Search-and-rescue operation oversees vast network of manpower, aircraft to answer distress calls

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The brief radio transmission ignited a flurry of movement in the search-and-rescue center: Iraqi forces had surrounded seven Marines, and the situation was growing worse by the second.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason W. Cronin ordered an immediate extraction, sending two Black Hawk helicopters into the combat zone to pluck the Marines to safety and four A-10 attack planes to cover the extraction.

Cronin is the deputy director of the allied coalition's search-and-rescue operations in the war against Iraq. From an undisclosed air base, he oversees a vast network of manpower, computers and rescue aircraft that surges into action with every distress signal.

Not every alarm has a successful ending. Cronin said his unit was unable to retrieve two crew members from an Apache helicopter brought down Sunday in heavy fighting in Iraq. They were taken prisoner.

A companion helicopter was forced to retreat after encountering ground fire, and Cronin's team determined that rescuers probably would be killed or captured if they tried to land in the area.

The search-and-rescue network, embracing all the American services, is attached to the Combined Air Operations Center, which controls the U.S.-led air campaign.

The search-and-rescue director is Lt. Col. Keith Sullivan.

Cronin, 39, of Bedford, Texas, was chosen as the No. 2 man because of an extensive career in search-and-rescue operations. A rescue helicopter pilot since 1989, he is based at the naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., where his wife, Deborah, and their 3-year-old daughter await his return.

Cronin oversees the center's operations at night, often the peak period for ground and air combat. A team of intelligence analysts, radio operators, computer researchers and other specialists helps him monitor potential emergencies.

"We're always on our toes," he said. "Anytime we hear about an aircraft even having engine trouble, we get involved and start planning just in case."

Cronin said the center dealt with at least "two or three" potential emergencies a night, although in some cases, "they work themselves out." The unit also has responded to non-combat emergencies, including a military traffic accident.

When a distress signal comes in, Cronin and his assistants scramble to answer fundamental questions: Where is the closest rescue craft? How much time do we have?

How many enemy troops are in the rescue zone and what kind of firepower do they have? How much air support do the rescue helicopters need?

They also try to learn the names of the endangered U.S. personnel to make sure the distress signal is valid. "There have been times when opposition forces have gotten one of our radios" and lured rescuers into a trap, Cronin said.

Cronin considers "anything that flies" a potential rescue vehicle, but he often relies on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the savior of the seven Marines who got separated from their main unit in southern Iraq.

"They started getting surrounded and felt they were in imminent danger,"' Cronin said. U.S. forces were nearby but were unable to assist and called for help from the search-and-rescue center.

Cronin's team dispatched A-10 attack planes, nicknamed the "Warthog," to provide air cover and intimidate the enemy. "Usually when an aircraft comes in, the opposition puts their heads down," Cronin said.

The risk to rescuers is an important factor in plotting an emergency response, Cronin said. After receiving a transmission that the Apache crew was in trouble, Cronin's team concluded that the strength and intensity of enemy forces prevented a "CSAR," military jargon for combined search and rescue.

"It was determined that even with a robust CSAR package, putting another helicopter crew on the ground would risk that crew as well," said Cronin.

The AH-64 helicopter was part of a group that confronted intense anti-aircraft fire during an assault on Iraqi tanks. Chief Warrant Officers Ronald D. Young Jr. of Georgia and David S. Williams of Florida were captured, becoming the second group of U.S. POWs in the war.

Members of the search-and-rescue operation began training months in advance of the war, conducting a major exercise at least every two weeks. "It was my hope that I would be very bored," Cronin said.

But with the war now in its second week, that hope remains elusive.