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Joint exercise Distant Fury Stallion raises bar for combat rescue interoperability

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Amaani F. Lyle, 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

In an unprecedented undertaking four years in the making, Air Force Reserve Command’s 920th Rescue Wing completed Exercise Distant Fury Stallion 23 Nov. 27-Dec. 8, integrating combat search and rescue forces with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps-led Exercise Dawn Blitz Steel Knight.  

In coordination with 5th Marine Regiment-1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the U.S. Navy, the combined CSAR taking place across Arizona, California, and the Pacific Ocean, presented a uniquely suited joint opportunity in remote, austere conditions to validate and rehearse integration and connectivity at the tactical, operational, and leadership levels within an area simulating the Indo-Pacific region. 

“Our intent was to show our leadership and Navy and Marine partners the speed, agility, range, flexibility, and precise lethality our Air Force teammates bring to the fight,” said Lt. Col. John Lowe, Personnel Recovery Task Force-Heavy commander. 

Amid harsh climates at barren initial contingency locations, over 400 920th RQW support staff, maintenance, logistics, and medical Airmen comprised the PRTF in scenarios designed to foster a proactive approach to CSAR during ICL establishment, personnel recovery, littoral operations and intra-theater airlift.

The PRTF distributes forces in scalable light, medium, and heavy configurations that can maneuver and sustain organically throughout all operating environments to establish a self-sustained encampment based on mission requirements. 

The PRTF-Medium contains four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, two HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, and four Guardian Angel teams, while the PRTF-Heavy features eight HH-60Gs plus backup aircraft, five HC-130Jsplus backup aircraft, and eight GA teams. Each ICL maintained a PRTF-Medium. The PRTF-Mediums combined during the exercise to form a heavy to execute operations.

Though the agile combat employment of units and resources across thousands of miles is not unusual, the joint endeavor provided customized scenarios spurring enhanced methods that empowered leaders to at once make decisions at lower levels and disperse forces to better deny and evade the enemy.   

“What a great opportunity to work side-by-side with our Air Force brothers and sisters during Steel Knight,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael J. Borgschulte, Commanding General of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. “As the Air Force expands its expeditionary capabilities, there is natural synergy between our two services in the way we envision fighting in the Indo-Pacific. During the exercise, we stayed in the field together and shared some of the hardships we can expect to encounter if called to fight. Thanks to Steel Knight, we are better prepared to respond to crisis as a Joint Force.”

Challenging scenarios

The exercise scenarios were, by-design, crucibles that tested the mettle of its players and calibrated how dynamically they interacted and communicated. The 920th RQW’s HC-130J aircraft demonstrated the ability to task and force package with Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft to extend their range through tilt rotor air-to-air refueling and support critical patient care and movement. 

In one scenario, numerous Marines required evacuation from an incident site and their simulated injuries necessitated in-flight medical attention. With a suitable medical reception facility located a significant distance away, the MV-22 and HC-130J conducted air-to-air refueling before landing at a site where a tail-to-tail transfer of patients and medical professionals occurred.

Upon relaunch of aircraft, the HC-130J refueled MV-22s to return them to the fight, before the latter continued to the next medical facility thousands of miles away.

The Air Force also projected multiple formations of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to sites only vertically accessible, minimizing distance and response times within the area of operation.

Amphibious capabilities

The PRTF moved a Tactical Medical Augmentation Team into a maritime environment, creating a "floating casualty collection point" for rescue operations conducted at sea.

In this environment, the point assisted pararescue with shorter mission turnaround times, providing patients with a higher level of patient care further forward and prolonged critical care transport capability.

Additionally, TMAT effectively supplemented Navy medical care capabilities aboard the ship, a force multiplying effort for not only the PRTF but for the supported combatant commanders.

Sea denial objectives

Airborne rescue forces demonstrated dynamic recovery of isolated personnel at sea, when a scenario called for an Air Force aircraft to be shot down, isolating four Airmen.

“Our CSAR team was called upon to find, fix, and track the isolated Airmen, then targeted factor threats to gain and maintain access,” Lowe said.

The rescue demonstrated the range, survivability, and effectiveness of CSAR forces, complementing the ability to conduct synchronized operations without compromising the supported priority mission.

Following the successful rescue of the isolated Airmen, an HH-60G took survivors to the U.S.S. Cincinnati littoral combat ship, demonstrating shipboard integration, and conducted a hasty exfiltration of the 3rd MAW node at Inyokern Airport, California. There, an HC-130J rapidly boarded all Marines and equipment to outmaneuver enemy forces and preserve combat power. 

Finally, the Air Force validated the ability to project agile combat support in the form of tandem parachute operations, to infiltrate a specialized aircraft mechanic, and a specific aircraft component to repair a non-operational aircraft in the field, regenerating combat airpower for follow-on operations.

“The success of this challenging joint exercise not only champions our interoperability with the joint team but sends a clear message to friends and foes alike of our lethality, precision, and survivability in order to fight and win in future operating environments,” said Col. Jesse Hamilton, 920th Rescue Wing commander.

The 920th RQW is AFRC’s only CSAR wing, whose mission is to plan, lead, and conduct military rescue operations and missions to deny competitors and adversaries exploitation of isolated personnel.