Angel Thunder 13 exercises train rescue units

  • Published
  • By Maj. Sarah Schwennesen
  • 12th Air Force (AIR FORCES SOUTHERN) Public Affairs
Air-sea battles, high altitude and urban irregular warfare, security cooperation operations, contested degraded operations and Defense Support of Civil Authorities were just some of the many scenarios that rescue assets faced during Angel Thunder 13, April 7-20.

The largest and most realistic rescue exercise was based out of Davis-Monthan AFB, but operated in an area roughly the size of Afghanistan, from 60 miles off the coast of California to eastern New Mexico and from the Grand Canyon to the Mexican border. Rescue operators and associated support personnel exercised continuously from April 13-20, after a week of part-task training.

Though this was an Air Combat Command-sponsored rescue exercise, all of the uniformed services participated, including active duty, reserve and Air National Guard personnel. Additional interagency partners from Homeland Security, the State Department, Forest Service, National Park Service, to name a few, combined with international partners from Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom to hone their rescue skills.

On April 13, U.S. Air Force Angel Thunder participants exercised the military's role in DSCA in response to a notional earthquake that over tasked civil emergency resources.

This mini-exercise within Angel Thunder involved coordination with local, state, regional and national agencies in assisting civilians across Arizona and New Mexico, marking the first time the Arizona and New Mexico Civil Air Patrol Wings participated in an exercise of this magnitude.

From April 14-20, four different scenarios utilized different groups of exercise players each day, in order to expose every rescue asset to a variety of situations and environments that were altered slightly so that no group faced the same challenges.

"This exercise was meant to stress our operators, forcing them to deliberately plan and use their brains more than the stick and rudder skills which we know they already are excellent at," said Brett Hartnett, Angel Thunder exercise director and technical manager.

In the air-sea battle, a first this year, personnel had to locate and rescue individuals off the coast of California in hostile operations that occurred during both day and night. This involved significant coordination with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard for maritime support.

"ASB was an important addition to Angel Thunder, because it incorporated the tyranny of distance and the Pacific-Pivot," said Hartnett.

Irregular warfare and interagency/combined security cooperation operations are becoming more frequent for U.S. military units. Due to this reality, Angel Thunder planners devised many situations in which participants had to respond to threats in both urban and high altitude environments both with interagency and international partners. In the Playas Training and Research Center, N.M., rescue forces had to respond to simulated convoy attacks, suicide bombers, aircraft crashes and mass-casualty events.

This site provided training ground for coalition partners to operate in a highly-stressed environment. A simulated marketplace featured live actors to play foreign locals, multiple bombings, opposition force players and even roaming chickens to add to the true-to-life feeling that exercise planners sought.

Danish, Brazilian, Chilean and Colombian pararescuemen alongside their U.S. Air Force rescue counterparts rescued exercise victims. Further adding to the complexity, U.S. Marines were inserted by U.S. Army and Singapore CH-47 Chinook helicopters to provide security for the situation on the ground.

"This is what Angel Thunder is all about: seamless integration, coordination and execution to save lives," said Hartnett.

The high altitude locations in the Blue Range Wilderness of Arizona afforded sites with difficult mountainous terrain, which stressed both aircraft and rescue operators who faced high-angle rescues and limitations on aircraft lift capabilities due to air density.

The contested degraded operations exercise scenarios were developed with the use of modeling and simulation driven from Nellis AFB, Nev., to the 12th Air Force Combined Air and Space Operations Center here, which fed into the Angel Thunder rescue operations center at Desert Lightning City.

Modeling and simulation enabled planners to force exercise participants to respond to more air and ground threats than actually were present.

"This was just one of the ways in which Angel Thunder was dedicated to the most effective and efficient use of Air Force dollars," said Hartnett.

"We incorporated changes and improvements into Angel Thunder, based upon the current threat environment, input from combatant commanders and direct feedback from the rescue community," said Col. Jason Hanover, 563rd Rescue Group commander and Angel Thunder exercise commander. "It is a testament to the agility of the planning staff and the size of our exercise that we can hit problem areas that are emerging by keeping scenarios fresh and relevant."

"The true value of Angel Thunder comes from what we get after the exercise: the validation of new tactics, techniques and procedures; and how we collect measures of effectiveness and put them into Joint Learning Input System which enables us to figure out the root cause of our shortcomings and develop countermeasures," Hanover added.

Angel Thunder received Joint Accreditation Recertification in (2012?) from the Joint Warfighting Center Joint National Training Capability Program. This signifies that it is recognized among joint exercises as an extremely efficient use of military resources and sets the standard for personnel recovery training.

"Angel Thunder has become a strategic resource for the U.S. and the international community as a whole," said Hartnett. "It is the only program exercised by the whole-of-government across the full spectrum of personnel recovery/rescue operations, operating in both a title 10 Combatant Command climate and also in a title 22 Chief of Mission environment exercising embassy operations. This deliberate planning is based on the strategy documents indicating that future Personnel Recovery success requires an integrated Department of Defense/interagency team and vital cooperation with allied nations for joint rescue operations."

Angel Thunder is by far the best insight into personnel recovery and CSAR available to facilitate discussions on doctrine, methodology, and best practices. The main purpose is to bring together joint, interagency, and coalition partners to break down barriers and create an environment of mutual support and mission focus to save lives and avoid costly blood equity mistakes through training which is one of the highest priorities of the DoD.

"Angel Thunder is our community check ride. Through Angel Thunder collections and assessments, we are able to see the health of the PR service core function. No other exercise does that," said Hanover. "At 1.75 million Air Force dollars and $3.5 million overall, the value derived from this investment was exceptional."

In all, 3,017 joint, total force, coalition and interagency partners were trained and 109 aircraft participated in Angel Thunder 13. Exercise participants logged more than 1,749 flight hours in 30 exercise scenarios in which approximately 295 people were saved.

Despite the massive size of the exercise, the planners ensured that the budget was as efficient as possible, staying within $1.75 million.