The Recovery of HAVOC 1-3 - Ruby Echo After Action Report (Part 2)
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
1908c RUBY ECHO was a Blackline Event simulating a downed aircraft with an aircrew on the run, and a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team tasked with locating and extracting them. Participants were required to attend workup sessions to qualify for the Task Force and to align the experience and knowledge of the participants. The event took place 09AUG19 to 11AUG19, and used a separate airsoft event to create a hostile environment for the operation.
Part 1 Link - Click Here
Part 2 Link - This Post
PART 2 - HAVOC 1-3 GOES TO GROUND
HAVOC 1-3 had reached a site they felt would provide suitable protection until communications could be established with the Task Force. Speaking with 1-3a, the flight crew had put considerable thought into site selection in order to maximize concealment and isolation.
“Our hide position was selected off of a dead end side trail that was not on any maps we had studied. The side trail itself was on a cliff with no tree canopy and was overlooking a swamp which would become an area of activity during the morning. The lack of tree canopy on the cliff would give us opportunities to try and signal for rescue. We reasoned that hiding off of this dead end would be an illogical place for indigenous forces to look for us. We gathered brambles and twigs from the area adjacent to our hide site. We built two hasty hides that concealed us with thin layers of brambles spread out around our position and got some much needed rest.”
The build of their hide site was hasty but effective party due to training sessions focusing on creating low profile concealment. One of the challenges faced by HAVOC was they had no information on enemy disposition. Their ignorance would not last for long, and changed shortly after they settled into their hide.
“It was not long before we started to hear talking, snapping of twigs and other man made sounds coming from the swamp. We knew we were not alone. We quickly discussed ERV plans and trimmed the branches towards our exit in case we had to leave in a hurry. While laying up in our hide position we began to hear local militia talking and walking around the forest. What started out as voices and the sounds of movement soon grew to the clackering of firefights by mid day. At times, we could see green and tan forces cross in front of our position at approximately 20 meters away. We surmised by the amount of foot traffic that we must have been close to one of their CP.”
Too close to the militia forces to maneuver away, HAVOC held tight and waited for their radio batteries to charge.
CSAR, SECDET, and ISR Teams
Back at the safe house, Teams 15 and 16 were fully formed and were finalizing operations. Over the next few hours, 15A and 16A collaborated with 09B to work out the finer points of the plan to rescue HAVOC 1-3.
The proposed course of action for the rescue component of operations was for transport elements to lift 15 and 16 to the AO in two separate lifts. The insertion points varied based on where HAVOC was reported to be. If the flight crew was in the north, they’d be reached by an insertion from the northwest, over a rail line, and down into their position. If the crew was found in the south, teams would insert off a main surface route and RV with them there. A key feature of both contingencies was a strategic uniform change. Gathered intelligence had determined which militia was wearing predominently green uniforms, and which was using tan. All elements of 15 and 16 had a full change of clothes on standby so they could effectively merge with whatever militia force was supporting them at the time.
If contact was made, liaison Teams (14) would be called into action, working to finally leverage the relationships built over the last 24 hours in order to clear the area of militia forces, or to actively use the militia forces as protection for the operation. CSAR (15) would then push onto the HAVOC 1-3 location, while the SECDET (16) would hold back to provide security. LP teams (03) would begin to collapse down onto the flight crew’s position to provide extra security. The 15 and 16 elements would then extract HAVOC back to vehicles and load out. Any remaining elements would be lifted out as transport cycled between the extraction points and the safe house.
In order to accomplish this, 15 and 16 set to work training. Examining the course of action, several aspects of the operation required rehearsal to ensure success. Mounting and dismounting vehicles was one of the first skillsets requring practice. How would weapons be stored? What was the seating positions? Entry and exit order? How would security be established during the process? Personnel from 15 and 16 dedicated a portion of training time to working through these problems. ingress and egress to the site, including vehicle mount and dismount. A major focus of the training was working out reaction to contacts, as well as practicing the transport of non-ambulatory patients.
TF191 had also began their first ISR flights. Understaffed but capable, 02C launched a drone from the south and began searching the area for signs of HAVOC 1-3. Footage was live streamed back to the TOC for additional analysis. It would be the first of multiple attempts to identify the location of the flight crew through the day. HAVOC was ready and waiting for the opportunity.
“Overhead we could hear the humming and buzzing of what sounded like a giant mosquito. We knew that CSAR would be looking for us and we surmised that it must have been drones that were looking for us. It sounded as if it was passing directly above us at times. We quickly deployed the VS-17 panels with a black “Y” taped on as rehearsed on the dead end trail with no tree canopy.”
