Air Assault: Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES)

Operators fast roping from the 160th SOAR (A) helicopter
Operation Enduring Freedom: A operators are descending from the 160th SOAR (A) helicopter (Photo: U.S. Army)

FRIES or Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System, usually know as Fast-roping or as a fast rope is a technique for descending a thick rope. It was invented for deploying troops from a helicopter in places and situations where it is hard or impossible for the helicopter itself to touch down. Fast roping allows soldiers to respond to crises, and to be inserted as a quick reaction force. It also allows them to conduct missions requiring stealth and to board vessels while at sea.

Fast Rope

Fast roping is rappelling from a helo without a harness, You jump for a big thick rope and slide down it (wearing heavy gloves) At the bottom you just let go of the rope and are ready to fight. It is used when the Chopper can’t land. It is very fast and troops carry only what is needed for an immediate attack. This is also used when the chopper needs to be out of the way as soon as possible. It is also MUCH more dangerous and you cannot bring a full rucksack with you.

An operator doing fast rope from the Blackhawk helicopter hovering over the top of the building
An operator doing fast rope from the Blackhawk helicopter hovering over the top of the building (Photo: XY)

US Air Assault units normally rappel into an LZ (Landing Zone). The LZ may not be smooth enough for the choppers to land and since the helos are exposed the LZ should be secured or remote from the enemy. Troops wear a harness and rappel into a landing zone (LZ) two or four troops at a time. They can carry their ruck and full equipment but have to clear the rope from their harness.

Air Assault

Air assault is when you use helicopters to insert troops to secure areas or attack behind enemy lines. Rappelling is another way of saying fast rope(in). Air assault/VTOL is the same thing.

Air assault is the next evolution in Airborne technique it’s the future. Air assault has been used more in the war on terror than parachute operations. The last time the US Army conducted a combat jump/parachute operation was in the opening stages of operations Iraqi freedom when the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped in northern Iraq.

The tactical advantage of air assault operations (not just the act of repelling) over fast roping is speed, equipment infiltration, and increased deception.

Air Assault Insertion/Extraction techniques
Air Assault Insertion/Extraction techniques (Photo: XY)

Ground Force Commanders would rather land a UH-60 and debark all troops in 5–10 seconds rather than have the Blackhawk hover for 30–60 seconds while 12 troops slide down the lines. The Blackhawk is under much greater danger hovering than briefly landing.

Air Assault allows troops to debark with full combat loads and move quickly. All the times I’ve fast roped, my ruck, and my teammate’s rucks were lower on a separate line, which exposed us for a longer period while we recovered the rucks.

Air Assault vs Fast Rope

Air assault can be done from fixed-wing aircraft. Fast roping can only be done by rotorcraft. This has several implications:

  1. Fixed-wing aircraft can carry a lot more troops and materiel, enabling a larger and stronger force to be inserted in one pass.
  2. When fast roping, the transport has to hover in place until the boots are all on the ground. This is an extremely vulnerable position to be in.
  3. Para drops can be done from a much higher altitude and speed, which protects both the aircraft and the troops.
  4. Owing to #3, it is much easier to perform a stealthy insertion with a paradrop vs. using helicopters. With rotorcraft, it is practically guaranteed that enemies in the vicinity will know you are there.

That having been said, there are of course advantages to fast roping too. You get all your men in exactly one spot- usually, the right spot, whereas a paradrop can scatter them over a large area (requires regrouping and could put them in a really bad situation). Some terrain makes parachuting is very risky or impossible. And just by having rotorcraft in the area, you have a bit more flexibility- they can land and pick troops up, support them, and refuel/rearm at places where there isn’t a runway.

History

It was first introduced by the British with UK rope manufacturer Marlow Ropes and was first used in combat during the Falklands War. The original rope was thick nylon that could be used in a manner akin to a firepole. That is different from the special ropes used today because they are braided (plaited), which results in a pattern on the outer circumference that is not smooth and so is easier to grip. With an old rope, Originally, each person would hold the rope for the next person; however, this has been phased out.

Techniques

Fast rope is much quicker and easier than abseiling (rappelling), although more dangerous, particularly if the person is carrying a heavy load because the rope is not attached to them with a descender. The user holds onto the rope with his gloved hands and feet and slides down it without any security.

Several people can slide down the same rope simultaneously, provided that there is a security gap of approximately 3 meters (9.8 ft) between them so that each one has time to get out of the way when they reach the ground.

It is important to use gloves when lowering because lowering causes a lot of friction heat.

The fast rope technique used to board the ship takes about 30 seconds and is used when it is needed to overtake it fast and by surprise.

Special Operations Forces

My perception is that fast rope is best used when irregular LZs prevent landing. The rotor wash of a helo is 1.5 times the length of the blade. So hovering over a building may cause an uneven distribution of lift, which is what I believe happened during the Operation Neptune Spear (raid to capture/kill Bin Laden), causing a helo to lose control momentarily.

Rappelling, specifically, is best used with troops who don’t have the level of expertise that SOF, who typically fast ropes, does.

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