TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Whether it’s in the desert, arctic, jungle, an urban environment or at sea, the men and women of the U.S. Air Force train to handle any situation.
The primary focus of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialists is to train military personnel to survive any situation. These elite instructors are experts on how to survive in the most remote and hostile environments on the planet, and it’s their responsibility to ensure when a mission doesn’t go as planned, the Airmen involved are ready for anything.
This focus on readiness was on display Aug. 5 during a SERE exercise in Vallejo, which provided Airmen an opportunity to train using realistic scenarios while testing new technology.
“Aircrew must maintain combat mission ready status, allowing them to be deployable worldwide,” said Tech. Sgt. Emanuel Espino-Mata, 60th Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of SERE operations. “Pilots and other Airmen considered to be at high risk of isolation during a mission attend refresher training at remote locations near Travis AFB every three years to stay proficient in SERE skills. It’s also vital we as SERE instructors do all we can to ensure our Airmen can survive and operate in contested environments.”
During the exercise, which took place among steep rocky hills covered with insect-infested trees, 11 Airmen from flying squadrons across Team Travis joined two SERE instructors to test the Somewear Labs Hotspot paired with a combat-configured smartphone, a device that can increase radio battery life.
“Today’s exercise was the first-ever field test of the device developed by Somewear Labs,” Espino-Mata said. “Our c-cell radios only maintain limited battery power. They are also bulky and heavy. This new device can be paired with any smartphone once the user downloads the application and provides encrypted messaging between the user in the field, the receiver, another team member, a recovery force or a personnel recovery cell.”
The device, which is smaller and lighter than some secure communications devices currently being used, has the potential to improve lifesaving capabilities by using a smartphone platform to run the software, which is something everyone is familiar with and comfortable using, Espino-Mata added.
It also offers a wide range of features.
“Our system supports digital maps for navigation, a modern digital experience for satellite messaging and data transmission, as well as comprehensive blue-force tracking for the tactical operations center or any command center,” said Nate Simon, Somewear Labs product manager. “This is a huge step in evasion capability. This device is one of the lightest and smallest of its kind and a major enhancement to the current survival kit.”
Airmen assigned to aircrew positions are trained to evade enemy forces if their aircraft is brought down in enemy territory. They are taught to find water, food and shelter while evading capture.
“This is important because help may not come for around a week and they may have to travel several miles without being detected,” Espino-Mata said.
In 2018, Simon, who holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, was part of an Air Force Research Laboratory study conducted by Stanford’s class, Hacking 4 Defense: Solving National Security Issues with the Lean Launchpad. The goal of the study was to address issues with survival radios and increase survivability of downed Airmen.
“My team was given a problem by the AFRL to improve personnel recovery,” Simon said. “Given Travis AFB’s proximity to the Bay Area, one of our initial contacts was Sergeant Espino-Mata, who arranged several visits to the base. After over 100 interviews with pilots, aircrew, SERE specialists, rescue squadrons and other Department of Defense experts, we realized a combat smartphone and satellite transceiver could drastically improve the personnel accountability and recovery space.”
Somewear's first product enables any remote operative to reliably access secure communications and improve their situational awareness with a combination of compact satellite hotspots and software designed for low-bandwidth applications,” Simon added.
One exercise participant was thrilled with how well the Somewear Hotspot performed.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Tech. Sgt. Bernie Rowe, 60th OSS KC-10 Extender instructor flight engineer. “It was really simple to use, and with the encryption, I was able to make contact and receive new coordinates and instructions by text without it being coded, like the c-cell survival radios. It is light years ahead of the c-cells.”