Without any positive response from the drone, HAVOC decided that using higher visibility methods was worth the risk.
“We took stock of the situation once again. We had been on the run since yesterday night cross country and we still were not able to get in radio contact with CSAR. Our chances to signal our position at night would be much more difficult. We had to take the chance when the area was not as active. When we heard the drone again a few hours later, we once again deployed the VS-17 panel. This time we added coloured smoke nearby in hopes that we would be spotted.”
Unfortunately, ISR would be unable to spot these signals and HAVOC would remain undetected by ISR.
In The Battlespace
As the day wore on, units across the AO were dealing with sporadic close calls and engagements. Having established a solid relationship with their militia counterparts, 14B determined they were in a position to take a proactive approach in locating the flight crew. Donning M81 woodland to match their militia partners, 14B, 14E, and 14F pushed out to conduct a reconnaissance patrol. Thanks to the information collected by the operations center and the LPs placed in the field, 14B was confident that most of the conflict would be centered around 17T NJ 6807 2935. With a fallback plan in place, the unit pushed wide to search for HAVOC 1-3. The patrol was reasonably quiet. At one point, a single enemy militia combatant appeared on a trail. He was placed under observation, but it was determined he would not lead to any critical sites. With no other evidence of the flight crew, 14B shifted priorities.
“We had decided to push closer to shale hill in order to put eyes on the area and maybe direct Green assaults on target.”
That’s when things went sideways.
“Literally as we broke tree line to the path, 14E engaged an enemy soldier as he raised his rifle at us.”
14B was now engaged. The 14 units had a critical role in the operation, intending to facilitate movements of other TF191 members and the HAVOC 1-3 team. Knowing this, the course of action for 14B was predetermined and clear.
“Immediately 14F and I went to a knee and began covering 14E. I called ‘set’ to let him know 14F and I were now covering at which point he peeled and set and we began a peeling retreat until we had safely broken contact. It was so fucking text book, you'd think it was training.”
14B explains proudly...
“We peeled back approximately 60 meters and broke off into the bush with no enemy contacts. It was the most beautiful peel out you'd ever see 3 mustachioed guys do.”
Life at the 03 LPs involved less shooting but was still intense. 03B says of their day,
“Every little physical action had to be kept in mind as within a hide everything makes noise. Keeping awake and our attention focused on observation and our mission was also a challenge especially considering our lack of sleep at the time, the energy expenditure in traveling with rucks as well as the digging the hide itself. Time was set aside for rest however due to the vicinity of militia forces, noise from said forces and reports of movement onto our location prevented any solid rest.”
The attention required to stay focused was a serious challenge. 03B...
“Used radio with HAVOC 1-3, Militia forces and Zello within the task force. Due to the noise reducing earbuds we had access too, at least one member of the hide always had an ear or two free, to listen for enemy movement. Exceptions for this was during HAVOC 1-3 comms windows, where both members were prepared to answer HAVOC 1-3. “
03A had a bit more space and was rotating their sleep schedules to maintain alertness. With a fully underground hide, they extended an antenna through the roof in order to get reception. It raised their risk of exposure, and there were a few incidents that seemed to confirm their fears.
“Two instances where we heard what sounded like footfalls immediately outside the hide, and one instance where we heard something like a dog sniffing around but no contact was ever made.”
One of the other units experiencing intensity was a member of the 14A team. 14C had remained in their team hide conducting observation and SIGINT. The regular reporting of sitreps from the unit changed sometime after 1400 when militia traffic began to increase near the site. It began with the sound of voices and weapons fire 80m to the south. Then, the confident clear voice became a hushed whisper.
“14A, 14C. I just had approximately seven to eight militia walk directly around the hide. They’re moving North West, how copy.” “Be advised they were moving in two columns, side by side.”
This information flowed up to the TOC and was then confirmed by the 14B unit who saw large numbers of militia forces leave their base of operations.
14C observation and SIGINT work continued to yield actionable intelligence as militia forces spoke freely near the hide site. 14C was able to determine units were using a whistle as a link-up signal and were attempting to feign assaults by creating noise signatures on the trail. The militia exhibited a moment of prescience when 14C reported that some of the soldiers had said...
“...something about their comms might become compromised”.
The response from 14A was clear.
“If they do a channel change, just find them and get back on.”
Not long after, 14C witnessed the forces moving off to assault their target.
“14A, this is 14C. Be advised, they’re advancing on enemy position as we speak, over.”
