It must be a tough job running the U.S. Air Force these days. It’s still the most powerful aerospace force in the world, but every week its leaders participate in choices that eventually will call that status into question. First its family of future radar planes was killed. Then the revolutionary space radar that was supposed to provide an alternative to radar planes was axed too. Then its next-generation air-superiority fighter was terminated at less than half the stated requirement. Then it was forced to start over on a new bomber. Then policymakers began gnawing away at the service’s plans for its most capable unmanned aircraft.
No doubt about it, the Air Force is in a steep decline. But at some point, the service has to run out of shiny new ideas to kill, right? Well, not yet. The latest candidate for termination is the decade-long effort to find a future combat search-and-rescue rotorcraft that can perform missions better that the existing Reagan-era HH-60G Pave Hawk. Retrieving downed pilots and other endangered personnel is a niche mission that the Air Force has dominated for decades, but now its fleet of dedicated search-and-rescue helicopters has grown old through overuse, and readiness (not to mention safety) is an increasing concern.
Way back at the beginning of the decade the service conducted an analysis of alternatives for how to modernize, and concluded the existing Pave Hawks were too small and range-constrained to accomplish some future missions. Fortunately, there were several highly-capable alternatives to choose from, such as the bigger, more survivable EH-101, and the versatile V-22 tiltrotor that combines the vertical agility of a helicopter with the range and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft. The service conducted a competition, and concluded the best option was the twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook produced by Boeing (a version of the existing search-and-rescue helicopter wasn’t even offered). But then the lawyers took over, a successful protest was launched, and the whole modernization program drifted into limbo as defense secretary Robert Gates purged the Air Force’s senior leaders.
Fast forward two years, and it’s like a decade of hard work at finding a truly capable search-and-rescue rotorcraft has all been forgotten. The Air Force wants to just buy more of the venerable HH-60s, presumably with updated electronics, and call it a day. It doesn’t want to conduct a competition because its says that would cause too much delay in fielding new rotorcraft, and it seems to have developed amnesia about the 2002 analysis of alternatives that found the existing helicopter isn’t adequate for future needs. So once again, the Air Force of tomorrow is slipping away as today’s leaders make compromises to stay within their budgets. If you’re a taxpayer who wants to reduce the budget deficit, then perhaps it sounds like a good thing that the service is drastically paring its requirements for search-and-rescue. But if your kid wants to be a combat pilot, maybe you better direct him or her to a service like the Marine Corps, which looks like it will be better equipped than the Air Force in the future to rescue pilots when they are shot down in far-away places.
Find Archived Articles: