Canada’s Military of Tomorrow


Personnel Recovery experts congregate in Kandahar, Afghanistan at Headquarters International Security Assistance Force, April 2009.

Simple Changes, Strategic Gain: The Case for Personnel Recovery in Canada

by James Pierotti

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Major James Pierotti, CD, MA, is an Air Combat Systems Officer currently posted to the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre. He has five tours within the SAR community, either flying the CC-130 Hercules in the SAR role or within a Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). He has operational experience as the Chief of Combat Rescue in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2008 to April 2009, with the International Security Assistance Force. He commanded JRCC Victoria from July 2009 to July 2012. His earlier experience was in tactical airlift, on the CC-130 Hercules, and Electronic Warfare Officer experience on the CT-133 Silver Star.

DND photo GD2016-0075-46 by Master Corporal Johanie Maheu

A CH-149 Cormorant helicopter during a joint Search and Rescue exercise in Iceland, 12 February 2016


When an aircraft crashes on Canadian soil, or a vessel sinks in Canada’s ocean areas or the Great Lakes, there are Canadian military personnel who will get in their aircraft or helicopter and provide assistance despite some of the worst weather conditions imaginable. The actions of these personnel are called Search and Rescue (SAR), which is a well-known function of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) that rescues Canadians on a daily basis. SAR, however, is but one aspect of a larger capability called Personnel Recovery that uses aircraft and helicopters, not just in a domestic environment, but also in a deployed and foreign combat environment.

Apart from the ongoing domestic SAR capability provided by most Western nations, organizations have been set up in large coalition military campaigns to deliver this rescue service to friendly troops in combat operations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States established recent examples of this capability in Afghanistan after 2001, which saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers.1 Rescue activity in Afghanistan was important to Canada due to the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) twelve-year involvement, starting in 2001, with an initial personnel commitment and “…as many as 40,000 more rotating through different campaigns, including the five-year combat mission in Kandahar.”2

As large as the Canadian contribution was to Afghanistan, the rescue expertise contribution from Canada included just one air force officer position, and no other part of the robust domestic SAR capability provided by the RCAF.3 If Canadian personnel went missing in Afghanistan during the campaign, Canada could have reacted to time-sensitive rescue missions with Special Operations Forces (SOF), if such forces were present and available in the country at the time, but not with any other element of the CAF. Therefore, why is Canada unable to offer dedicated military rescue resources in foreign and hostile situations when there is a fully effective domestic SAR capability provided by military forces?

The aim of this article is to expose the very limited Personnel Recovery (PR) policy in Canada by comparing it to the policies and capabilities of our allies. First, PR will be better defined. Second, a history of PR focusing on the United States will be provided to show that a PR motto of “leave no one behind” is embedded in the American concept of foreign combat operations, and that they expect their allies to assist in their “no-fail mission” of personnel rescue.4 Third, recent PR developments in both NATO and the European Defence Agency will be reviewed in order to demonstrate the growing international understanding of the requirement to support the US PR system. Finally, the history and state of Canadian PR will be outlined, and small changes will be identified that could provide the CAF a smooth integration into the PR organization of any future coalition. It will be argued that Canada requires additional PR policy and training in all branches of the CAF to better integrate with coalition partners for future combat operations.

Adapted from UK Joint Warfare Publication 3-66, Joint Personnel Recovery, and Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 3.6, Joint Personnel Recovery, 2007.

The Personnel Recovery Spectrum

Click to enlarge image

A Description of Personnel Recovery

PR describes the spectrum of rescue, from SAR services in a domestic environment, to combat SAR in a foreign environment, to hostage recovery in any hostile environment.5 A deployed PR organization receives a military version of a missing person report from internal military units, coordinates an investigation, and then sends search and rescue resources to respond, based upon the nation’s or coalition’s detailed methods for conducting rescue warfare.6 The reports can result from aircraft shot down, personnel taken hostage, or any situation where Coalition forces cannot account for all personnel. When all Coalition personnel in a campaign are aware of how this system works, and then report their missing in a timely fashion, a modern PR organization prevents an avoidable loss of life within an area of operations.7

In simple terms, a domestic PR system relies upon any report from the public to initiate a SAR investigation and subsequent response, if needed, from dedicated national resources assigned to the SAR mandate. This type of response takes place with low/no risk from hostile forces, and is well established with policy, personnel, and equipment.8 A NATO or US forces deployed PR system is formed in a hostile environment, and it requires knowledgeable personnel in the field who know when to report a missing person situation, coordinators within headquarters who can investigate and react to reports, and specific resources from national armed forces, such as combat SAR aircraft or SOF units, that can respond to rescue missions. This type of rescue takes place with considerable risk from hostile forces, so the personnel in need of rescue must be trained in how to communicate and respond to rescue aircrew.9

Within a hostile area of operations, most PR missions are termed combat SAR, due to the need to protect the rescue effort with weapons. A typical combat SAR mission in a theatre of operations is initiated for a person surviving an aircraft crash. If the crash is close to friendly military units, those units can be ordered to assist the downed aircrew. If the crash is far from friendly military units, a mission will often use a fixed wing aircraft to conduct the search, and then potentially drop rescue personnel by parachute to secure the area around the aircrew. Then, a helicopter will pick up the aircrew and the rescue personnel and bring them all to safety. As this part of the mission can be quite dangerous if enemy forces are nearby, other aircraft will always be tasked to provide armed and airborne support around the rescue.10 The popular war movies Bat 21 (1988) and Black Hawk Down (2001) provide an illustration of the basic elements and risks that are involved in the American military’s ‘leave no one behind’ philosophy.

