When a British Special Air Service (SAS) patrol became isolated and compromised deep behind enemy lines in Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991, it wasn’t for want of trying that they failed to make contact with friendly forces and arrange an emergency evacuation. A brief but vicious firefight had seen the destruction of their HF radio, struck by incoming AK47 rounds and abandoned as the patrol ditched their heavy packs and bugged out in the fading light of day. Over the next few nights, headed northwest towards the Syrian border, they tried time and again to call overflying strike aircraft using an emergency TACBE comms unit. But the tiny beacon was not powerful enough to reach the high-flying jets, and in any case Search and Rescue patrols were being flown along a presumed Escape and Evasion (E & E) corridor south towards Saudi Arabia. Tragically, the patrol was evading in accordance with a misunderstood or poorly briefed E & E plan. A short time later, three patrol members were dead whilst four more had been captured and were being brutally interrogated. An eighth patrol member… In effect, the lone survivor… was deep into an epic solo run across the desert in sub-zero temperatures towards Syria, sustained by a half bottle of water and a single packet of hard-tack biscuits.
When the “unsinkable” cruise liner Titanic struck an iceberg halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, it was only a matter of minutes before her Master, Captain Edward John Smith, realized the ship was doomed. He instructed the ship’s Communications Officer to send a Mayday, an emergency call for help that was received almost immediately by the nearby merchantman Carpathia. The Carpathia’s Master was slow to take action, believing there must have been some mistake because he knew the Titanic to be unsinkable. The Californian, another merchant ship close enough to see red distress flares fired by the Titanic’s crew, also failed to respond promptly for the same reason. By the time the Carpathia had taken instructions from her owners, altered course and closed with Titanic, the White Star liner had completely sunk with the loss of around 1,500 passengers and crew.
In common with Bravo Two-Zero, a Navy SEAL patrol deployed on Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan during 2005 was compromised by a young goatherd. Inserted deep behind enemy lines on a Surveillance & Reconnaissance mission, the Naval Special Ops guys were lightly equipped and lightly armed, relying on stealth and guile for their protection. Having been compromised, they too bugged out… only to find their way ahead barred by uncompromising Afghan terrain. Within a short period they found themselves engaged in a series of vicious firefights and unable to establish effective communications with their headquarters. By the time their colleagues back at base realized there was a problem, the SEALs were fighting for their lives. In the event, as depicted in the 2013 film Lone Survivor, only one member of the patrol survived… the lone survivor from a small group of men who fought heroically against impossible odds at the distal end of a tenuous communications chain.
The thing these stories have in common is a breakdown in emergency communications. It is quite possible that even with perfect comms the SAS patrol would still have been routed, killed and captured; that the sinking of the Titanic would have resulted in catastrophic loss of life; that the SEALs would have been blown apart in an equally devastating manner. But it is also possible that all the members of Bravo Two-Zero would have been effectively recovered; that loss of life from the Titanic would have been minimal; and that the SEAL patrol would have lived to fight another day.
Whether you’re relying upon Special Ops lost comms protocols, the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS), or a complex E & E methodology, MAKE SURE that your Emergency Communications Plan utilizes the correct comms equipment; that it has redundancy built-in; and that it is perfectly understood by EVERYONE involved.
It could well be that your life may come to depend upon it.
About the Author
Bob Parr is a 25-year veteran of the Special Air Service (SAS), Royal Marines and various UK National Intelligence Agencies. A qualified Combat Survival Instructor, he has worked in more than 130 countries worldwide including just about any environment the planet has to offer. Appointed to the Order of the British Empire for outstanding service with UK Special Forces and decorated at a national level for Gallantry on operations, he is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a singlehanded transatlantic yachtsman. Bob is currently circumnavigating the world aboard his self-built sailing yacht along with his wife, flying occasionally to his home in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island. Bob is the owner of SO3 Projects, a company specializing in Risk Management support to the film and television industry.