Air Rescue Service - Post-Vietnam, Cold War, Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Desert Storm

Post-Vietnam, Cold War, Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Desert Storm

In addition to overseas taskings, stateside taskings for ARRS also continued. Prior to 1974, the Air Force had divided the continental United States into three regions, each with a separate Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. In May 1974, the Air Force consolidated the three centers into one facility at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. This single site Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) allowed colocation with Headquarters, Military Airlift Command, provided better coordination of activities, improved communications and economy of operations, and standardized procedures. The newly formed AFRCC also permitted operations with fewer people while creating a more experienced staff.

The withdrawal of US combat forces from the Vietnam War was reminiscent of the massive drawdown of CSAR assets that occurred following the Korean War. After Vietnam, a few notable rescue operations took place, such as the deployment of ARRS helicopters aboard the USS Saipan (LHA 2) in June and August 1979 in support of a possible emergency evacuation of US personnel in Nicaragua following the Communist Sandinista takeover. However, such missions occurred infrequently.

Ironically, a classic contingency/rescue operation proved to be the death knell of the ARRS and, even more ironically, no ARRS helicopter units participated in the operation.

The aborted mission to rescue the American Embassy hostages in Teheran, Iran in the spring of 1980 dramatically demonstrated the need for close, realistic coordination and planning of joint-service operations. While it is easy to speculate after the fact about what we could have done differently to make the mission successful, there was little doubt that the ARRS MH-53E Pave Low III aircraft was better suited to the operation. However, modified U.S. Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion mine sweeping aircraft with U.S. Marine Corps flight crews were used instead.

In multiple analyses of the aborted rescue attempt, two possible reasons for the use of the RH-53D have been postulated: (1) either the Pave Low system was not yet ready for this type of mission because it had just finished lengthy operational testing or, (2) the RH-53D was used to placate the U.S. Marine Corps so they could participate with an aircraft that more closely approximated their own USMC CH-53D Sea Stallions. Certainly, one must concede that Pave Low aircrews, who were trained in the CSAR arena and routinely relied on HC-130s and MC-130s in their daily operations, were the logical choice for this type of mission and had a better aircraft with which to conduct it. Whatever the case, one point is clear: the entire operation was critically dependent on helicopters. As a result of the botched operation, the U.S. Air Force transferred all ARRS HH-53Es (MH-53E Pave Low III aircraft) to the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) and what was then Tactical Air Command control in May 1980. This transfer signaled the end of the ARRS's role in CSAR and precipitated the present distinctions between "rescue drivers" and "special operators."

Thus, the ARRS was left with an aging fleet of UH-1/HH-1 Iroquois or "Huey" (various series), CH-3E and HH-3E Jolly Green Giant aircraft, augmented by HC-130N and HC-130P/N Hercules aircraft converted from C-130E airframes. In effect, the ARRS had no means to accomplish the CSAR mission in the threat environment of the 1980s and 1990s. Just as the Polish cavalry of 1939 was all effective force within its own borders, but completely inadequate when confronted by German tanks, so too had the ARRS become an anachronism in a world where contingency and combat rescue operations relied on high-tech avionics and split-second timing. A 20-plus year old aircraft like the UH-1, with 1960s and 1970s avionics, was no longer useful. Nevertheless, the HH-3E continued to provide a measure of effectiveness because of its air-refueling capability and the use of night vision goggles (NVGs). The latter allowed aircrews to operate under the cover of darkness, thus decreasing their vulnerability in low-to-medium threat environments.

Although ARRS no longer had the proper mix of aircraft to conduct modern CSAR operations, it did at least have the foresight to continue to train crews in the CSAR environment, with emphasis on NVG operations. However, the inactivation of the HH-1 CSAR units in September 1987 closed a valuable pipeline of CSAR-trained aircrew members and limited the combat rescue role to a total of four overseas HH-3E Jolly Green Giant units and a stateside MH-60G special operations-capable Pave Hawk squadron. Furthermore, developments in the mid-1980s called into questions whether the MH-60G would continue to be affiliated with ARRS or with Military Airlift Command's newly formed 23rd Air Force for special operations following the divestiture of all USAF special operations forces from Tactical Air Command (TAC).

In August 1989, ARRS was reorganized and reestablished as the Air Rescue Service (ARS) at McClellan AFB, California, again as a subcommand to Military Airlift Command (MAC). Following Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, major USAF reorganizations resulted in the disestablishment of Military Airlift Command and the merger of its C-130, C-141 and C-5 airlift assets with the KC-135 and KC-10 air refueling aircraft assets of the former Strategic Air Command (SAC) in order to create the new Air Mobility Command.

Meanwhile, MAC's former 23rd Air Force became the nucleus for the new Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Subsequent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions in the 1990s resulted in McClellan AFB being marked for closure under the BRAC process. Shortly thereafter, ARS was again disestablished, with its CSAR assets transferred to the newly established Air Combat Command (ACC) that had been created by the merger of SAC bomber and strategic reconnaissance forces with the fighter assets of the former Tactical Air Command (TAC).

In 1993, concurrent with the disestablishment of MAC and the transfer of peacetime and combat search and rescue responsibilities to ACC, the AFRCC relocated from Scott AFB to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. In October 2003, CSAR was temporarily realigned under AFSOC, resulting in what was thought would be a merger of Regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard HC-130P/N assets with MC-130P Combat Shadow assets and integration of HH-60G Pave Hawk assets with MH-53J/M Pave Low IV assets. However, this merger proved to be short-lived and CSAR assets were ultimately transferred back to ACC claimancy in 2005.

During the temporary assignment of the CSAR mission to AFSOC, the AFRCC remained at Langley AFB. However, on 1 Mar 2006, following the transfer of CSAR assets back to ACC, the AFRCC was realigned under 1st Air Force/Air Forces North (AFNORTH), the Air Force component command to the newly established U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the ACC's Numbered Air Force for the Air National Guard. As a result, the AFRCC relocated to Tyndall AFB, Florida, where it is now consolidated with the 601st Air Operations Center (601 AOC), giving it greater ability to leverage Air Force air and space capabilities that can be applied to search and rescue operations in the continental United States.

The AFNORTH/1AF AOC also gained the responsibility for executing aerial search rescue, and associated personnel recovery operations, for civilian and military aircraft overland in the NORAD-USNORTHCOM area of operations. This resulted in greater efficiencies and capabilities for military personnel and civilians alike.

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