More specifically, PR is “the sum of military, diplomatic, and civil efforts to recover and reintegrate isolated personnel and/or recover persons in distress.”11 An “Isolated person” is simply the military’s way to describe anyone who has become separated from their unit and needs to survive until help arrives.12 These concepts are written into NATO and American military policy along with detailed procedures to ensure that all personnel involved in combat operations are aware of rescue protocols. Rescues are initiated by PR Coordinators, trained personnel who work in Joint Personnel Recovery Centres (JPRC) in a combat theatre, and they react to indications of an isolated person with an appropriate allocation of resources.13 These Coordinators often come from a domestic SAR background, but they are given additional specialty training to operate within the military combat environment.14 Clear policies, specifically trained personnel, and dedicated rescue aircraft all form an effective rescue organization of any type, but these components are critically important in the dangerous world of combat rescue.

PR History

The beginnings of combat rescue organizations are found in the Great War. Both British and German forces had lifeboat services for recovering sailors from enemy action or maritime accidents, and the British went so far as to use Boy Scouts for observation of the coast to enhance reporting of incidents that needed rescue resources.15 The British system saved thousands of sailors and 22 aviators downed in the ocean, and these actions foreshadowed a future increased need to recover personnel from all branches of a military.16 Although the British version was effective and the capability considered important at the time, “…the war ended with nary a mention of the need” for combat rescue.17

© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images. Image ID 615312750

A Supermarine Walrus air/sea rescue aircraft used to recover downed airmen during the Second World War

This “need” became immediately apparent at the beginning of the Second World War. British and German aircrews were shot down in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain, and neither side had the time to train replacement pilots quickly enough. Aviators were desperately needed back in the cockpit to support the air war effort, and forward-thinking Germans had an effective PR organization in place prior to the battle with seaplanes, lifeboats, and even large, buoy-type floats anchored in the Channel with appropriate survival equipment stowed onboard.18 The British followed suit quickly, minus the buoy-type floats, so they could recover experienced pilots and maintain their desperate air defence.19 The Americans realized the benefits of this effort, and they built a similar system of aircraft-based rescue squadrons throughout the South Pacific, starting in 1943.20 The final statistics of the war would later indicate that combat rescue worldwide had saved 13,269 lives, which confirmed the positive impressions that combat rescue had made on leadership and the public throughout the war.21

The Second World War dramatically changed national perceptions of rescue requirements from ad hoc affairs to a formal international mandate to improve aviation and maritime transportation safety.22 There was no question in the post-war world that rescue systems were needed, and international rescue was subsequently regulated for civil aviation in 1946, and for maritime requirements in 1948.23 Domestic rescue efforts took primacy in post-war developments as it had been hoped that large-scale warfare was over. The military component of rescue systems was radically downsized as a result, and thus began the cyclical ‘boom and bust’ of combat rescue developments.24

Despite the perceived reduction in military rescue needs, the Korean War fully demonstrated PR’s continued importance. At the beginning of the war in 1950, the US had two rescue squadrons in Korea to support ground combat operations, but they were “…a hodgepodge collection of obsolete aircraft and airframes ill-suited for the sudden task at hand,” and insufficient to the number of rescue missions required.25 The US rebuilt a highly capable rescue organization during this war, and introduced the helicopter into the rescue units as the perfect tool to quickly recover people on the ground from behind enemy lines. The system developed by the US allowed simultaneous medical evacuation of injured ground combat troops, and “…approximately 90 per cent of all flying personnel downed behind enemy lines [were] picked up by U.S. Air Force [USAF] helicopters.”26 Subsequently, combat rescue was written into American policy.

Unfortunately, a combat rescue system was difficult to justify in times of peace, and, shortly after the Korean War, the organization once again languished until the Vietnam War. At the start of hostilities in Vietnam, the US again found itself with obsolete equipment for an essential rescue service. Again, a combat rescue capability was quickly rebuilt, and this time it evolved into the best PR system so far seen in combat, at a time now described as the “golden age” of rescue.27 Although it is difficult to say for certain how many lives were saved in Vietnam by the American combat rescue organization, one low estimate states 1,450 personnel.28 At the end of the Vietnam War, the Americans were convinced that they needed a PR capability at the beginning of any future operation so they did not have to focus on rebuilding a capability during a war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the literature on combat rescue, then and now, has been dominated by the American experience outlining the requirement to protect expensive aircrew.29

US Defense imagery, photo DF-ST-92-03743/Russ Pollanen USAF

A USAF Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter of the type used extensively in Vietnam

The coalition effort in Desert Storm, the 1991 war in Iraq, was the first major use of American rescue assets, although aged, to provide a robust combat rescue capability from the beginning of a combat operation. In an interesting twist, the war was so well planned and executed that only “…eighteen men and one woman became prisoners of war as a result of aircraft shoot-downs.30 Seven combat search and rescue missions were launched [for persons other than aircrew], resulting in three saves.”31 The JPRC logs reveal that only three personnel were saved in the Gulf War conflict, compared to “the rescue of 3,883 personnel from all varieties of ‘at risk’ situations during [Vietnam].”32 Although the duration of those two wars differed greatly, the usage of the rescue resources in the Iraq War occurred on a weekly rather than a daily basis. Thus, the 1991 war revealed a dilemma; maintaining a combat rescue service is expensive and it may not see much use, even in times of war. This war did not reinforce the importance of PR.

