Angel Thunder: An Exercise in Life Saving

Angel Thunder: An Exercise in Life Saving

By Dialogo
May 13, 2013

Seeing the need for an exercise that would allow U.S. Air Force rescue units to test and improve the full range of their capabilities, in 2006, Brett Hartnett, then an Air Force rescue pilot, created Angel Thunder. Seven years later, Hartnett, now a civilian contractor based at Davis-Monthan U.S. Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, is director of the largest Air Force exercise of its kind in the world.

From its modest beginnings, Angel Thunder has become an extensive inter-service, interagency, international exercise. Angel Thunder 2013, a two-week exercise that concluded on April 20, 2013, involved all of the uniformed services, several civilian federal agencies such as the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona state and local law enforcement, medical and emergency management officials, as well as participants and observers from 20 foreign countries. In all, nearly 3,000 individuals, more than 100 aircraft (including Arizona’s Civil Air Patrol), and several U.S. Navy vessels participated in an exercise that covered an area from the Texas Panhandle to 60 miles off the west coast near San Diego; an area larger than the country of Afghanistan.

The recent Angel Thunder had a number of scenarios and mini-exercises, ranging from military support to civil authority, traditional combat search and rescue, military response, and an attack on a U.S. Embassy. The rescue of tourists stranded after a simulated bus crash in the Grand Canyon, for instance, was the largest military exercise ever held in a national park. Responses to emergencies, such as terrorist attacks on local villages in the fictional country of Diyeme, friendly to the U.S., saw forces from several nations, such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile, and Singapore working together with their U.S. counterparts.

Cooperation with allied forces, interagency partners, and civilian agencies (in the U.S. and abroad) is a hallmark of the Angel Thunder exercise. “While search and rescue is a core function of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense cannot rescue everyone, everywhere,” Exercise Director Hartnett said. By building interagency and partner nation capacity, however, he believes we can come close to being able to rescue “just about everyone.”

Sequestration had an impact on this year’s exercise, causing some military participation to be scaled down and some civilian agencies to have to withdraw from attending. Despite this, though, Angel Thunder 2013 was the largest ever, with allied participants such as Colombia, Brazil and Singapore providing airlift, and the Arizona Civil Air Patrol planes helping to fill some of the gaps.

In addition to improving the combat readiness of Air Force rescue forces, Angel Thunder is building bridges between agencies and nations, and increasing the global capacity to provide emergency assistance in natural and manmade disasters. It globalizes that part of the Air Force pararescuemen and combat rescue officers’ creed – “It is my duty to save life and aid the injured.”

Charles Ray is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who resides in North Potomac, Maryland, United States. Ray served 20 years in the U.S. Army, followed by 30 years in the Foreign Service. In addition to appointments as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006 to 2009.