HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. --- Officials of the Electronic Systems Center delivered the 20,000th Combat Survivor Evader Locator radio to operators in the fall of 2008, and now are on track to deliver an additional 20,000 to warfighters.
Credited with saving many lives, CSELs have been in use in Iraq and in Afghanistan for several years.
In 2007 and 2008, the joint program office staff managing the effort received a significant amount of war on terrorism supplemental funding to procure radios for U.S. Central Command theater operators.
However, the program's history runs deep. Shortly after Capt. Scott O'Grady and his F-16 Fighting Falcon were shot down over Serbia in June 1995, Department of Defense officials accelerated the CSEL program. Captain O'Grady survived for six days on the ground in hostile territory, eating leaves, grass and ants, until he was finally rescued.
Because the likelihood of rescue decreases exponentially with time, this incident could have ended in disaster, so U.S. officials set a course for reducing such possibilities in the future.
"This program came about because of the lack of capability to quickly locate and positively identify a survivor," said Maj. Charles Leonard of the CSEL Joint Program Office at Hanscom Air Force Base. "The early capabilities in survival radios were almost exclusively dependent on line of sight, so unless the rescue forces were overhead and the rescuer was in direct communication with the downed personnel, it was often difficult to locate them."
Improvement efforts centered on fully exploiting over-the-horizon communications and Global Positioning System technology, and "precision-code" GPS in particular," Major Leonard said. CSEL, in fact, was the first survival radio to use the precision code, which offers far greater security and accuracy than commercial GPS.
CSEL also capitalizes on satellite communications capabilities while combining four disparate search and rescue functional components: satellite radio, line-of-sight radio, a GPS system and a search and rescue personnel locator beacon.
"CSEL combined all of these into one handheld capability," Major Leonard said.
This is critical because, for downed pilots or other combat force members who become isolated from their units, everything they need to survive has to be with them, so less is definitely better.
But it's CSEL's purpose that matters most. "The mission that CSEL is designed to accomplish is too important for us to deliver anything less than the best possible system to the field," said Lt. Col. Heather Gallup, the program manager, noting that CSEL is far more than just a radio.
The radio itself is connected via satellite ground stations and rescue coordination centers where rescues are managed and executed.
"It's like when you push the little green button on your cell phone and start to talk," Major Leonard said. "There's a lot going on that the caller never sees. It's the same thing with CSEL. There's a total system behind the radio, and it delivers true, 24/7 global capability. It's basically DOD's global 911."
Since the first radios were fielded in 2003, CSEL has been cited for the precision and speed of recoveries.
"We've taken the process of locating and positively identifying individuals from hours down to minutes," Major Leonard said.
"CSEL is the DOD program of record for personnel recovery survival radios, which means that all the services use it," he said. In fact, the Navy and the Army have purchased most of the early CSEL variants. The Air Force is currently fielding radios to active duty, Guard and Reserve organizations.
"We're proud of our contributions to the joint fight," Colonel Gallup said. "We all know that what we're doing is incredibly important, and no matter how busy we are, we're honored to contribute to the effort."