Two years after Desert Storm, the US was involved in a dangerous mission in Somalia. The Americans had one helicopter to support a US Army Ranger raid on 3 October 1993, which appeared sufficient, based upon the Gulf War experience, but the raid turned into the horrific “Battle for Mogadishu.”33 The one available helicopter, using resources internal to the organization and not the USAF specific PR capability, turned out to be wholly insufficient. It was unable to extract personnel from two helicopters shot down in quick succession by rocket propelled grenades, and 18 American servicemen were killed in action during the efforts to extract all the dead and injured.34

US DoD 150729-A-VO006-622

A USAF UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter

There was an immediate and significant impact on US foreign policy as a result of the loss of American life in this event.35 American military PR policy was changed as well due to the demonstrated importance of combat rescue to all US servicepersons. Combat rescue was no longer a service primarily for downed aviators; it became a necessary service for all military men and women in conflict areas. Therefore, the Somalia experience led the Americans to ensure that future military campaigns had a robust PR capability ready for any scenario. PR policy had long been in place, but the events of the early-1990s convinced the Americans that a robust combat rescue capability was fundamental to future success in any military campaign.

As a result, American-led operations in Afghanistan in 2001, and then in Iraq in 2003, were equipped with modern and effective PR helicopters ready for rescue missions at the onset of operations, contrary to the aged helicopters in use at the beginning of the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. The systems in place proved immediately successful, and this precipitated a large demand for helicopter rescue resources for all American military operations that lasted years.36

The USAF conducted its first “combat save” since the Vietnam era in Afghanistan on 17 January 2002. Following that rescue, there were nine combat saves in the first three years of Operation Iraqi Freedom.37 Therefore, in the first decade of the new millennium, the Americans had arrived at a PR system that was kept updated between conflicts and ready for combat rescues in any new conflict, regardless of how much or little that system was used during a campaign.

A decade of heavy operational use of combat rescue assets reduced USAF helicopter availability to support a 2011 campaign in Libya, but the reduction was overcome by assistance from other branches of the American military in a type of operational synergy called “joint.” In the Libya operation, the aircrews of a crashed F-15 Eagle were saved by a PR mission, but it was an ad hoc rescue by US Marine resources from a nearby task group, rather than the normal USAF combat rescue organization. American researchers were later concerned that the two aviators had been exposed to capture, due to the lack of USAF PR resources. The argument was that this crash “…could have significantly altered Americans’ support of the Libyan operations, as happened almost 18 years earlier in Somalia.”38 The researchers made a case for increased numbers of combat rescue aircrew and aircraft to ensure an effective PR capability for all future military campaigns.

The risk identified by the researchers may have been a touch overblown. In the Libya campaign, there were dedicated coordination personnel in the headquarters to investigate, and resources were identified daily and made available to respond to missions. In an era when the resource requirements exceeded the resources available, the PR system had adjusted to the “joint” use of resources from any service. As will be discussed in the NATO system, this concept can, and does, easily extend beyond one nation to use resources from multiple nations in one system, which is called “combined.” Therefore, PR was no longer just an air force responsibility, but it had become a joint or combined effort for times when insufficient USAF PR-specific resources were available. The inescapable fact was that PR was deemed essential by the American military, and expectations from allies were rapidly rising to assist with strained American rescue assets.

As a direct result of all the operational combat rescue activity, the US expanded PR policy to include both tactical manuals in the individual military services and policy approved by the US House of Representatives. Therefore, PR policy has since become entrenched in US foreign policy and military strategy. As an example, the US government in 2005 was concerned with respect to the safety of the civilian contractors on the battlefield, so it introduced a bill to include them in the planning for theatre-level combat rescue support.39 The United States Air Force then added civilian contractors to the definition of the term “isolated person,” again in 2005, and formalized the shift away from the combat rescue of just military personnel.40 The Army introduced a complete manual on PR in 2014, which provided its leaders with operational and planning tools to ask for, receive, and support PR operations.41 This manual also provided the necessary training for all soldiers to understand and interact correctly with rescue aircrew in a combat environment. Also in 2014, the US government proved its continued commitment to the combat rescue mission by approving a $7.9 billion contract for 112 new PR helicopters starting in 2019, ensuring the equipment needed for this capability does not languish between conflicts over the next twenty years or more.42 The Americans take combat rescue very seriously.

PR in NATO and the European Union

The Europeans took notice of the American PR commitment. By 2003, it was clear that the new policy of PR had replaced that of narrowly-defined combat rescue in American operations, so NATO took steps to incorporate the American PR concept into the alliance documentation, culminating in AJP-3.3.9 (SD-2) NATO Personnel Recovery, issued in 2005.43 The NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan confirmed the need and importance of PR, which further reinforced the integration of PR policy by 2007.44 NATO PR policy has been further refined into robust tactics, techniques and procedures as a result of the American lead and insistence that allies share the operational rescue workload.

