rapid provision of medical care to stabilise in transit and enhance the survival of soldiers when wounded on the battlefield, relying on the speed of the aircraft, combined with medical personnel trained and developed in this process, to return the soldier to surgical care and their families.
Over the past 3 months the Combat Recovery capability has worked to define the role and how it operates. It is still not a dedicated capability, nor is it a recognised capability, but is it an implied task? Without the work and support of individuals prior to HAMEL this would never have been as successful as it has been. Medics, who in the past could only load a patient and then strap into a seat to try and attempt treatment on the patient, can now operate on harness in the cabin, enabling them to better support the wounded. As an integrated mission crew, force assigned to the helicopter unit with the dedicated task of Combat recovery, they are able to clear themselves into and out of the aircraft, allowing aircrew to focus on aircraft protection and support them in the recovery and the saving of lives.
So is this what the ADF needs or wants? The Army is constantly negotiating a balance between the ‘gold’ plated solution and what we can afford, both in time and more importantly resources. By not dedicating to combat recovery, with the appropriate personnel and training, we expose our organisation to a high degree of risk in combat. However, to dedicate solely to this task with specialist aircraft and equipment would mean losing the flexibility to support other tasks.
An appropriate compromise is to posture to support combat recovery in a platform that is not reconfigured with heavy, cumbersome equipment but rather setup with appropriate, light weight medical equipment to recover personnel. An appropriate force should be assigned to this capability permanently, i.e. medics and CFA aircrewmen, that is capable of executing recovery operations on order in a ‘swoop and scoop’ mentality, whilst maintaining the flexibility to remove the equipment and execute limited movement of small numbers of troops in the battlespace. Combat recovery offers this cabin flexibility with simple, effective tactics, technique and procedures (TTPs) and equipment, supported by a sustainable, manageable, effective force. My personal view is that;
“Any first world nation that does not have this as an integrated capability is never truly ready to commit the lives of its soldiers to the needs of the nation.”
And I am certain that this is indeed a view held by a number of our combat veterans.
It’s not shiny and it’s not digital, but it is this obsession with technology that, in some cases has resulted in the loss of focus on what truly makes an army great: its PEOPLE! We are an organization that protects people through the employment of people against other people who do not share the same values, ideals or political motivation and sometimes we forget this.
The good news is that Combat Recovery is currently an area of interest for Army. With the correct support, directed guidance, and correct force assignment and composition, within the next 6 months the Army could develop a world class capability in the combat recovery role able to serve this great nation in protecting and returning our wounded and isolated from the battlespace.
About the author: Richard Ward is currently the Officer Commanding, B Squadron (Warhorse), 5th Aviation Regiment. His previous posting was as the Brigade Major, Headquarters 16th Aviation Brigade. He is a qualified pilot for both MRH and Tiger.