A US Air Force CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, left, and an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter and an A-10 Thunderbolt II. The future of a long-stymied US Air Force effort to buy new combat search-and-rescue helicopters is one again uncertain as top-level generals are intensely debating the type of aircraft and which arm of the service is best suited to conduct this critical mission. (DoD)
WASHINGTON — The future of a long-stymied Air Force effort to buy new combat search-and-rescue helicopters is once again uncertain as top-level generals are intensely debating the type of aircraft and which arm of the service is best suited to conduct this critical mission.
For several months, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has been quietly lobbying to take over the combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) mission from Air Combat Command (ACC), arguing, according to sources and internal Air Force documents obtained by Defense News, they can do the mission with fewer aircraft, at lower cost.
AFSOC wants to perform the mission with Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a small contingent of Sikorsky HH-60 helicopters, the same type of aircraft that fly the mission now. The active-duty would operate a mix of CV-22s and HH-60s, while the Air National Guard and Reserve, as they do now, would only fly HH-60s.
The intense debate, which involves a handful of senior generals, comes as the Air Force is preparing to award a contract for up to 112 new helicopters to replace battle-worn HH-60G Pave Hawks.
The Air Force spat is just one example of the internal battles raging throughout a military grappling, for the first time in more than a decade, with how to handle smaller budgets.
For the Air Force, it is the latest wrinkle in a series of failed attempts over a more than 10-year period to replace an aged fleet of CSAR helicopters. The service views CSAR and personnel recovery as a core mission.
Currently, the Air Force operates about 100 HH-60G Pave Hawks in the CSAR mission. About two-thirds of those aircraft are flown and crewed by active-duty airmen. The rest come from the Guard and Reserve. CSAR squadrons have been constantly deployed to Afghanistan and routinely conduct medical evacuation missions under enemy fire.
The combat search-and-rescue helicopter replacement program, called CSAR-X, was designed to replace the HH-60G. The medium-sized aircraft was supposed to be larger, more powerful and technologically advanced than existing Pave Hawks.
In 2006, the Air Force selected the Boeing HH-47 Chinook, but voided that decision after the Government Accountability Office sustained several protests by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, who each submitted losing bids.
Since that time, the program to replace the Pave Hawk has undergone numerous requirement changes and schedule delays. The effort, once the Air Force’s No. 2 acquisition priority, has even had its name changed, twice, since 2009.
As the Pentagon’s budget declined, requirements have been scaled back, leading Sikorsky to place the only publicly acknowledged bid in the latest competition. The Air Force is expected to announce a winner in September.
Even if the CSAR mission stays in ACC, its future could still be in jeopardy if defense spending cuts — known as sequestration — remain in place. Those cuts could mean the Air Force budget would be reduced about $10 billion per year over the next nine years.
The Air Force is trying to replace a number of old aircraft — including tankers, fighters and bombers — through several recapitalization programs. Depending on the level of budget cuts, the Air Force could end up shedding the entire CSAR mission, according to sources.
DoD is preparing for future budget cuts through a process called the Strategic Choices and Management Review. The future of the CSAR mission has been part of those discussions, sources said.
“As the Air Force plans for future sequestration, we are looking at all options for saving resources,” Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said. “All of these options are pre-decisional.”
Asked about the future of the CSAR mission, spokespersons for ACC and AFSOC deferred comment to Air Force headquarters.
The Proposed Move to AFSOC
Air Combat Command currently oversees the CSAR mission and the fleet of Pave Hawk helicopters. AFSOC briefly oversaw the rescue missions from 2003 until 2006, when Gen. Michael Moseley, then Air Force chief of staff, moved the mission back to ACC.
At the time, the Air Force said the return to ACC “ensures the Air Force core competency of combat search and rescue is directly linked to the Combat Air Forces and the personnel they support, thus consolidating the management of limited Air Force resources.