Although NATO was duplicating American policy into its own, amalgamation of the two separate organizations was not immediate. In 2008, the NATO PR system for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the American PR system in Afghanistan were separate, and the only contact between the staff of both organizations was conducted over the telephone. Operationally, this complicated the coordination of rescues, because all information received on the NATO computer network in Kabul had to be re-typed into another network to get the necessary information to the American specialists in Bagram who needed it, and vice versa, which wasted precious time when personnel went missing.45 In that same year, the Americans had helicopter rescue assets in Bagram, while ISAF had access to British assets in Bastion and Spanish assets in Herat. This meant that rescue helicopters were in three separate locations spread out somewhat evenly across the country for easy access to personnel operating in all corners of the country, but there was no easy coordination between organizations to ensure timely rescue success. With the announcement of a major American surge of combat personnel in 2009, common sense prevailed, and the two PR systems were merged in ISAF HQ.46 This amalgamation was repeated for the Libya campaign, and it appears likely for future campaigns. It was not just NATO that had incorporated PR into policy and operations. The United Nations (UN) deployed one combat SAR helicopter and a PR commando group into the Congo region for the UN mission that started there in 2003.47 The threat to UN cargo aircraft included hand-held surface-to-air missiles, which put UN-tasked aircrew at risk of being shot down, making it necessary for the UN to respond with a PR capability to assure nations that it could react to any rescue situation.48 Other groups and nations followed the UN example.

The European Air Group, a consortium of seven European air forces working together to improve capability through interoperability, decided in 2013 to create a European PR Centre to demonstrate its understanding of PR’s importance.49 This JPRC became operational in Poggio Renatico, Italy, in July 2015, and is intended as both an operational centre for European countries and a PR point of contact for NATO.50 Great Britain, an important ally of both Canada and the US, has had a joint PR policy in place since 2003, ensuring that all its military forces are aware of the operational planning and procedures needed to affect combat rescue missions.51

The European Air Group and NATO now offer courses for coordination personnel within the JPRCs and for specialty survival training. As well, they have incorporated lessons learned analysis to enhance future capability and improve interoperability.52 All major Canadian partners in times of conflict, therefore, have advanced PR capabilities.

PR in Canada

Unlike NATO, the Americans, the British, and the Europeans, Canada does not currently have a joint PR policy.53 Canadian exposure to non-domestic PR has only occurred since 2006, in Afghanistan, and the lessons learned from that theatre of operations are many, so it is understandable that it is taking some time to develop new policies. However, since the initial exposure, CAF has been involved in operations in Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq, all of which have had PR systems within the coalitions. National Defence Headquarters is clearly aware that such policy is needed, as the guiding document for military policy, 2011’s Canadian Military Doctrine, identifies a supporting document called Canadian Forces Joint Publication 3.7 Joint Personnel Recovery.54 As of May 2016, however, the latter document remained in draft form.55 Without an overall policy for the military, it is left to the navy, army and air force to incorporate PR policy into each branch. It is taking a very long time to incorporate PR knowledge and training into the CAF.

The Royal Canadian Air Force is the furthest ahead among the three branches of the CAF, with PR policy described in an operational doctrine document published in 2011.56 The new PR policy has not yet been fully incorporated into the operational manuals, but some of the detailed procedures for rescues from a combat environment are already part of aircrew training.57 While the training is for aircrew only, and not for all personnel of the RCAF, training aircrew in PR means that the personnel of the RCAF most at risk of becoming isolated in a hostile deployed environment have enough knowledge to operate in a coalition PR environment.

It is more difficult to comment upon the current status of PR policy in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), because it relies heavily upon NATO manuals.58 As the NATO manuals contain material on PR, it is probable that the Navy is aware of PR policy, even if it is not fully integrated into its training. It is much easier to comment upon the Canadian Army PR policy, or rather lack thereof, as it has an easily searchable library within the military computer network, and there was no mention of PR anywhere.59 Clearly, the preponderance of PR concepts among all Canada’s traditional allies strongly suggests that more attention is needed to develop joint PR policy in Canada. The risk that the CAF takes without such joint policy is that soldiers, in particular, will not have the training or knowledge of how allied forces can rescue them if they become isolated in a future crisis.

To understand why combat rescue policy in Canada is slow to develop, it helps to know that the RCAF has not had aircrew shot down in a hostile area, and in need of rescue, since the Second World War. Indeed, the closest capability to a PR system that Canada developed during that conflict was an air-sea rescue service, similar to the one developed in Britain for aviators shot down in the Channel, but the Canadian version was far from most combat activity, and it was developed more for domestic rescues, due to the lack of any other Canadian domestic rescue service.60 After the war, Canada committed entirely to the domestic rescue capability as part of international expectations for a civil aviation and maritime rescue service. The RCAF was given the mandate for SAR throughout Canada in 1947, originally for aviation emergencies, but in 1950, the rescue responsibility was increased to include maritime SAR.61 Today, it is a highly regarded system in the low/no risk end of the PR spectrum.

At the medium and high-risk end of the PR spectrum, not even the Canadian SOF experience included rescue during the Second World War.62 Since that war, “…in the field of hostage rescue, Canadian efforts were ad hoc and situation-specific.”63 In the most famous example, a UN mission in the Congo in 1964 took a dramatic turn when insurgents took missionaries and aid workers hostage, so the senior Canadian commander, Brigadier-General Jacques Dextraze, formed a composite Canadian-Nigerian-Swedish airmobile rescue force which saved at least 100 people.64 This is the only large-scale combat rescue event in Canadian history between the Second World War and the Afghanistan campaigns, although Canadian military experience in domestic SAR continued over the decades following the Second World War. The rest of the PR spectrum of rescue, where hostile activity may be encountered, remained an activity for other militaries. Therefore, there has been little need for any Canadian combat rescue policy until recently.

