The three-year saga of the U.S. Air Force’s attempt to acquire a new combat search and rescue helicopter apparently came to an end April 6 when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to kill the service’s CSAR-X (Combat Search and Rescue-X) program. Gates suggested he might have the Defense Department begin a new program to build a search and rescue aircraft all the services could use, but he offered no definite plan.
"This (CSAR-X) program has a troubled acquisition history and raises the fundamental question of whether this important mission can only be accomplished by yet another single-service solution with a single-purpose aircraft," Gates told a Pentagon news conference. "We will look at whether there is a requirement for a specialized search and rescue aircraft along the lines that the Air Force had in mind and whether it should be a joint capability."
Gates’ decision puts an end to a program the Air Force had said was its top rotorcraft priority but which suffered two false starts since 2006, becoming mired in disputes over how the service awarded an original contract. CSAR-X was to replace the Air Force’s Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters, a Black Hawk derivative the service bought between 1991-99. The Air Force estimates that by 2020, all but a handful of the 100 or so Pave Hawks it has left will have exceeded their projected 7,000-hour service life.
The Air Force originally selected Boeing’s HH-47 Chinook for the CSAR-X, a decision that surprised many because the search and rescue mission is usually deemed a medium-lift task and the Chinook is generally described as a heavy-lift helicopter. The deal with Boeing for 141 aircraft at an estimated $10 billion was scrapped after the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the auditing arm of Congress, ruled that the Air Force had strayed from its advertised evaluation criteria in making the award. The GAO issued its ruling after protests by Sikorsky, which offered a militarized version of its S-92, and the team of Lockheed Martin Systems Integration division of Owego, N.Y., and AgustaWestland, which had offered a variant of the Anglo-Italian company’s EH101.
The GAO sustained a second round of protests by Sikorsky and the Lockheed team after the Air Force reopened the bidding in 2007 but placed limits on how much the companies could revise their original proposals. The Pentagon Inspector General’s office, meanwhile, has been conducting its own audit of the Air Force’s handling of the CSAR-X bidding.
Congress may balk at other cuts Gates wants to make in Pentagon programs, but that seems unlikely in the case of CSAR-X, said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank with close ties to industry. Boeing and its allies on Capitol Hill might want to challenge Gates’ decision because the company was confident the HH-47 would win the competition in the end, but allies of Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, such as the Connecticut and New York congressional delegations, "don’t have that big a stake in seeing the program go forward," Thompson noted.