A highly-capable, and professional USAF combat rescue force is the current target of beltway banter, fiscal posturing and political brinksmanship. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent budget recommendations and anecdotal CSAR assessments were generated by his OSD staff. Specifically, Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E) and Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) myopically, parochially, and unprofessionally advised their secretary on the Air Force CSAR mission, requirements and capabilities. By tying roles and missions, and CSAR-X acquisition into one topic based on faulty analysis, OSD staff caused inter-service rivalry and a hasty USAF helicopter program cancellation.
Recent comments concerning USAF rescue’s concept of operations by Gates during his War College speech tour are most troubling: "Frankly, the notion of an unarmed helicopter going 250 miles by itself to rescue somebody did not seem to me to be a realistic OPCON." This statement is a gross misrepresentation of the USAF rescue operational concept, current capabilities, and ongoing combat operations. I doubt that SECDEF intentionally misrepresented the USAF rescue mission, but clearly people with little knowledge of USAF rescue forces or capabilities advised Gates.
USAF rescue forces employ under a highly effective concept today. Just prior to Gates’ War College statement, two USAF HH-60Gs rescued a seriously wounded NATO soldier in Afghanistan and before they could depart the area, another NATO unit called for help. When a NATO AH-64 Apache couldn’t support, the HH-60s rolled in, killed the threat with no collateral damage, and prevented additional Allied casualties, all with the survivor on board. Who else can do this? This is the result of deliberate organization, training and equipping of a dedicated rescue force trained to handle this and many other difficult missions.
When British forces in Afghanistan needed rescue and close air support for Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent visit to the Helmand Province, they turned to USAF rescue forces because they possessed the unique ability to both protect the prime minister and recover him, should the worst happen.
Why would poor counsel like this percolate up to and bias OSD? The former USD/AT&L John Youngs’ comments revealed his bias, "I don’t know that community has to have its own set of assets for the occasional rescue mission," and "We have new things coming online, like V-22s...." Perhaps his staff was unaware that a validated 2002 Combat Rescue Analysis of Alternatives rejected the V-22 as an inappropriate CSAR platform for, among other reasons, survivability, rescue operations incompatibility, and cost. Perhaps AT&L is promoting the MV-22, which has half the firepower of a USAF Pave Hawk. These comments also show that AT&L’s advisory staff has a patent lack of Joint Doctrine knowledge. Current Doctrine for Joint Combat Search and Rescue (JP 3-50.2) states that: "Each Service...is responsible for performing [CSAR] in support of their own operations, consistent with their assigned functions...each Service...should take into account...capability of the CSAR capable forces of the others...." It’s ironic that Young would imply that the USAF may not need dedicated rescue while, at that moment, USAF CSAR was rescuing Army, Marine Corps, and Allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by direct request from joint and coalition commanders recognizing USAF rescue force capabilities.
The USAF provides joint CSAR service in compliance with DoD Policy and Joint Doctrine. OSD staff skepticism of dedicated USAF CSAR is contradictory to both DoD Policy and Joint Doctrine. Denigrating the requirement and cancelling major weapons system programs would be advisable only AFTER making a conscious decision to change policy and doctrine.
PA&E is also worth reviewing to understand why the OSD staff promotes these ideas to Gates. Bradley Berkson, PA&E director, has been described as the principle USAF CSAR elimination proponent in OSD. He has stated, "I’ve got 5,000 helos in DoD. When a pilot goes down, I’ll just call one of them." While Berkson generously donates personal time as a Mercy Flight volunteer pilot, CSAR is not a mission that can be performed similarly by well-meaning but untrained helicopter crews without killing the survivor, crew, or innocent bystanders. More puzzling is that Berkson co-chaired a high-level policy review in 2006 that validated the USAF’s need for CSAR and the service’s acquisition strategy. PA&E’s also seems to be influenced by a USMC bias.