DND/CFJIC photo UNC63-172-1

Brigadier Jacques Dextraze (centre) arrives in the Congo in 1963.

Recent CAF appreciation of its role in combat rescue operations appears to be rooted in the 1990s. Canada had an incident in 1994 in which Canadian soldiers of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia were held hostage.65 This incident drew the full attention of the Canadian House of Commons and media, and demonstrated the extent to which Western nations can become concerned when their citizens are held captive.66 An ad hoc rescue force using specially-trained Canadian soldiers was created for this incident, but it was not used.67 This was the beginning of Canadian consideration of the use of SOF during international cases in which Canadians are held hostage.68

Today, military force may be needed to conduct the hostage rescue mission because the Canadian government’s “…approach to kidnapping respects firm principles: no policy changes, no exchanges, no immunity from prosecution and no ransom payments.”69 Hostage situations outside Canada, therefore, leave few options for the government other than to employ force. When force is used, the lead agency is not DND, but Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and surprisingly, foreign hostage situations do occur fairly regularly.70 Since 2004, 13 Canadians have been taken hostage, and a joint SOF mission recovered one hostage from Iraq.71 The SOF have international hostage rescue as part of their mission statement, and, when a crisis develops, SOF work directly with GAC. Combined with the low number of rescue missions since the Second World War, the direct relationship between Canadian SOF and GAC has obscured the need for formal joint PR policy in the CAF.72

The RCAF’s PR documentation of 2011 acknowledges the Canadian combat rescue limitations, and states “…few countries possess the capability to conduct the full spectrum of combat rescue operations.” Arguably, this statement suggests that the creators of the policy did not envision a need for further discussion of the middle ground of PR between domestic SAR and hostage recovery.73 One can perhaps understand this pragmatic point of view in light of the difficulties Canada has had over the last few years in maintaining even the well-established domestic SAR capability. The Spring 2013 Report of the Auditor General highlighted that the Department of National Defence had not implemented recommendations to increase the number of SAR crews per squadron, nor had it been able to maintain SAR aircraft at a level sufficient to ensure a continuous rescue response at each of the current SAR locations.74 It further states that Canada requires new fixed wing SAR aircraft and additional SAR helicopters to continue to provide the level of service currently expected by the government and the public.75 One might conclude that if the RCAF struggles with its assigned domestic SAR mandate, it could then become difficult to summon the effort to write policy and detailed procedures to cover the whole spectrum of PR if there is a concern that the effort could require more rescue resources.

DND photo TN11-2016-0804-081 by Corporal Ryan Moulton

A CC-130J Hercules lands at CFB Alert, 4 October 2016.

This article is not the first attempt by a Canadian military academic to argue for increased PR policy, nor is it likely to be the last. However, the argument is occasionally expanded beyond policy and training to include the use of RCAF assets to conduct the full range of PR missions in coalition operations.76 The argument is typically made in the following manner. The C130J Hercules in the RCAF inventory is a state-of-the-art aircraft and can be converted to a combat SAR support aircraft. The RCAF’s Chinooks were delivered in 2013-2014, and are highly capable helicopters that can carry rescue specialists to conduct the combat rescue mission. The Griffon helicopters, already in use at RCAF SAR squadrons, can be armed to protect the Chinooks during these rescues. Canada could use these aircraft to respond to PR missions in a manner similar to the Americans, which would provide a meaningful contribution to operations that could then lessen the demands put on Canada for contributions in other operational roles, such as air superiority fighters or ground combat units. While this Canadian PR solution is not quite as capable as the American purpose-built PR system of helicopters and specialists, it could offer a robust combat rescue capability that could be very supportable by the Canadian public.

The argument comes across as a logical way to employ resources already in the RCAF inventory. However, an important counter-argument is that money, personnel, and equipment are currently insufficient to provide both domestic SAR and deployable combat SAR assets covering the full spectrum of PR. RCAF aircraft have other important roles and responsibilities associated with the defence of Canada, and support to foreign missions that are equally important to PR missions, so the capacity to do everything with the existing numbers of aircraft and aircrew is simply not present.77 Expanding the tasks of existing SAR units is not impossible, as the following example shows, but it is not practical for extended operations.

DND photo FA2013-3001-13 by Sergeant Paz Quillé

A CH-147F Chinook

In 2011, the Canadian government was asked by the Jamaican government to support domestic SAR in Jamaica for three months as they reconstituted their Bell 412 (Griffon) helicopter fleet.78 The RCAF was critically low on SAR-qualified aircrew for the Griffon helicopter, the resource requested by the Jamaican government, but they saw this as an opportunity to train additional aircrew from basic flying skills to SAR flying skills.79 The RCAF had recently brought the Griffons back from a long-term deployment in Afghanistan, and it was in the process of bringing the number of SAR qualified aircrews back to the level that had existed before the deployment. There was no formal SAR training program for aircrew in the Griffon fleet in Canada, so this opportunity allowed for concentrated ad hoc training in Jamaica. The RCAF concluded that the deployment met the aircrew training requirements for the RCAF, while it also conducted operational missions for the Jamaicans.80 The whole RCAF SAR community surged for three months to provide the domestic SAR capability in Canada, as well as the deployed operation, but at the same time, this deployment led to more operational rescue crews, and eventually reduced the burden on Griffon SAR crews in Canada. This example suggests that the RCAF has the ability to take on commitments beyond the normal domestic SAR mandate, but only for very short time periods and only when specific training goals can be concurrently achieved. One can conclude that the use of the SAR community for deployed SAR operations comes with considerable risk to the continued effectiveness of the SAR capability within Canada.

