Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) is perhaps the most challenging of all Air Force missions: flying low and slow at night, in bad weather and while using terrain to mask their approach, and often without the benefit of surprise, CSAR units operate near hostile air defenses that have already shotdown U.S. or allied aircraft whose crews are already being hunted by the enemy.
In light of such danger and risk, it is no accident that 18 of the Air Force’s 21 enlisted Air Force Cross recipients received those awards for duties conducted during rescue operations. But despite the expense in time and resources, and the risks the rescuers face, the Air Force is as willing to aggressively conduct rescue missions as it was in CSAR’s “golden-age” during the Vietnam War. According to Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Ryan, “our men and women who fly put great faith not only in the capacity of the system to come get them if it needs to, but in our commitment to find them.”
General Ryan has a unique understanding about the importance of his service’s CSAR capabilities: in June 1995, as the commander of Operation Deny Flight, then-Lieutenant General Ryan spent six frustrating days trying to rescue downed USAF F-16 pilot Capt. Scott O’Grady from Bosnian soil while both the U.S. government and American public held its collective breath. “When we went after O’Grady, we flew over 400 sorties trying to find him and the night we went after him we had about 30 to 35 airplanes in the air focused only on that mission and we had other missions going on as well. CSAR is not just one helicopter picking up a guy the pickup is just one part of the mission CSAR is a huge operational investment that usually happens where there are active and alert enemy defenses,” Ryan added.
With the help of the United States Marine Corps, Captain O’Grady was eventually rescued and the United States was able to avoid the geopolitical complications of having one of its citizen-soldiers in enemy hands. By contrast, the 1993 capture of U.S. Army Warrant Officer Michael Durant by Somali gunmen contributed to the derailment of America’s efforts to restore hope to the Horn of Africa. And with the addition of female combat pilots to the ranks of military aviation, CSAR has become even more important the political fallout from putting America’s daughters in harms way without adequate means of rescuing them cannot be ignored.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon’s approach to CSAR became “ad hoc” for two decades with CSAR responsibilities moving first from the Air Rescue Service (ARS), then to the Military Airlift Command, then to ARS again following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But since the O’Grady rescue, CSAR has received renewed interest from U.S. policymakers and defense planners, resulting in a series of congressional mandates, DoD directives and Joint Staff instructions making the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) at Langley AFB, Virginia with operational help from Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Pacific Air Forces units responsible for CSAR operations.
With ACC as its advocate, the CSAR community is now experiencing a renaissance of sorts. After years of neglect, the service is placing new emphasis on and resources toward its ability to recover captured, missing or isolated personnel from danger. Such capacity and proficiency are essential if the Air Force is to become a leaner, meaner 21st century fighting force capable of directing airpower against an adversary while reducing the risks its people will face. According to General Ryan, “CSAR is [on] the right path. We have made great strides over the years, we have some good things coming down the pike, and our capability to execute a CSAR [mission]… is a lot better than it used to be.”
The Chief of Staff’s words are matched by two CSAR initiatives now underway that will improve the Air Force’s rescue capabilities: the establishment of dedicated CSAR advocates within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, on the Joint Staff and at the regional warfighting commands; and the modernization of the Air Force’s CSAR fleet to ensure that during the coming decades the performance, reliability and survivability of the service’s rescue aircraft keep pace with the needs of the world’s premier military aerospace force.
The Air Force’s CSAR fleet will during the next few years expand slightly to include 107 Sikorsky HH-60G helicopters and 33 Lockheed Martin HC-130N/P tankers combat search and rescue versions of the C-130 transport that extend the range of CSAR helicopters through aerial refuelings. The HC-130s are also used to coordinate rescue operations between CSAR helicopters and rescue escort fighters or attack jets. The HH-60Gs are, however, beginning to show their age the oldest helicopters were produced in 1981 and it is becoming harder for the service to find spare and repair parts for those aircraft. As a result, the Air Force will soon begin an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to determine how the service could best modernize its CSAR assets. “Something needs to be done,” Lieutenant Colonel Kerry Taylor, ACC’s chief for air superiority and combat search and rescue requirements, said. “The AoA which will be completed by 2000 will help us determine what exactly that something should be, he added.”
According to Taylor, the AoA is expected to consider at least five options: whether the Air Force should rebuild and keep flying its HH-60Gs; buy new HH-60 helicopters, replace its existing helicopters with next-generation helicopters such as the Westland/Agusta EH101 or the pan-European NH-90; develop a futuristic CSAR aircraft; or replace its helicopters with an existing U.S. military aircraft design, such as the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. In mid-December 1998, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) the Pentagon’s last word on operational requirements approved funding for the CSAR AoA. At the same time, however, the JROC stressed its interest in the V-22 option due to the aircraft’s revolutionary flight capabilities and its potential to simplify future CSAR operations while greatly improving the service’s rescue capabilities.
According to preliminary estimates, for example, over 90 EH101 helicopters would be needed to replace the Air Force’s HH-60G fleet of 107 aircraft but they would still need to be supported by an HC-130 fleet of at least 30 tankers. By contrast, only 65 HV-22s (as a CSAR variant tiltrotor is sometimes called), however, would be needed to meet the Air Forces CSAR needs due to the tiltrotor’s unique abilities to hover like helicopters and fly like and as fast and far as fixed-wing airplane. With the Osprey, the Air Force will have an aircraft which can replace a costly variety of helicopters and airplanes while meeting the array of traditional and new mission requirements that mark the uncertain post-Cold War era.
Under development by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing since the early-1980s for the Marine Corps, the V-22 will become operational in 2001 and replace the Corps’ aging fleet of CH-46 helicopters. In addition, the Air Force is scheduled to buy 50 CV-22s long-range variants of the original V-22 design for the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and the U.S. Navy has signed up for 48 more. As a result most, if not all, of the HV-22’s development has already been completed and paid for.
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