Given the normal cyclical nature of Department of Defense budgets, it is likely that leaner times are approaching regardless of the outcome of the November election. However, military and civilian leadership must resist the temptation to drastically cut or eliminate budgets for fundamental missions. In particular, combat search and rescue (CSAR) capabilities must be maintained to ensure the U.S. military maintains its promise to “leave no one behind.” CSAR is an affordable force multiplier, even in a tight fiscal environment.
The U.S. military has made a sacred commitment to leave no one behind on the battlefield. This ethos is even embedded in the Airman’s Creed (“I will never leave an airman behind”) and the Soldier’s Creed (“I will never leave a fallen comrade”). CSAR capabilities play a large role in that commitment, particularly for rescuing pilots shot down near or behind enemy lines. If a downed pilot isn’t rescued within an hour, their chance of survival drops to about 50-50 and plummets rapidly. Personnel trained on the best CSAR equipment available are needed to rescue those pilots and other personnel who are separated from their units.
In addition to helping fulfill our commitment, CSAR capabilities are a true force multiplier. Military members, especially aviators, are expensive to train. After World War I, many countries realized that rescuing downed aviators could save significant money and time to train a replacement. British military forces also recognized the morale-building value of rescue; they found that pilots were more willing to fly into dangerous situations if they knew someone would try to rescue them if they crashed or were shot down. By the beginning of World War II, the British had developed rudimentary rescue capabilities. The U.S. lagged, but by the end of the war had repurposed hundreds of maritime patrol aircraft, bombers, and pursuit aircraft into dedicated rescue forces, many of which were used in Korea a few years later.
Lastly, CSAR capabilities are much more affordable than they might seem at first glance. The approximately $2 billion spent on CSAR personnel, training, and equipment each year is less than one-third of 1 percent of the DoD budget; put another way, it is about the cost of a Subway sandwich for each person in the United States. We have made the mistake of reducing our CSAR capabilities before, with disastrous results. In the first few years of the Vietnam War, the Air Force relied heavily on Army and CIA aircraft for search and rescue, at least in part because the U.S. government didn’t want to admit how involved we were in the war. But the Air Force would have been hard-pressed to bring their own SAR aircraft, even if they wanted to. After Korea, SAR crews no longer trained for rescues under combat conditions. Planners believed that with a nuclear war, there would be no one to rescue, so capabilities focused instead on pilots who crashed on a runway or near an Air Force base. The helicopters used for these rescues were woefully inadequate for doing SAR in Vietnam’s mountains and jungles. By late 1965, both Air Force and Navy SAR units with improved equipment arrived in Southeast Asia, but not before dozens, if not hundreds, of people had needlessly died or been captured.
Just as after Korea, it would be easy for budgeters to dismiss the CSAR mission as too expensive to maintain, especially given that few rescues have taken place in our current conflicts. But we must prepare for the next war, a war that will likely not allow us years to build CSAR forces back up again as we did during Vietnam. As good stewards of taxpayer dollars, we should always examine our CSAR capabilities to look for more efficient and effective ways to accomplish the mission. But we must never allow budget pressures to reduce CSAR forces to the point where we can no longer maintain our commitment to leave no one behind.
Dr. Eileen A. Bjorkman is a retired Air Force colonel, executive director of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and author of the forthcoming book Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind. Bjorkman’s comments reflect only her opinion and not that of the Air Force.
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