“Our radio had charged enough during the day to make a transmission. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 1745. Only 15 minutes until we were were expected in our SERE plan to broadcast. We had to assume that CSAR would be ready to receive. The plan was once every three hours, on the hour for three minutes on the primary and three minutes on the secondary channel.”
HAVOC 1-3a begins. Their hide location had indeed been only 15 meters from an enemy command post but had miraculously remained undetected for over 12 hours. Militias were engaging each other in such close proximity that rounds had impacted the trees around the HAVOC hide. Firefights had persisted leading up to the 1800h comms window.
“My mind raced as the firefight persisted. How long would it continue? Would the militia be seeing to their wounded afterwards and linger? Would they be gone in 15 minutes? How loud would I be able to transmit without being heard? The firefight showed no relapse until a few minutes before transmission time. We were fairly certain that the militia were still in the area. With the transmission nearing, my hands moved autonomously as I layed there on stomach. I positioned the radio on the mount of dirt in front of me and reached for my notepad. I scrolled through the channels once again to re-check they had the correct frequencies, this was too important to mess up. I checked that the leads were connected properly and keyed the mic to announce to any call signs listening.
03B was on the other end of the line.
“Hearing HAVOC 1-3, responding to their decryption code and receiving their status were the highlights of the day, bringing life back to us as the culmination of our hard work, and getting to hear the CSAR engine spur up.”
HAVOC 1-3A recalls the communication,
“The first few responses were weak in signal but after a few moments I was relieved to hear a familiar voice that came through clearly. After we authenticated and briefly I gave our position, our non-ambulatory status, situation, observations and made our requirement for immediate rescue apparent. I asked for my message to be read back and when it was read back correctly, I knew we had a line of communications. Through our brief and disciplined conversation, I had learned that friendly assets would with us within the hour.”
“I signalled to the rest of the crew that we should be ready to leave within the hour. We had discussed this moment among ourselves quite a few times throughout the day. We had to be packed and ready to go and coherently tell our rescuers that one of our crew was not mobile.”
14C was also monitoring the frequency and pushed the reported location back to the 01 units at the tactical operations center while 03B continued to assess HAVOC status. With the sound of radios in the background, 14C called it in.
“01 this is 14C, I have position of aircrew. How copy. Over"
"17T NJ 68300 29585”
With quick read backs from 01, 14C also passed along the condition of the crew which was confirmed by reports from 03B who had direct contact with the HAVOC 1-3 personnel.
“One crew needs a stretcher. Other two are mobile but are tired. Also, their position is about 15 meters away from firefights, so they are literally in the middle of it all.”
Activity at the safehouse and the TOC became frenetic. The location was in the north of the AO, and knowing that the militia in the area was wearing tan uniforms, the entirety of the CSAR and SECDET units conducted a rapid costume change. Within 10 minutes, the entire Task Force had transformed into multicam clad personnel, ready to blend in with the forces of the north. It was an impressive sight as 09A recalls...
“It had been part of the WARNORDs for all of 15 and 16 to have both green and brown dominant uniforms on hand, but to watch the teams strip out of their civilian training clothes and arrive in their vehicle sections completely transformed was a surreal experience.”
The Compromise of 14C and Hands-On HAVOC
The timing could not have been worse. While the 15 and 16 were in the middle of preparing to board vehicles, 14C called in with desperate news.
“01 be advised, enemy militia found the hide, however they carried on with their mission. They are not hostile towards me.”
This development presented a whole new risk dynamic in the AO. With the hide exposed to opposing forces, TF personnel could now become pawns in the militia fight and require diverting much-needed resources for a separate rescue operation.
09B decided it might be time to prepare some of that goodwill the 14 elements had been building throughout the day.
“14B, 09B. 14C is currently surrounded by troops. He says they do not appear hostile to him, but he may be taken prisoner. If he is taken prisoner, I’ll be in touch with you. Your objective will be to gain access to the prisoner who you want to make a prisoner of your state.”
While 14B prepared to bargain with the militia for 14C, 14A was moving fast. The priority had always been HAVOC 1-3. Trusting 14C and 14B to deal with the compromise, Alpha headed for the flight crew. HAVOC 1-3a recalls the moment.
“It was not long after that we spotted two men with helmets wearing multicam approaching our position. I recognized them as I had seen them many times before. I looked back at my crew members, they knew it too and as rehearsed, we kept our hands up until we could be positively identified. We had assumed that they would treat us as hostile until our identities could be ascertained.”
