USAF Combat Search and Rescue

By By Shannon Bower | November 1, 2010
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I normally write a positive, upbeat story about something good that is going on in our industry, because, let’s face it, we don’t need to be infighting, and the industry is fragile enough as it is. However, something is really sticking in my craw these days, and, it is not an industry problem—it is a military problem. Actually, it is a bureaucrat problem and it boils down to just one bureaucrat stalling the acquisition process because he thinks it will allow him to get an appointment/promotion, and as a result, our warriors are left to swing in the wind. This will not stand.

Now, hold on to your hats—there are a lot of acronyms to hide behind in this organization, a dizzying array of rules (some that keep everyone honest, and some to use as cover), and then there is the Beltway Two-Step, which will be pointed out, with little regard for political correctness (as I have none).

I am going to try to keep the acronyms to a minimum, but some of it is unavoidable. Acronyms serve two purposes: to speed up internal communication, and keep outsiders from understanding what is being discussed in an open forum—so when things really get going, you have to be a linguist, or raised in the environment to keep up.


After my foray into Air Force CSAR for Have Guns Will Travel in November 2006, I’ve retained a keen interest in the mission and the well-being of the forces with whom I was privileged to live and work for two weeks. But following the acquisition debacle surrounding the replacement aircraft for their aging helicopters, I grew concerned. With that concern and curiosity I did some digging and what I found wasn’t pretty. So, when a civilian bureaucrat, who has been given the responsibility to purchase the necessary equipment, does not do so, for what appears to be personal gain, I am going to call a spade a spade. Mr. David Van Buren is a spade.

When I tried calling Mr. Van Buren’s office to get his take on this, I was re-routed to the Air Force Public Information Officer (PIO). The PIO was very polite, and took my questions for Mr. Van Buren, but the answers were not forthcoming in time for publication. His actions, or rather his inactions, speak louder than words. His title is acting Undersecretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions. That is, he has not yet been appointed, and has just been filling in since April 2009.

As the title implies, he is in the business of buying things. Specifically, aircraft for the Air Force. So, why aren’t helicopters being purchased?

Van Buren wants to get promoted in an office that has had big problems buying aircraft. The Beltway Two-Step is implied here, which means “don’t do anything to get you noticed.” This is wrong, in so many ways, besides the fact that it is doing the exact opposite of what he is supposed to do, which is purchase the things he is told to purchase.

The Systems Program Office (SPO) in Air Force Material Command does not have people that speak and understand Helicopter. The SPO’s job is to see the purchase process through to completion, and is supposed to “catch” all the problems and deal with them. Currently they are buying “widgets” and don’t understand the subtleties of helicopter operations—they need to listen to and include helo operators.

The third and symptomatic problem is caused by the Air Force Chief of Staff, who re-juggled his acquisition priorities after taking office, putting CSAR below his top ten priority list when, for years, it was No 2. This despite the direction from the Secretary of Defense to Recapitalize the fleet “…procure replacement rotary wing aircraft based upon currently fielded CSAR capabilities.” I understand that all the services are under extreme pressure to reduce defense budgets but surely this program that was No. 2 and is receiving remarkable press for their heroic actions in combat, deserves better than sub top-10 status.

Mr. Van Buren was even directed by the Secretary of Defense in this chain Directive to buy more helicopters: (U) Air Force.  Adjust resources, as summarized below and specified in detail in Table 7 of Appendix I, to terminate the CSAR-X program and procure replacement rotary wing aircraft based upon currently fielded CSAR capabilities.” In mortal-man speak, this means, “[stop messing around with new stuff and go out and get more PaveHawks, so the folks can do their job.]”

One may ask, “Now, who are you to question what is going on?” Well, to date, I am pretty sure that I have personally bought more helicopters than the man in charge of buying all the helicopters for the Air Force.