DND photo IS2011-4064-12 by Master Corporal Shilo Adamson

A Canadian SAR CH-146 Griffon manoeuvres through the hills during training near Kingston, Jamaica, 8 October 2011.

From this foregoing example we can see that the potential exists for the SAR community, even when under pressure to maintain basic domestic SAR capability, to take on additional challenges in a deployed environment. The focus, however, must be on the personnel and on the skills they hold, rather than increasing expectations of the RCAF’s limited aircraft beyond domestic SAR. It is easier to ‘do more with less’ when it comes to people rather than airplanes, so if personnel already assigned to domestic SAR simply increase their skill sets into knowledge and experience with deployed PR, then the CAF will maintain a core PR skill set between conflicts that will allow easier integration into any new campaign, combat or domestic.

Maintaining these skills is important because if any future foreign request for SAR services includes any element of the Canadian Army for the specific operational mission, it then becomes a mission outside of domestic SAR expectation and quite firmly into PR policy, where threat levels and coordination with external agencies or military forces need to be considered. For those kinds of missions, joint PR policy and trained PR personnel become essential to that mission’s success.

The requirement for PR policy may now be clearer, but one major factor has yet to be discussed. The counter-argument for PR policy in Canada has been suggested as follows: if the RCAF capabilities are focused upon domestic SAR, if the CAF is no longer involved in major combat operations, and if SOF conducts the high-risk hostage rescue missions, then what real need is there for more formal policy? The answer to that question is coordination. It has been established that the most likely combat rescue mission that may require CAF resources is hostage recovery, or the recovery of aircrew, and that a SOF response would work for Global Affairs Canada, not the military, indicating two separate and possibly unconnected chains of command. This is potentially disastrous, to which experienced personnel from Afghanistan can attest. If a hostage recovery takes place in the same theatre as conventional forces, there must be coordination between SOF and the main coalition in order to avoid two separate operations taking place in the same battle space.81 The existence of a formal, understood, and practiced CAF PR policy would go far to avoid such eventualities.

Coordination also needs to take place between Canadian formations that need to know how and when rescue forces would be employed, and the rescue force needs to know that the isolated persons they will recover have been properly trained. RCAF personnel knowledgeable in PR learned this lesson well in Afghanistan, and this coordination can be as simple as having one trained Canadian PR specialist in any given theatre.82 A cadre of trained personnel can provide this coordination in future conflicts, and training this cadre should not be particularly costly, as Canadian SAR personnel are grounded in military competencies.83

In a coalition environment, coordination with the other nations is equally important, and further underscores the need for trained coordination personnel within large Canadian contingents heading into any coalition-led combat operation. This very coordination is recognized and practiced at the tactical level in the ongoing commitment to Op Impact against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. A recent news article highlighted a combat SAR training exercise in Kuwait involving Canadian aircrew and the US Army’s 34th Combat Aviation Brigade. In this combat rescue exercise, Canadians were able to practice their PR skills in the event that the Americans would need to rescue them in enemy-controlled territory in Iraq.84 At present, RCAF crews are aware of the policies and skills they need for their own rescue by other militaries when in hostile territory, but those skills need to be expanded beyond the RCAF to the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Navy. All Canadian military personnel need to be aware of PR policy before they arrive in any theatre of operations.


Afghanistan emerges from any discussion on PR as a major turning point. While the US envisaged the need for combat rescue in every conflict since the Second World War, nations that worked with the US in Afghanistan have either seen the value of PR, or feel compelled to support the American example. Duplication of PR organizations in theatre was observed as redundant and wasteful, a situation that was rectified in 2009, and the integration between systems in both Afghanistan and subsequently Libya offers a solid way forward for future rescue integration. The recent PR focus upon training, and the creation of JPRCs in both NATO and in Europe highlight this understanding.

Canada, however, is lacking the PR policy of its allies. Future participation in coalitions would benefit from joint PR policy, both conceptual and practical, at all levels of Canadian military formations. Fortunately, there are indications that the creation of joint policy in Canada has begun, manifested in a draft manual on “Joint Personnel Recovery.”85 In order to hasten PR development, the RCAF should consider the upgrade of some SAR coordination personnel to PR professionals in order to provide an initial deployment capability of personnel that can assist in any new coalition PR organization. The Army should consider policy examples from both Britain and the US that it can leverage to ease the burden of adding new documentation to close the knowledge and training gap. The Navy should investigate the need to visibly incorporate NATO PR regulations into existing practices. Equally important, policy should incorporate a communications process with SOF personnel working outside the Department of National Defence on hostage situations. These small changes can and should provide a viable basis towards a significant improvement in Canadian PR.RCAF realities provide limits to effective policy. As a prime example, the use of Canadian aircraft for combat rescue missions is counter-productive. The type of aircraft currently in inventory may be suitable, but the numbers of aircraft and the importance of other missions that must be supported do not make combat rescue missions by Canada a viable option at present. Instead, effort should be directed towards training and policy development aimed at coalition interoperability. Policy already exists through the recent PR efforts of NATO, the EU, and the US. Allied policies and experiences should be leveraged, as the militaries of those nations and Canada can expect to work together in future coalitions under a joint PR umbrella. As important as support to allies can be to Canadian interests, development of PR policy has an even deeper rationale. The fundamental reason for improving PR in Canada is to increase the chances of affecting a successful rescue of any Canadian in a hostile environment. The benefits are well worth the relatively small cost this effort will require.