“Under ACC, the CSAR assets can be mobilized faster during a national crisis, integrated into combat training, and tasked to support all [deployment] rotations,” the 2006 Air Force press release said.
Others say that since CSAR and personnel recovery is such a niche mission, it would naturally fit within the AFSOC construct.
“Significant efficiencies can be gained for the Air Force and [the Defense Department],” a current AFSOC brief claims, “while presenting a strong, credible and flexible force.”
A typical CSAR squadron includes HH-60s and Lockheed Martin HC-130 tankers used to refuel the helicopters.
Maj. Gen. George Williams, AFSOC vice commander, says moving the CSAR mission into AFSOC would save the service more than $3 billion between 2015 and 2025. Williams, according to briefings and sources, believes the CV-22, already operated by AFSOC, is a better fit for the mission because it can fly longer distances, faster than the HH-60.
AFSOC also believes the CV-22 is better suited for operating in denied airspace, currently a major focus in Air Force future planning.
AFSOC wants to replace 31 of the 66 active-duty HH-60s with 18 new Bell-Boeing CV-22s. This would be in addition to AFSOC’s planned fleet of 49 Ospreys for special operations.
Since the Air Force’s planned Osprey fleet is already obligated to special operations missions, it is unclear if the command will dedicate the additional 18 CV-22s solely for CSAR.
Each CV-22 costs about $77 million, according to Air Force budget documents, about three times as much as a new HH-60.
The AFSOC plan also includes upgrading the HC-130s to the MC-130 special operations configuration.
Under the AFSOC plan, the remaining active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve rescue squadrons would have their Pave Hawks replaced with 60 new HH-60s.
ACC, which currently handles CSAR, is opposed to the AFSOC proposal —particularly, according to sources, Gen. Michael Hostage, ACC commander.
ACC staff officers argue in an internal white paper that there are “no savings” by canceling the Pave Hawk recapitalization and buying CV-22s. Others in command pointed out that ACC’s CSAR fleet is dedicated solely to rescuing downed air crews. If the mission moves to AFSOC, sources questioned the priority the CSAR mission would be given if the Ospreys are also responsible for special operations taskings.
The AFSOC plan was dismissed in May by senior Air Force leadership, according to sources.
However, the issue was discussed during scheduled four-star meetings earlier in June. Following those discussions, sources said the Air Force’s strategic planning directorate was ordered to draft a program change request and lay out the specific mechanics of the transfer from ACC to AFSOC, including manpower changes and the cost of the move.
The move doesn’t indicate a decision has been made, sources said, but does show the senior leadership is seeking more details on what an AFSOC CSAR organization would look like.
Prior Study Opposed V-22
Following the collapse of CSAR-X in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the review of the entire CSAR and personnel recovery mission.
At the time, US Joint Force Command — which has since been absorbed into the Joint Staff — said the V-22 would was “not practical” for the CSAR mission of “hoisting live personnel, due to excessive downwash” from its massive, wing-mounted rotors.
The report also recommended against a mixed tilt-rotor and helicopter CSAR fleet.
“Mixed fleet concepts involving V-22s would invariably require simultaneous access to both aircraft types in the fleet,” the 2009 report stated. “The result would be an excess of assets assigned to the CSAR mission to ensure coverage across the range of potential conditions with no assurance of operation benefit.”
The report also said the V-22 would have trouble performing the mission at high altitudes in hot weather.
Some details of the V-22’s problems hovering in hot weather were documented in an AFSOC accident report following the June 2012 crash of a CV-22 on the Florida panhandle.
Following that crash, a second CV-22 attempted to hoist injured airmen, but aborted “due to the amount of downwash,” the accident report said. The second CV-22 also “began circling the crash site in airplane mode in an attempt to cool down their proprotor gearbox, which had begun heating up.”
Eventually, an Army helicopter performed the rescue.
The Osprey, however, has carried out combat rescue missions. Champions of the V-22 point to the 2011 rescue of an Air Force pilot in Libyaafter his F-15 fighter crashed.