scorecardHow a little-known Pentagon agency trains troops to escape the enemy and get home safely
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How a little-known Pentagon agency trains troops to escape the enemy and get home safely

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

How a little-known Pentagon agency trains troops to escape the enemy and get home safely
LifeInternational4 min read
  • When US military personnel are stuck in harm's way, it's often the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency that gets them home.
  • JPRA is the Pentagon's clearinghouse for personnel-recovery operations and provides specialized training for troops who go into high-risk situations.

On the night of March 21, 2011, a US F-15E fight jet crashed in Libya while participating in Operation Odyssey Dawn, the air campaign against Col. Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

The pilot and weapons officer managed to eject but were stranded in enemy territory. Within just a few hours, friendly forces had recovered both.

Behind that seemingly easy operation was a little-known Pentagon agency that specializes in personnel recovery.

Created in 1999, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) is responsible for the return of US troops and government employees stuck in isolated spots or in harm's way.

The JPRA is also the Pentagon's clearinghouse for all things related to personnel recovery, including Combat Search and Rescue and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), as well as providing specialized training to high-risk personnel, such as pilots and special-operators.

In addition to training and expertise, the JPRA is also responsible for developing and publishing personnel-recovery doctrine and for working with allied and partner militaries on related matters.

"We have debriefed all the prisoners of war, evaders, and detainees from Vietnam onward. We also have anecdotal information from Korea, World War II, and World War I to help us with doctrine and training," a retired JPRA officer told Insider.

The JPRA is composed of a mix of civilians and military personnel, with heavy Air Force representation.

During every major operation, there is a Joint Personnel Recovery center providing support and expertise. That way, the force is better prepared to anticipate threats and react to them in a timely and effective manner.

"Ours is a passionate focus. Our only job is personnel recovery. We know we're supporting a bigger mission," the retired JPRA officer said.

Is that really you?

When a US troop is isolated behind enemy lines and evading or escaping enemy forces, there is a procedure to determine their identity. Called the authentication process, it assures the approaching recovery force that the troop in question is indeed a US service member and not part of an attempt to lure them in an ambush.

All high-risk personnel, such as pilots, special-operators, and intelligence officers, must fill out an Isolated Personnel Report (ISOREP) that contains personal information to help the JPRA verify their identity in a real-world contingency.

The ISOREP includes fingerprints, photographs, statements, and other information with which the recovery force can create verification questions, as well as a four-digit authentication number.

Previously, this information was all kept in hard copies, but that prevented rescuers from getting to it in a timely manner during a personnel recovery contingency. The JPRA thus digitized all the ISOREP forms. This allowed a faster authentication process but also inadvertently created a security vulnerability.

In its ISOREP files, the JPRA holds some of the most sensitive information in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community, making a potential hack catastrophic. China already stole millions of government personnel files by hacking the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the early 2010s.

There are companies, like the Signature Management Unit (SMU), that offer digital security options to the government and private citizens, but the danger is real.

Once an isolated troop contacts the recovery force, the authentication process begins. The first step takes place over radio. An aircraft over head communicates with the troop to localize their location. The best platform for this is the A-10, though an F-16 or an F-15 can also do it if necessary.

Then the recovery force uses the isolated troop's ISOREP information to verify their identity. Communication happens over secure frequencies to prevent compromise, but authentication can also be done by sending signals with gestures or objects, using flares, or even by using a mirror to send messages in Morse Code.

"New technology has helped save lives, and investment into the new PRQ-7 CSEL digital multipurpose radio has gone a long way in helping troops," the retired JPRA officer told Insider.

The PRQ-7 CSEL offers precise geo-positioning and secure over-the-horizon and line-of-sight communications.

'These things we do so that others may live'

The JPRA's purview isn't limited to personnel-recovery operations. It can get involved in a hostage-rescue situation if necessary. But that "depends on requests for support and the need" for JPRA, the retired JPRA officer told Insider.

The official overseeing the incident, whether it's an ambassador or a military commander, "has to request assistance, the officer added.

"For example, the Mike Durant incident in Somalia was a personnel-recovery event, but most people outside the US government would see it as hostage rescue," the officer said. "If rescue had occurred, the combatant commander could have tasked JPRA for specific support."

Durant, an MH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as "the Night Stalkers," was captured by Somali militiamen during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and released a few days later.

Although the JPRA didn't exist at the time, its predecessor agencies provided training, evasion aids, and intelligence products to US forces deployed to Somalia.

The personnel who are trained by the JPRA and might one day be saved by it value the agency.

"The JPRA and its capabilities provide peace of mind to pilots and guys on the ground," a former special missions unit officer told Insider.

"Sometimes teams or even individuals will go out with zero support - no fighters, no armor, no artillery, no nothing - and also with a very light footprint, just a sidearm and perhaps an M4 here and there. So with the JPRA, they don't feel completely 'alone and unafraid,'" the former officer said, using a common military motto.

Although the JPRA takes the lead on personnel-recovery missions, it has always been a collaborative effort. Countless troops and civilians from the military and the intelligence community have contributed.

Theirs is not a glamorous mission. Their names and faces don't appear on front pages and recognition is scant. But their role is critical, providing the safe and honorable return of American service members.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.