The SERE plan had been built to include a set of information that could be used to positively identify the personnel and included photos, physical descriptions, and interrogating questions. The crew of HAVOC 1-3 passed inspection, and 14A began to assess the situation in front of them. The CSAR and SECDET team would take at least 30 minutes to spin up and arrive on-site, and combat was taking place close to the HAVOC hide site as the two militias battled for control of the area.
“We set security, assessed the wounded, and called it in to 01. With no further instruction and the conflict moving closer to the crew, the decision was made to move to an area further away from where we found them and set security while we waited for the rescue.”
The 14A team physically dragged the non-ambulatory patient to a safer location in the woods. There they took up a position to remain concealed until their militia partners finished repelling the enemy from the area.
“Before I knew it, the five of us were trekking through the woods bush wacking. The first man had handed me his rifle while his hands were occupied keying his communication devices and hauling 1-3C. I took up the rear position with and observed the second man taking point. We reached a junction where we stopped to rest. The first man and second man set up security on the position and called for friendly local militia to help us secure the area for the main body of the CSAR team to come with a litter.”
To supplement the security on HAVOC 1-3, the northern LP unit (03B) collapsed their nearby hide and moved to RV with the team.
Meanwhile, back at the hide site of 14C, the situation was becoming more intense. While the first small patrol had not been hostile, other patrol members were determining what should be done with the man they found hidden in the AO.
“I’m in talks with them right now. They’re willing to work with me if we can give them some intel. I’ll let them know you’re working on something. Don’t take too long because I don’t want them to change how they feel.”
14A offered up some solutions such as using the drone to pinpoint enemy forces. 09B had simply noted that a strike team was being arranged to come deal with the situation. 14B still had leverage with the militia and was planning on using it when 14C suddenly deescalated the entire situation.
“Militia and I have worked out a deal. We shook hands, and they’re on their way”
While the exact nature of what was promised remains unclear, the promises of some ISR intelligence seems to have placated the units and allowed 14C to be set free. It’s a promise that wouldn’t have to be fulfilled. 15 and 16 were rolling.
Arriving in the northwest, the first lift deployed the 15 elements at the edge of a cornfield approximately 350 meters from the rail line and 450m from the HAVOC flight crew. The units went to work quickly establishing security around the drop site while lift elements returned for 16. The round trip would leave 15 alone for just over 30 minutes.
It was now 14A’s turn to call in a favour. Having spent the majority of the day assisting the militia forces, it was time for the pay off. Reporting into 01, 14A delivered.
“We requested two members of the militia to assist with security of the HAVOC crew, and two additional members to act as a guide to get the rescue teams to our location.”
The pace of actions had begun to pick up substantially with all elements now in motion. 03B had collapsed their hide and fallen in with 14A. 14B had moved to establish a blocking position south of the flight crew location. 14C having narrowly avoided capture was now working to RV with the 15 elements as the lift carrying 16 arrived on site. 09A recalls the confusion upon 16’s arrival.
"When the lift vehicles pulled up to where 15 had been deployed only 30 minutes prior, the site was empty. For a moment, we considered whether the element had moved down to the railway without communicating their position. Suddenly, the entire unit emerged from their hiding places in the corn field and surrounded the vehicles to provide 360 security during the debus. It was good to have the entire rescue team on the ground. Everyone was in play now and we could really get things moving."
As 16 left their first boot prints on the AO, the operations center continued to track the activities of all personnel and create coordinating instructions for the rescue team to meet with the militia guides.
“14A, coordinates are as follows 17TNJ 68057 29562. SECDET is making their way down to those coordinates now.”
“This is 14B, how are those challenge codes coming? We don’t want to get shot either. We’re right by their ingress point.”
“I have informed the militia leader he will be challenged with ‘TOM’ and his response will be ‘SELLECK’.”
Thankfully the meetup between the militia guides and the 15/16 elements was uneventful. Teams were led to the location established by 14A and the specialists began tending to the patients while security was reinforced. With less than an hour of daylight remaining, teams would have to complete their activities and get off the site as soon as possible. This was made easier with the reduced night fighting capability of militia forces and the strong relationships built by the 14 elements throughout the previous day.
Relationship building had been so successful that the only contact was a green-on-blue incident with militia forces supporting the rescue efforts. The engagement accelerated the movement of CSAR and SECDET towards the extraction point with HAVOC.
“01 this is 14A. We had a friendly fire incident. CSAR is getting the fuck out of here.”
And so they did. 15 and 16 continued to move towards the extraction point with the patient and crew. This activity was significantly more strenuous than expected. Despite numerous rehearsals through the day, the distance the teams had to cover was easily four times their longest practice transport. Switching team members on litter duty and short stops only provided minor relief. Through the dark, dense forest and over rocky outcrops, members of 16 and 15 struggled but refused to quit. With the success of the entire mission now on their shoulders, pressure to perform was high.
