A search and rescue effort is underway in the Pentagon in the wake of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to cancel the U.S. Air Force’s $15 billion CSAR-X program, which aimed to buy 141 new combat search and rescue helicopters for that service.
Pentagon officials are searching for an answer to the question Gates posed when he announced his CSAR-X decision in April: "Whether this important mission can only be accomplished by yet another single-service solution with a single-purpose aircraft?"
The Air Force, meanwhile, is eager to rescue its ability to meet the demand for such missions in combat and elsewhere as its fleet of 101 HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters slowly succumbs to age. The Air Force’s HH-60Gs are now 19.7 years old on average, and only 97 of the 101 were flyable as of June, said Lt. Col. Paul Fiorenza, action officer for combat search and rescue on the Air Force acquisitions staff.
"Right now the fleet is in a chronic low density/high demand status," Fiorenza told Rotor & Wing. "There’s not enough."
The Air Force had hoped to start replacing its HH-60Gs in fiscal year 2012 with HH-47 Chinooks built by Boeing Co., which won a competition for the deal in 2006. The project immediately became mired in protests filed by Sikorsky Aircraft Co., which had offered a militarized version of its S-92, and a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp., which had offered a variant of AgustaWestland’s US101. The Air Force was seeking revised bids from the competitors when Gates decided to call a halt to the procurement. The Air Force officially cancelled Boeing’s CSAR-X contract on June 2.
The program’s "troubled acquisition history" was one reason Gates offered for his decision. "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," he added.
Ashton Carter, under secretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics, recently ordered the Pentagon’s Office of Program Analysis & Evaluation and the military’s Joint Staff to start that restudy of the CSAR requirement.
"Consistent with the secretary’s public statements, the department will reassess this important mission in the context of joint force capabilities," Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. "We expect a reply to the secretary’s tasking in the fall time-frame."
The mandate, Irwin noted, is to study how to accomplish combat search and rescue missions, not whether a joint-service or single-service CSAR aircraft should be procured.
Whether a new CSAR aircraft is needed at all is an issue that surfaced late last year. Carter’s predecessor as Pentagon procurement czar, John Young, raised it in an interview with defense reporters, questioning the idea that the "CSAR-X community is in desperate need."
Young told the Defense Writers Group, "I don’t know that that community has to have its own set of assets for the occasional rescue mission." Young went on to suggest that combat search and rescues could be done by existing utility helicopters and even the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which the U.S. Marine Corps put into service in Iraq in 2007 and the Air Force Special Operations Command began using earlier this year.
"When we do our rescue mission we’re going to do a come-as-you-are operation anyway, unless all the CSAR assets are prepositioned for that," Young said.
The Air Force’s Fiorenza said whether a new dedicated CSAR aircraft is needed "is the root of the question that we expect will be answered through analysis over the next several months." Fiorenza added, however, that CSAR aircraft are often only one part of a search and rescue mission. Medical personnel and equipment, fixed-wing aircraft that provide surveillance and close air support in combat rescues, aerial refueling tankers, and intelligence and communications gear also are often needed for such missions.
"To remove one of those pieces, I think you would say, would reduce the effectiveness of the entire system," Fiorenza said.
The Air Force is ready to help analyze the CSAR requirement again, Fiorenza said, but he added that while utility helicopters can be used for search and rescue, "the question is, are there areas where they may not have the training or equipment" needed "and in those cases, is it appropriate to have a smaller number of dedicated forces?"
An industry marketer, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid offending potential military customers, said Pentagon officials outside the Air Force seemed to be leaning toward former procurement czar Young’s view that existing military aircraft can do the CSAR job. With cost and schedule overruns in defense procurement programs a major issue and budgets under extraordinary pressure, "DoD and the services are looking for acquisition successes, not acquisition challenges," this marketer said.