To be fair to Mr. Van Buren, he does have a few things on his plate that have him worried. The recent history of the Air Force purchasing problems is not pretty. For instance, the “KC-X” aerial refueling tanker fell apart the same month he started working in Air Force Acquisitions, and “CSAR-X”—which was to be the “new” combat SAR helicopter that was going to be a “new airframe.” The CSAR-X was what everyone supposedly wanted. The problem was, that the actual CSAR units were more or less offered several aircraft that were what another organization wanted to use for a different mission. This was because at the time, CSAR was placed under the same financial roof with this other organization. Now, I am not throwing stones at the other organization—they were trying to get new aircraft for their aging fleet as well, and rightly so, but this was done in the wrong way. CSAR should be CSAR, and other operational units that need special aircraft should get those machines that they need too.

CSAR is now back under Air Combat Command—the command that it was originally designed to support. I’ve said it before: Every model of aircraft in the Air Force inventory is a special unit, with special capabilities, and special support needs. Period.

One need go no further than any Air Force ramp or hangar bay to see that each type of jet even has its own specially designed rolling ladder that is shaped specifically to that aircraft—some jets in the inventory even have specially designed hangars that are set up just for that type of jet. You may laugh, but that is how the Air Force does things—for everything, except CSAR. For those of you unfamiliar with the mission of CSAR, if someone (Air Force, another Service, or even in many cases, civilians) has a really bad day and gets an airplane shot-out from underneath them, or finds themselves swimming in the ocean 200 miles out to sea, or is stuck between a rock and another rock, with unfriendly people quite possibly shooting at them—the first group of people willing to fly into the worst weather to come and get you is CSAR … provided they now have a helicopter available.

You see, their remaining helicopters in operation are beat up, shot up, or blown up, and over half of them are currently flying under an engineering waiver for mechanical conditions that would have grounded them during peace time (hats off to the maintenance crews for keeping them in the air). The current count is below the original Cold War planning numbers of 112 PaveHawks in inventory, due to 10 years of hard combat, where the CSAR operational tempo is triple of what they were “planned” to do. The helicopters are worn out, and no replacement PaveHawks have been purchased to fill in for the combat losses (called Operational Loss Replacements [OLR])—or for recapitalization, even though the approval to do so has been given by the Secretary of Defense.

On top of that oversight, the number crunchers in the Pentagon have figured out that instead of having only 112 PaveHawks, CSAR really needs up to 171 helicopters to cover all of the world wide responsibilities that CSAR has been given.

The Air Force also operates a daily workhorse helicopter program here at home, that supports the maintenance and people-moving of all our remote missile sites and also takes care of all the transportation needs for Air Force around D. C. and utility needs around the country. These helicopters are old, early version Bell 212s. The replacement program for the 40-plus-year-old aircraft is called the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform (CVLSP) and it outlines a helicopter that had fantastic performance capabilities, closely parallel with the UH-60M Blackhawk (the current production from Sikorsky—they have already built 200 for the U.S. Army). The Air Force needs 93 of these aircraft for the workhorse missions here at home.

Rotor & Wing has learned that the Air Force has completed and received approval from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) for the Capabilities Development Documents (requirements document) for both CVLSP and the Recapitalization of the C-SAR PaveHawks. Those documents cite the performance of the required aircraft and mission systems. Reportedly, those documents state requirements that a modified H-60M could easily fulfill. That means that the Air Force could make a “bulk purchase” of more than 200 modified H-60Ms from Sikorsky to fulfill the needs that are already approved, without a bunch of gnashing of teeth from the rest of the industry, simply because the Air Force is buying like type helicopters for a program that already exists... Makes sense to me.

While there is no “Easy Button” inside the Pentagon, there is also no way that inaction on the part of the acting Undersecretary is saving lives. In fact, his lack of action is directly contributing to the mortality rate of our warriors. The men and women of the Armed Forces are doing what he asks them to do, and in turn he needs to do the work that he was hired to do and buy helicopters.

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