JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Alaska Air National Guard members of the 176th Wing participated in the Operation Noble Defender search-and-rescue/personnel recovery (SAR/PR) exercise Jan. 19-22 in southcentral Alaska.
Noble Defender is a North American Aerospace Defense Command Arctic air-defense operation.
“The Noble Defender exercise series seeks to support a variety of campaign objectives for both the NORAD command and U.S. Northern Command,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Alkire III, 611th Air Operations Center deputy commander. “While the Noble Defender series can exercise a wide range of activities, objectives center around the demonstration and ability to conduct agile combat employment principles across the North American area of operation while strategically messaging U.S. and Canadian binational defense of the homelands.”
Alkire said the exercise was tailor-made for demanding Alaska winter conditions.
Participating 176th Wing units included combat rescue officers (CROs), pararescue (PJs) Airmen, and survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialists of 212th Rescue Squadron, as well as HH-60G Pave Hawk aircrew of the 210th Rescue Squadron and HC-130J Combat King II aircrew of the 211th Rescue Squadron.
Airmen of the three squadrons compose the wing’s rescue triad. CROs, PJs, and SERE – known collectively as Guardian Angels – are experts in SAR/PR operations and are trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines to extract isolated U.S. and allied personnel. Members of the Pave Hawk aircrew use the helicopter’s sensor suite to find isolated personnel, and they are capable of infiltrating Guardian Angels by landing or using the HH-60’s rescue hoist.
Members of the Combat King crew use the propeller-driven aircraft’s sensor suite to find isolated personnel at higher altitude and greater speed than the HH-60. They can infiltrate Guardian Angels by low- or high-altitude parachute drops.
The HH-60 is the primary means of extraction since the all-weather helicopter can land just about anywhere and the crew can employ the rescue hoist when they can’t land. To extend the Pave Hawk's range, the HC-130 can refuel the Pave Hawk in flight.
Providing command-and-control for the Rescue Triad is the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which is also staffed by Alaska Air National Guard members who are detailed full-time to the regular Air Force’s 11th Air Force. The SAR controllers regularly coordinate with the Alaska State Troopers, Civil Air Patrol, national and state park services, and local authorities.
“Rescue is a key element in sustaining the morale, cohesion and fighting capability of friendly forces,” Alkire said. “It preserves critical combat resources and influences the course of national and international politics by denying adversaries the opportunity to exploit the intelligence and propaganda value of captured personnel.”
During Noble Defender, the Rescue Triad located and rescued a SERE specialist simulating a downed F-22 Raptor fighter pilot.
Alkire said the exercise was just one of many SAR/PR missions the 176th Wing and AKRCC execute.
“While rescue can offer challenges far and wide, the ability to operate and succeed given the tyranny of distance and the harsh Arctic operating environment forever complicate any rescue, which is why it is so very important to exercise and reinforce rescue skill sets and capability within the Alaska region in its support to homeland defense,” he said.
Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Daniel Kozak, 211th RQS HC-130 pilot and aircraft commander, said the SERE specialist playing the role of the downed pilot used a satellite beacon to provide the HC-130 with his location. He communicated with the crew using a UHF/VHF radio.
“To accomplish this mission, we practice scenarios locating simulated survivors using the HC-130’s electro-optical infrared camera and radios,” Kozak said. “Forward-looking infrared and radios are used on the HH-60. A care package is sometimes airdropped via the HC-130 and can include radios so the pilots and survivors can communicate with us.”
Once the crew located the pilot, the Combat King loadmaster airdropped a package tailored for the Arctic with survival gear he could use to stay safe until the HH-60 arrived to pick him up.
Members of the rescue triad, in partnership with the AKRCC, keep their skills sharp by providing statewide civil SAR support, rescuing isolated hikers and injured hunters throughout the year.