JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Arctic Guardians of the 176th Wing’s 210th, 211th, and 212th Rescue Squadrons as well as supporting wing units are ready to deploy worldwide as the nucleus of a personnel recovery task force using the principles and tactics of Agile Combat Employment.
According to an Air University brief, ACE is a way of operating that relies on mission planning, launching, recovering, and maintaining aircraft from dispersed forward operating locations in concert with allies and partners.
During the Global War on Terror, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, and Guardian Angels (pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialists) typically operated with other enabling units out of built-up, protected and centralized forward airbases like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
According to Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, a possible future conflict with a peer or near-peer nation would put U.S. and allied air bases at risk, requiring a hub-and-spoke arrangement of distributed bases that are difficult to find and target. According to the note, when properly implemented “ACE complicates the enemy’s targeting process, creates political and operational dilemmas for the enemy, and creates flexibility for friendly forces.”
Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Brock Roden, 212th RQS assistant director of operations and CRO, explained what a personnel recovery task force would look like under the ACE paradigm.
“The simple version is a U.S. Air Force Rescue Triad PRTF where we have traditional fixed- and rotary-wing rescue aircraft, air refuel capable, with the Guardian Angel forces on board,” Roden explained. “This is our go-to and most familiar format to work in but that’s the starting point. In an ACE environment, this can expand to requesting armed escorts, flying with and/or utilizing joint assets available with everything from Marine Corps MV-22s Ospreys to Navy vessels, and executing on everything from a single fighter isolated personnel to a post-attack mass-casualty incident to an assisted evasion.”
Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Ryan Wiese, 176th Operations Support Squadron Weapons and Tactics chief, said the wing’s three rescue squadrons enjoy the advantage of training with C-17 Globemaster IIIs from their sister unit, the 144th Airlift Squadron.
“One of the advantages up here at the 176th Wing is that we have the strategic airlift piece, so we are more of a turnkey personnel recovery task force than other locations because we have our airlift across the ramp under the same wing,” he said.
In spring 2021, members of the Rescue Triad trained ACE concepts when they forward-deployed elements to King Salmon Air Force Station, a remote airfield that doesn’t have the support the Airmen enjoy at home station. Wiese said the wing will continue to exercise ACE concepts.
“We are going are going to continue to exercise and validate some of our ACE concepts of operations,” Wiese said. “We’re looking to operate out of a more austere, less-built-up location and exercise some of our [command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence]. We are going to do distributed and geographically separated mission planning.”
A key ACE concept is Multi-Capable Airmen, which relies on Airmen cross-trained in two or more fields in order to reduce the personnel footprint at the spoke bases. In addition to the Rescue Triad squadrons, Wiese said they plan to employ Airmen from the 176th Maintenance Group, 176th Operations Support Squadron, 176th Logistics Readiness Squadron, and 176th Communications Flight. All will be expected to contribute to other specialties when required.
“One of the reasons why the Alaska National Guard is well-suited for ACE is because we bring a depth of experience,” Wiese said. “Multi-Capable Airmen is one of the ACE tenets the Air Force is developing, and the Guard already has that baked in because you have years and decades of experience in each individual who has been working here in their specialty and multiple specialties during their careers. That is Multi-Capable Airmen in a nutshell.”
One innovation the 176th Communications Flight, in partnership with 176th OSS Intelligence, has already employed is the mobile rescue operations center, which is a command-and-control suite comprising radios, computers, amplifiers and antennas that is specially packaged to rapidly deploy in order to establish personnel recovery operations at remote airfields.
Alaska Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Dustin Hayden, 176th Communications Flight Agile Communications Systems supervisor, explained how the MROC supports ACE operations.
“The theory behind Agile Communications is to be able to go anywhere and set up an expeditionary communications system,” he said. “We can load this equipment on an HC-130, potentially an HH-60, take it to the middle of nowhere, and bring in data and voice communications.”
Roden said the 176th Wing’s Rescue Triad has been using ACE concepts for years out of necessity from operating in remote locations at home in Alaska or overseas in countries like Afghanistan.
“In my experience, Air Force Rescue has been practicing personnel recovery in a way that could be defined as ACE, before ACE became a buzzword,” he said. “I think these concepts are validating how we’ve been doing [personnel recovery] for many years and encouraging rescue squadrons to push concepts like Multi-Capable Airmen even further. It opens up our spectrum of ways we can execute the mission with the means available. This is a practice in resourcefulness and disruptive thought processes.”
Wiese said the Rescue Triad has proved itself over the past few decades, carrying out personnel recovery operations and training in everything from the Iraq desert to the jungles of Hawaii. He said their training and real-world search and rescue operations in frigid Alaska prepare them for ACE PRTF missions the world over.
“Alaska forces are very well equipped and trained to handle any of these problem sets just based on the day-to-day environment that we train and operate here in Alaska,” Wiese said.