  1. This author was part of the NATO PR system in Afghanistan from September 2008 to April 2009, and is aware of the others who held the position over the years described. The statistics available for PR missions are very difficult to quantify as NATO did not keep mission records, but this source provides the US figures for both Iraq and Afghanistan: United States Congressional Serial Set, Serial no. 14956, House Documents, House of Representatives, Proceedings of Wednesday, September 1, 2004, p. 63.
  2. Canadian Press, “Canadian Military Involvement in Afghanistan Formally Ends,” CBC News, 12 March 2014, (accessed 17 April 2015)
  3. This author has worked with the RCAF SAR professionals who worked in Afghanistan after the author’s deployment in that position in 2008.
  4. Lee Pera, Paul D. Miller, and Darrell Whitcomb, “Personnel Recovery: Strategic Importance and Impact,” in Air & Space Power Journal (November-December 2012), pp. 83-112.
  5. Royal Canadian Air Force, Canadian Forces Aerospace Move Doctrine, (Astra: Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, 2011), p. 40.
  6. The actual reporting mechanism within NATO is a form called the PR 11-line report, but it acts in the same way as a missing person’s report only with immediate action as military authorities assume the information is accurate. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, BI-SC Joint Personnel Recovery Joint Operational Guidelines, 22 February 2011. (accessed 5 May 2015)
  7. “The term campaign applies to large-scale, long duration, significant military strategy plan incorporating a series of inter-related military operations or battles forming a distinct part of a larger conflict often called a war,” taken from Wikipedia, (accessed 1 July 2015)
  8. Royal Canadian Air Force, Aerospace Move Doctrine, pp. 40-41.
  9. Ibid.
  10. United States Air Force, “Personnel Recovery Operations,” Air Force Doctrine Document 3-50, 1 June 2005, (accessed 25 March 2015), p. 13.
  11. Royal Canadian Air Force, Aerospace Move Doctrine, p. 37.
  12. Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Personnel Recovery: That Others May Live to Return with Honour, a Primer, January 2011, (accessed 25 March 2015), p. 1.
  13. Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Personnel Recovery… Primer, p. 32. Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) is a term used in American doctrine to provide the same functionality, but the NATO term is used here to avoid confusion with Canadian JRCCs that provide only domestic SAR functionality.
  14. Both NATO and the USAF offered PR courses to Canadian officers in the 2006-2010 timeframe to provide SAR specialists with the knowledge to effectively coordinate rescue missions in a combat environment.
  15. Clayton Evans, Rescue at Sea: An International History of Lifesaving, Coastal Rescue Craft and Organisations (London: Conway Maritime Press, 2003), p. 70.
  16. Ibid.
  17. George Galdorisi and Tom Phillips, Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008), p. 18.
  18. L.B. Taylor Jr., That Others May Live: The Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1967), p. 62.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Galdorisi and Phillips, Leave No Man Behind…, p. 50.
  21. Peter Whittle and Michael Borrisow, Angels without Wings: The Dramatic inside Stories of the RAF’s Search and Rescue Squadrons (Great Britain: The Angley Book Co. Ltd., 1996), p. 36.
  22. The Para Rescue Association of Canada, That Others May Live: 50 Years of Para Rescue in Canada (Astra: The Para Rescue Association of Canada, 1994).
  23. James Pierotti, “Reluctant to Rescue: The RCAF and the Search and Rescue Mandate, 1942-1954,” in Canadian Nautical Research Society, Argonauta Vol XXXII, No. 4 (Autumn 2015).
  24. Galdorisi and Phillips, Leave No Man Behind…, p. 110.
  25. Ibid, p. 113.
  26. Taylor, p. 114.
  27. Darrell D. Whitcomb, Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2006), p. xvi.
  28. Galdorisi and Phillips, p. 447.
  29. This author has written an unpublished article, “ Personnel Recovery Past and Present: A Historiography,” that clearly demonstrates the lack of written works on the PR system of any other country after the Second World War.
  30. The rescue missions saved USAF, US Army, Saudi Arabian, and British personnel. Whitcomb, p. 258.
  31. Ibid, p. xvi.
  32. Ibid, pp. 8, 258.
  33. Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p.337.
  34. Walter A. Dorn, Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace (United Kingdom: Henry King Limited, 2014), p. 224.
  35. Colonel Jason L. Hanover, “Air Force Rescue: A Multirole Force for a Complex World,” in Air & Space Power Journal, (Fall 2011).
  36. Ibid, p. 19.
  37. Galdorisi and Philips, p. 517.
  38. Pera, Miller, and Whitcomb, p. 104.
  39. Jeffery F. Addicott, “Contractors on the “Battlefield:” Providing Adequate Protection, Anti-terrorism Training, and Personnel Recovery for Civilian Contractors Accompanying the Military in Combat and Contingency Operations.” in Houston Journal of International Law, June 2006, p. 323.
  40. United States Air Force, “Personnel Recovery Operations,” p. 1.
  41. United States, Headquarters, Department of the Army, “FM 3-50 Army Personnel Recovery,” September 2014, (accessed 25 March 2015); and can be found at
