Last month, the U.S. Air Force made a curious announcement about its contract competition for a new high-speed, search-and-rescue helicopter. A bidder, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, provided "an acceptable technical solution" for the program to build a helo for finding and recovering pilots and other personnel from the battlefield. But no contract would be awarded. Doing so still depended on a review of the U.S. budget, the Air Force said.
The announcement occurred because the Air Force is giving serious consideration to the complete cancellation of the project, which calls for the purchase of up to 112 new helicopters to replace the aging HH-60 Pave Hawk. Top Air Force officials consider the purchase of the stealthy F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46A tanker and the long-range strike bomber to be bigger priorities, and appear willing to dump the search-and-rescue helicopter if necessary to protect them. That, despite Air Force leaders saying the service still considers the combat search-and-rescue mission a priority.
"The mission is not going anywhere," Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. "It's a part of what we do, and we're really good at adapting to get it done well."
Welsh's comments underscore a battle that has gone from simmering to boiling lately. Seventy-four members of Congress sent the Pentagon a letter on Thursday demanding that the Air Force continue funding the new helos, regardless of other budget pressures. A group of former combat rescue pilots and advocates also have stepped in, launching a website, savecombatrescue.org, and insisting that there is a moral imperative to keep the program alive because of its history of carrying wounded U.S. forces off the battlefield before they die.
"We believe this mission is too important to allow arbitrary budget pressures to thwart providing these lifesaving aircraft, and the Air Force should move forward with its acquisition strategy to recapitalize the [combat rescue helicopter] fleet in an expeditious manner," the members of Congress said in the letter to Pentagon officials this week.
That falls in line with the perspective of retired Gen. Michael Moseley, who led the Air Force as chief of staff from 2005 to 2008. In August, he and two other retired generals said in a letter published in Defense News that the search-and-rescue acquisition program should be protected.
"Cutting or delaying CRH now is false economy," they wrote. "While it appears to address short-term budgetary pressures, it imposes significant long-term investment penalties. The eventual acquisition of the helicopters will cost more, and the increasing expense of maintaining the aging fleet is crippling. Further delays will result in our crews attempting missions with degraded equipment, skills and training -- increasing accident rates, combat loss rates and mission failures."
The combat rescue mission will continue to occur, regardless. In fact, Air Force Special Operations Command has lobbied quietly this year to take on the mission using its CV-22, a special operations variant of the MV-22 Osprey the Marine Corps uses to ferry troops and supplies around the battlefield. Its unique tilt-rotor design allows it to take off like a helicopter but fly like an airplane, giving it more speed and range than other rotary wing aircraft. A decision on that proposal has not been announced.
The pushback on the proposed cancellation of the Air Force helicopters has put the service in a tough position. Welsh said Friday that to meet mounting budget pressures it is better to cancel some programs entirely, rather than buying fewer of most aircraft. The remark came in the context of defending another plane on the chopping block, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, which provides close-air support to ground troops. But it could have applied to the search-and-rescue helicopters, too.
"It's a program that we must have at some point," Welsh said of the rescue helo. "But we're talking about lots of things that we must have. The Air Force has to recapitalize in certain mission areas. The question for us in what order to we recapitalize as the budgets come down. If there's not enough money to do it all, what priority order to we put these things in?"
That remains to be seen.
U.S. Air Force photo