A rare insider's look into SAR (Search and Rescue) Unit 669’s operations in the present and future shows the development of land and sea evacuation techniques, as well as drastic changes in the unit’s operators’ training
A paratrooper squad was hit by an IED in Khan Yunis, Gaza strip, and reported a number of critically wounded soldiers. A "Yanshuf" (Black Hawk) helicopter was scrambled – aboard were a 669 squad, including combat medics, a paramedic and a doctor. On the way to the Gaza Strip, they understood that they must fly about 2 km into the enemy territory in full daylight.
They flew low and fast in order to minimize chances of impact and were accompanied by attack helicopters and fighter jets. They all searched for a red smoke grenade and the moment it came into view, the helicopter made a sharp turn and landed.
Three of the soldiers were deemed seriously injured, the fourth critical. The helicopter landed for 80 nerve-wracking seconds and then took off, successfully extracting the wounded soldiers from the battlefield. This was the most dramatic rescue mission during 2014 Operation "Protective Edge".
"One of the lessons we managed to learn from a long series of rescue operations in urban combat zones is the importance of minimal time on the ground. Every spare second might allow the enemy to open fire on our helicopter. We have to take off immediately, even if it means treating our wounded in worse conditions", explained Maj. Dror, Deputy Commander of SAR Unit 669.
SAR Unit 669 is the IAF's unit for rescue operations in enemy territory and is considered one of the IDF's elite units. The unit was formed in 1974, in the aftermath of the "Yom Kippur" War and is situated in Tel-Nof AFB. The unit’s operators are trained to perform extraction missions from any sort of battlefield using a plethora of equipment. Its main purpose is extraction of downed pilots in enemy territory, but it also extracts combatants under fire, soldiers injured in the battlefield, backpackers and naval squads while also assisting in aerial evacuation of citizens to hospitals. The unit is on standby 24/7, every day of the year, and its operators maintain a high level of operational, technical and medical competence.
In early May, a new generation of special operators joined the unit's ranks, upon the culmination of their 18-month long training period. They started out with basic infantry training, and continued with a special-forces paramedic course.
They then endured a unit-specific boot camp and a squad-leader course, while drilling roped extractions, dives, an escape workshop, a parachuting course and combat training as part of their qualification. In addition, they underwent extraction training sessions in complex situations, such as night extractions, extractions under fire and marine evacuation using the "Yanshuf" (Black Hawk) and "Yas'ur" (CH-53) helicopters, which had become their second home throughout the rigorous training period.
Maj. Dror escorted them throughout the duration of their training. "Our operator’s training is adjusted to the changes made to the unit in the past 18 months. We have re-examined the challenges, the enemy and the technology on the one hand, and begun a long process of strengthening the unit's capabilities on the other. One of the results of this process is the examination of the unit's training while considering the recently shortened mandatory service period, while also considering various other challenges which impact our missions".
"The changes are a part of a new concept in the unit, which places an emphasis on experiencing every challenge known to us, as a result of the shifting theatres around us and the strengthening of the northern threat".
Fighters in Every Sense of the Word
Composure under pressure is an important facet of 669 operators. "I'm looking for fighters, in every sense of the word: people strong both mentally and physically, with self-confidence and the feeling that they can handle any situation. When these operators are scrambled to a situation it means that every other option failed, and they will have to do whatever it takes to solve it, no matter how complicated".
"Today's operator is much better than I was when I first joined the unit. These days, maturity is higher on our priority list than before – we speak to them, connect them to the unit early on and demand responsibility and independence. Professionalism has improved over the years, and we ask of them to manage themselves. It may be harder, but the pay-off is bigger".
In Perpetual Motion
"Our most significant advantage is our availability and the fact that we are always the first to arrive in the field”.
What does the future hold for SAR Unit 669? Maj. Dror predicts that Israel's ability to address civilian emergencies will continue to develop, which will in turn enable the unit to focus on military operations: "I think that the professional direction the unit is currently headed in will continue to evolve. Extraction and lifesaving are imbued into our unit and its operators, and we will continue to do all we can do in order to operate successfully anytime, anywhere".