[ VIDEO By The Ritchie Brothers ]
Complex Taskings and Extraction
With limited numbers to move the HAVOC casualty, the job suddenly became more challenging. Shortly after, 14A received a priority tasking. The partisan cache that HAVOC had accessed for supplies was still in place.
Control and higher had determined that if the cache was discovered, partisan associations could be exposed and risk the assets in the area. The decision was made to recover the remainder of the cache and extract the content. Both 14 elements and 03B were detached on their FRAGO. The decision wasn’t a popular one.
“Our plan to extract was simply to get picked up at our insert location, but we didn’t anticipate having to tie off so many loose ends before doing so.”
The updated intelligence picture created by operations through the day had delivered a grim picture of the cache site. Only 50 meters from a militia base, the site was near a firefight. Listening to the forces engaged in combat, 14A called in…
“Fighting is still ongoing. We’re trying to avoid getting shot but also find the cache.”
With darkness falling in the forest, units moved into the area but had challenges finding the supplies. Hidden in an old bunker, the high grass and low branches of overhanging trees effectively sealed the bunker shut from the outside world. With light discipline in place, it was nearly impossible. That’s when the call went out.
The task force was closing the primary PZ. HAVOC and their security would be the last team to extract from the site, forcing the 03, 14, and 16 units to move to the alternate almost 1000 meters to the south.
To the north, extraction vehicles had arrived and were holding in the darkness. The security team was in place, searching the open farm fields with night optics. A small red light beacon blinked away on the roof of the vehicles, in an attempt to guide 15 and 16. 09A recalls.
“It was squarely night, now. The sun was gone. My partner had been scanning the horizon toward the treeline for about 20 minutes before he announced he saw movement.”
Out of the grey-black field, blacker shapes began to emerge. Security teams confirmed identities and rushed out to assist. Even in the darkness, the bandages were visible on HAVOC 1-3c’s leg as he swayed back and forth in the litter. The rest of HAVOC was better off but still exhausted. They’d spent the last 24 hours running from enemy patrols and hiding only meters away from a hostile encampment.
A perimeter went up as the casualties were loaded into the vehicles. For the ride, 15 would take up the last available seats to provide security and protection. At just after 2155h, HAVOC personnel departed the AO with their security teams. 16 watched as the lights disappeared in the distance, then began their final march to the south. Task Force 191’s mission was almost complete.
The drive back to the operations center wasn’t a long one, but it was long enough to raise concerns with the 15 element escorting HAVOC. With only a handful of personnel at the TOC, security became a new concern. There was no way the forces at the site could effectively guarantee enemy forces were not in the surrounding spaces. The decision was made en route to send in a batch of 15 personnel first.
“01, 15. Please move all TOC personnel to the central site so that 15 can do a sweep on arrival.”
30 seconds out from the site, the convoy vehicles flipped positions allowing the vehicle without HAVOC personnel to move in first. Flying into the site, 15 deployed and began their sweep. When the HAVOC transport arrived, all passengers remained securely inside until 15 had declared the site safe. HAVOC 1-3a remembers the security around their arrival.
“When we arrived were ushered into the tactical operations center that was under a tent. We were placed under close observation. We were not permitted to wander off. Kept under close watch, we understood the meaning of being the objective.”
Back in the AO, 16 had made good time. They arrived at the secondary extraction point as 14 and 03 were extracting the cache. After finally discovering it, 14A moved the contents up and over the railway down to a waiting 14B security element. It was a short while before the final wave of extraction vehicles arrived to load up. Engagements could be heard in the distance as remaining elements packed into the transports with packs and equipment. Moments later, vehicles rumbled away from the AO for the last time. A new stillness permeated the atmosphere.
Tires hummed along the road and passing headlights flashed across exhausted, dirty faces. Men sat in silence; cool night air blowing in through the windows. Some of these men had been hiding in holes for 18 hours. Others had been repelling repeated enemy assaults. All had spent time training, planning, coordinating, and adapting to ensure the flight crew was recovered safely.
Then, hints of smiles.
Quiet. Tired. Proud. Victorious.
Communications provided by Zello, a push-to-talk app for long range communications through iPhone and Android phones. You can listen to the recordings of radio traffic from the 14 Liason teams from the event below.
Blackline Events would like to thank the dozens of people who spent their time and dedicated their energy to the mission and who make events like this possible.
Team 14, Team 15, and Team 16.
Team 01, Team 02, and Team 03.