The Sikorsky HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter. (Sikorsky)
The U.S. Senate is calling for additional Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters (CSAR) for the Air National Guard to account for delays in the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program and planned replacements of HH-60Gs lost in combat.
“It is the sense of Congress that, given delays to Operational Loss Replacement (OLR) program fielding and the on-time fielding of Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), the Air National Guard should retain additional HH–60G helicopters at Air National Guard locations to meet their recommended primary aircraft authorized (PAA) per the Air Force’s June 2018 report on Air National Guard HH–60 requirements," according to the report on the Senate's version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the version that passed the Senate on June 27 with a vote of 86 to 8.
For its part, Sikorsky said that the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program is on schedule.
Greg Hames, director of the Combat Rescue Helicopter program at Sikorsky, said that CRH "is on track to achieve the Objective Milestone C date in September, per the Acquisition Program Baseline schedule."
"The HH-60W flight test program continues to progress with two aircraft in flight test," he said. "Since first flight was achieved on May 17, we have accumulated over 35 hours of test flights and envelope expansion activities. These flight test aircraft are beginning to enter the data collection phase for the Milestone C decision. A third and fourth aircraft will enter flight test in late summer."
The Senate calls for the Air Force Secretary to submit a report within 45 days of the passage of the NDAA conference measure. That report, the Senate advises, should include a "description of the differences in capabilities between the HH–60G, OLR, and CRH helicopters, a description of the costs and risks associated with changing the CRH fielding plan to reduce or eliminate inventory shortfalls, a description of the measures for accelerating the program available within the current contract, a description of the operational risks and benefits associated with fielding the CRH to the active component first, including how the differing fielding plan may affect deployment schedules; what capabilities active-component units deploying with the CRH will have that reserve component units deploying with OLR will not; and an analysis of the potential costs and benefits that could result from accelerating CRH fielding to all units through additional funding in the future years defense program."
Three years ago, the Air Force introduced the first of the HH-60G Pave Hawk OLR helicopters at a Huntsville, Alabama, ceremony. The OLR program replaces Pave Hawks lost in combat since 2001.
"The Air Force is converting 19 Army UH-60L helicopters to the USAF HH-60G configuration, enhancing mission capability for rescue operations by bringing the HH-60G fleet back up to 112 aircraft," the Air Force said last year. "During fiscal year 2018, the OLR team resolved two major developmental testing deficiencies delaying entry into operational testing, and delivered the second developmental testing aircraft, clearing the path for full quantity delivery in fiscal year 2019/2020."
The Pentagon’s Director of Test and Evaluation report for 2018 weapon testing noted several deficiencies relating to CRH survivability, but Sikorsky has said that the program has either corrected or is in the process of certifying fixes for those problems — dealing with the crew seats, the rescue hoist, ballistic performance and the gun mount design for the FN Herstal-built machine guns.
The company said that it has addressed all but the gun mount redesign for CRH, that the program is back on schedule, and that the company has cut five months off the time it should take to ready the aircraft for production.
As of May last year, the Air Force had 82 primary mission and backup Pave Hawks, as well as 12 training HH-60Gs and two developmental and testing aircraft.
While active Air Force units are to begin receiving HH-60Ws in fiscal 2020, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units are not to receive them until fiscal 2026 and 2027, respectively.
"According to Air Force officials, the Combat Rescue Helicopter fielding schedule, which was included in the contract for the new helicopters, was designed to ensure that helicopters with the highest flying hours are generally replaced first," according to Air Force Plans to Replace Aging Personnel Recovery Helicopter Fleet, a report last August by the Government Accountability Office.
"The officials told us that this is why the active component units, which have higher flying-hour averages, would begin receiving their new Combat Rescue Helicopters in fiscal year 2020," the report said. "Based on the current Combat Rescue Helicopter fielding schedule, the Air Force Reserve is scheduled to receive its new helicopters beginning in fiscal year 2026. The Air National Guard is scheduled to receive refurbished Operational Loss Replacement helicopters in fiscal year 2019 and the new Combat Rescue Helicopters beginning in fiscal year 2027.
The last Combat Rescue Helicopters are scheduled to be fielded to all three components in fiscal year 2029."
The National Guard Association of the United States has said that Air National Guard Pave Hawks "have been in high demand both at home and abroad" and that "many of them suffer the same significant structural and mechanical issues that plague those in the active component."
"To make the Guard squadrons wait until the active component and the Reserve are fully equipped is unacceptable,” the association said.
Most Pave Hawks, which entered service in 1982, have passed the expected flying life of 6,000 hours, and those in the active component average about 2,000 more flight hours than those in the reserve component.
The Air Force has said that the refurbished Army helicopters for the ORL program have about 3,000 fewer flying hours than the Guard’s current aircraft.
"The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard did not concur with the Combat Rescue Helicopter fielding schedule," according to the GAO report last August. "Reserve component officials said they did not concur, in part, because the Air Force did not coordinate the fielding schedule prior to the contract’s approval in 2014. However, according to headquarters Air Force officials, the Combat Rescue Helicopter fielding schedule was coordinated with and approved by all components prior to the 2014 contract being approved. Further, Air Force officials stated they plan to maintain the fielding schedule because changing it would require the renegotiation of the contract and would likely result in increased costs and possibly a delay in delivery of the new helicopters."