Thai Cave Rescue – Who’s the Real Expert ?


Now that the ‘experts’ have had their say, the hullabaloo died down and the debris settled, read on to know who are the real experts of the Thai Cave Rescue Operation and why it’s not and should never be the active military. Be warned though – All this opinion is from a ‘Non-Expert’ !


Traditions are good as much as are trials by fire. But when they begin to put young and innocent lives in jeopardy in a non-controlled environment, they need to be abandoned. In fact, all Special Forces operators across the globe are trained in a controlled environment, in that the instructors know the fine line which differentiates death from ‘only requiring a CPR’.

23 July 18, A soccer team in Thailand, aka ‘Wild Boars’ ventured off into the Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady (Tham Luang Nang Non Cave) so as to continue their tradition of visiting the cave, led by their coach – aged 25. As with most traditions, the group failed to heed the warning signs (literally) placed outside which asks people not to visit during the monsoon season and enter the cave the did.

The rest is now history. The Thai Cave Rescue will be certainly used as a  reference by various cave diving and rescue experts across the globe.

Who’s the Expert?

Contrary to popular reporting and perception, the military divers (foreign or otherwise) only played a supporting role in the whole operation. The operation was the brainchild of Messrs Stanton Volanthen and Harris, the latter-most an anaesthetist, when not busy diving. The bold concept of sedating the kids so facilitate a successful extraction was the idea of Mr Harris.

To be blunt, these are not professional but are hobby divers. Hobby divers that are arguably the best in their domain and whose skill-set and knowledge is unique and rare; and unmatched by the majority of military divers.

Post this incident, I met many military men and women who have lamented the lack of such capabilities within their own military and said that this capability needs to exist. A recent article by a former Indian Naval Special Forces Operator spells out the same in no uncertain terms. While most argue that cave diving capability should exist with their own military, I strongly disagree about the same.

Military Divers are mostly trained for Combat/EOD/Clearance/Air Crew Diving/Fleet/Saturation diving and not cave rescue diving. Only a fool and a layman would assume that a combat diver can pull off a cave diving rescue without prior training and vice-versa. Put simply, you can’t expect Lionel Messi to be able to play a tough tackling, box-to-box game Ala Patrick Vieira. Sure they’re both footballers and midfielders, but each one is specific to his own role.

Not the average cup of Coffee…

Just like aviation and unlike the job of a CEO, Diving is a vertically specialised vocation. While open water diving/recreational diving forms the base level of diving, it shoots up to branch into various disciplines such as cave diving, wreck diving, combat diving, clearance diving, saturation diving etc.

While the fundamentals stay the same (decompression theory – practices might vary, mask clearing, finning techniques, basic emergencies) in all the fields, each specialisation has skills and theory which are pertinent only within its domain. (eg. A cave diver will carry redundancies for every equipment is probably use a side-mount setup, whereas a combat diver is likely to use CCRs and keep load to a minimum).

Cave Diving using sidemount setup

Therefore, to expect a Navy SEAL (who is exceptionally capable and hardened) or the military to carry out a rescue cave diving mission would be stupid. Simply because their primary role is to undertake clandestine and combat missions and not explore caves.

Similarly, it is very unlikely that a cave diver will be able to carry out a combat diving mission let alone succeed in achieving the ‘land objectives’ of the operation whereas a Navy SEAL unit will comfortably swim miles against the current with diving gear, a full weapon load and hostiles at the end of the swim. It is also likely that the same SEAL unit will swim back to their RZ/EP on achieving the land based objectives – all without detection.

The actual cause of the unfortunate death of the former Thai Navy SEAL will forever remain shrouded in uncertainty, but a glaring observation by the cave divers of the SEALS using combat diving procedures and practices in the caves does not bode well. Rumour has it that the former Navy SEAL failed to carry redundancies – which ultimately led to his downfall and death view lack of air.

Way Ahead at Home?

Both the British divers belong to the British Cave Rescue Council, specialists of cave rescue, while the Australian diver is known to them view the close-knit nature of the cave diving community.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, in India, there has been an increased propensity to rely on the Armed Forces to handle internal problems and emergencies. While most of such tasks fall under the capabilities and ambit of the armed forces, using them for such tasks will eventually blunt the tip of the sword.

At present, the NDRF (National Disaster Rescue Force), who handle small-scale situations boast of an in-house diving team. However, more often than not the military is called in to augment the force.

Diving for Evidence

API Ashwini Bidre’s murder in 2016 only grabbed the headlines on the revelation that 20 lakh INR was spent by the Indian Police to hire a diving team for carrying out a search for evidence. That the divers finally dove into the blue brown in 2018 is another matter altogether.

Indian Navy Divers search for API Bidre's Body in Vasai Creek.

While the Thai Cave Rescue saw the world unite in its efforts to bring home the team safely, the time afforded to the rescue authorities by the kids’ survival skills and monsoon was very fortuitous. Consider the same happening at home but without the time for calling in support from across the globe. All we’ll have are rescue forces with egg on their face.

Coz Money talks!

As an emerging country, the government is always busy grappling with various other and more alarming problems. Therefore, to relegate rescue services to a backseat (and unintentionally making the military into a disaster management force) is somewhat understandable. There are a few steps which can be taken, however, to mitigate this problem.

Off the top of my head, I can perhaps name a few SCUBA agencies operating in and around the mainland. One of them is headed by a person who has trained the Coast Guard and the Marine Police in SAR operations. With an increasing middle class looking for adventurous escapes, it would be wise to encourage participation in such sports.

Perhaps, a few could even graduate to reach a high skill level in their respective fields. This would allow the government to build a go-to list of in-house talent and improve the latency of response. Thus, the armed forces will focus on and hone their primary areas of specialisation without worrying about external factors. It will also allow the manifestation of a ‘Rescue List’ filled with experts in eclectic fields. This would also go a long way in saving public money!

All’s Well That Ends Well

Looking ahead, it is imperative that people realise the type-specific nature of the diving and rescue industry. Very rarely will two types overlap and it is most likely that one looking to make the switch from one type to another would likely have to undergo training and learn to forget her/his past training. The world is lucky that the Grand Cave of the Sleeping Lady has remained just that view the success of the Thai Cave Rescue and not turned into the Cave of Grand Tragedy.

The new manager of Chelsea FC Maurizio Sarri a former investment banker famously said: –

” You don’t need to have been a horse to be a top jockey”.

You might be right Mr Sarri, but different jobs require different horses and in the field of diving, if the horse is not the right one, then you might as well leave the jockey at home.

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