  42. Daryl Mayer, “New Combat Rescue Helicopter HH-60W to Perform Personnel Recovery Mission,” in Vertical Magazine, 29 November 2014,
    (accessed 25 March 2015)
  43. Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Personnel RecoveryPrimer, p. 13.
  44. Ibid, p. 18.
  45. This author was the Chief of Combat Rescue in ISAF HQ from September 2008 to April 2009, and was one of the architects of the Combined Personnel Recovery Centre – Afghanistan.
  46. The American surge of troops in Afghanistan in 2009 was accompanied by a large increase in Combat SAR capability within the country, but the details remain classified, so a clear source for the magnitude of the deployment was not located.
  47. Dorn, p. 245.
  48. Ibid.
  49. European Air Group, The European Personnel Recovery Centre, (accessed 25 March 2015); can also be found at
  50. Andrew Drwiega, “Personnel Recovery: The Risk of Cutting ‘Insurance’ Cover,” in Aviation Today, 5 January 2015, (accessed 25 March 2015)
  51. United Kingdom, Joint Doctrine & Concepts Centre, “Joint Personnel Recovery,” Joint Warfare Publication 3-66, April 2003,
    (accessed 25 March 2015)
  52. European Defence Agency, “Successful Personnel Recovery Course Held in Sweden,” News, 6 March 2015, (accessed 25 March 2015). NATO, Analysis & Simulation Centre for Air Operations, courses, updated 17 February 2015, (accessed 1 April 2015)
  53. There has been work completed on overall Canadian PR doctrine by Dr. Allan English, but it has not yet been published outside of the Canadian Defence Academy.
  54. Canada, Department of National Defence, B-GJ-005-000/FP-001, CFJP-01, Canadian Military Doctrine (Ottawa, ON: Joint Doctrine Branch, 2011-09), Article 0103.
  55. Information provided by the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre doctrine branch head, Maj Tony Pepin.
  56. Royal Canadian Air Force, Aerospace Move Doctrine, Chapter 3.
  57. This author was a SAR squadron’s standards officer until September 2014, required by the position to have a full understanding of all 1 Cdn Air Division orders, and the only information on PR as of September 2014 was SERE information.
  58. Canadian Forces Maritime Warfare Centre website on the Defence Information Network was searched for PR information and documents, but none were found.
  59. The following source is the Canadian Army capstone document, and neither it nor other documents listed in Army publications contained any easily identifiable PR content: Canadian Army, DAD SSO Doctrine, B-GL-300-001/FP-001 Land Operations, 1 January 2008.
  60. The Para Rescue Association of Canada, p. 13.
  61. Evans, p. 209.
  62. Canada supplied personnel to Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive during the early days of the Second World War and conducted SOF missions, but not missions that involved rescue of personnel. Bernd Horn and Tony Balasevicus, Casting Light on the Shadows: Canadian Perspectives on Special Operations Forces, (Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2007), p. 182.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Ibid, p. 191.
  65. Ibid, p. 193.
  66. Canada, House of Commons, HANSARD, Wednesday, 31 May, 1995, (accessed 1 April 2015)
  67. Horn and Balasevicus, p.193.
  68. Ibid, p. 191.
  69. Canada, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, “2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada,” Feature Focus 2014: Responding to Violent Extremism and Travel Abroad for Terrorism-related Purposes, (accessed 26 March 2015)
  70. Royal Canadian Air Force, Aerospace Move Doctrine, p51. Global Affairs Canada is called Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in this source, but the name changed in 2014.
  71. Scott Lilwall, “Canadians Taken Hostage Abroad in the Past Decade,” in The Globe and Mail, 23 August 2012, (accessed 26 March 2015)
  72. Horn and Balasevicus, p. 27.
  73. Royal Canadian Air Force, Aerospace Move Doctrine, p. 53.
  74. Michael Ferguson, “Report of the Auditor General of Canada – Spring 2013,” Office of the Auditor General, (accessed 25 March 2015).
  75. Ibid.
  76. Major Brian Newman, “Personnel Recovery for Low and Medium Threat Operations: A Required Capability for the Canadian Forces,” Canadian Forces College Papers, 2007.
  77. Ferguson, “Report of the Auditor General of Canada…”
  78. Lieutenant-Colonel Christian Lalande, Op Jaguar – Task Force Commander’s End of Tour Report August to November 2011, (Winnipeg: 1 CAD, A3 SAR, 23 November 2011).
  79. Ibid.
  80. The SAR Capabilities Advisory Group in the RCAF addresses this annually, but an operational training course has yet to be created.
  81. The potential for a friendly fire episode was evident at least once in Afghanistan.
  82. During Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan, SAR Officers conducted limited PR training and acquired experience in ISAF HQ. Since 2011, no production of PR trained coordinators has taken place, as explained by the 1 Cdn Air Div subject matter expert.
  83. The US, EAG, and NATO all offer courses between two-and-three weeks long.
  84. Air Task Force – Iraq Public Affairs. “Op Impact: Royal Canadian Air Force Members Take Part in Combat Search and Rescue Exercise,” in National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, 30 March 2015. (accessed 15 March 2015)
  85. This knowledge was obtained from personal correspondence with a subject matter expert.