A UH-60M Black Hawk (Lockheed Martin Photo)
Equipping National Guard and Reserve units with hand-me-down helicopters, which the U.S. Army calls "cascading," can lead to such units receiving new technology or significant upgrades, including those for rotorcraft, nearly a decade after active duty units.
"Helicopters are always among the issues at the forefront of the National Guard Association of the United States agenda," John Goheen, a spokesman for the association wrote in an email. "The Army Guard has approximately 200 old A-model UH-60 Black Hawks. In addition, the Army Guard’s four Apache units are authorized only 18 aircraft when they need 24 to deploy. In addition, they are D-model AH-64s when the active component flies mostly E-models. "
Sikorsky manufactures the Black Hawk, while Boeing builds the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.
"Unfortunately, there are significant systemic challenges with the current process for funding and procurement of new technology that impede the implementation of modernization strategies — particularly for the RCs [reserve components] which make up 40 percent of the total force," according to the DoD National Guard and Reserve Equipment Report for Fiscal 2020, published in March. "Rapidly evolving technologies and an equipping model that relies upon cascading older, legacy equipment to the RCs, risks outpacing the concept of a Total Force. Because the pace of competition is increasing, DoD will achieve and maintain a technological edge only by quickly translating new technology into a fielded capability."
"However, this requirement for speed, within arcane and bureaucratic procurement and funding processes, compounds challenges for fielding new technology to the RC, as RCs are often prioritized in the back end of the funding and fielding cycles," the report said. "When RC requirements are not prioritized into capital investments, concurrent fielding of technology does not occur, adding to incompatibility challenges."
The technology gap between Guard and Reserve capabilities and those of active duty units has captured congressional attention.
The U.S. Senate, for example, is calling for additional Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters (CSAR) for the Air National Guard (ANG) 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.
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."
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.
"ANG and the Air Force Reserves are working together to test and field the Blue Force Tracker 2 and Link-16 system to build the crews and C2 situational awareness," according to the fiscal 2020 Equipment Report. "A Full Motion Video capability will be added to the aircraft with the procurement of Rover 6 for the HH-60. A helmet mounted heads up display will provide, within the field-of-view of the aircrew, flight data as well as the geographic location of friendly, hostile, and survivor positions. ANG HH-60Gs require an integrated defensive suite capable of defeating infrared threats while providing aircrew with accurate and precise indications of radio frequency threat systems with an associated audio warning. The ANG will begin receiving 18 refurbished HH-60Gs in 2019 to fill its authorized requirement."
Air National Guard rescue wings in Alaska, California and New York fly HH-60Gs, and such helicopters average 26-years-old, while Reserve HH-60Gs have been in the fleet even longer: 28 years, according to the report. The Air National Guard's fleet of Pave Hawks "have more than the standard 26 years of wear and tear," Goheen said. "They’ve had a high ops tempo the last two decades."
The Air Force Reserve has 15 HH-60Gs at Patrick AFB, Forida, and Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.
"At 28 years old, the current aircraft have limited command and control capability, which hampers the ability for personnel recovery, inter-fly with attack assets, and joint interoperability," according to the report. "Additionally, the current offensive and defensive capabilities are insufficient to survive major combat operations without extensive force packaging. Our planned investments, to be funded using NGREA [National Guard and Reserve Equipment Appropriations], will improve this platform’s situational awareness and provide improved data links to both ground personnel and other airborne assets, enhancing its ability to complete its primary missions of Combat Search and Rescue and Personnel Recovery. The plan in the next FYDP [future years defense plan] includes recapitalizing this fleet, approximately six years after the AC [active component] replaces theirs."
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.