Now that defense secretary Robert Gates has delayed selection of a new combat search-and-rescue-helicopter, the joint force has to figure out how it wants to handle the mission in the future. Something needs to be done soon, because the Air Force’s existing fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters is getting too decrepit to fly. I argued in an October 9 posting that a mixed fleet of conventional rotorcraft and V-22 tilt-rotors would be the best outcome, both budgetarily and operationally. But whatever path is chosen, it ought to be based on accurate facts and analysis. It isn’t so clear that’s what is happening right now.
A case in point is the recent report by the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which rated the quality of military organizations and equipment for conducting combat search-and-rescue missions. The agency correctly stated that Air Force crews are better trained for such demanding missions than warfighters in other services, and also noted the special equipment that makes Pave Hawk so well suited to dangerous extractions. But its assessment of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, by far the most capable airframe likely to be assigned to the mission in the future, was riven with misconceptions.
For instance, it questioned the value of V-22 extractions more than 2,000 feet above sea level where landing is not feasible, when in fact the Air Force training base for its special-operations CV-22s is nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, and hover exercises are routinely conducted at higher altitudes. It complained about excessive downwash from rotors when multiple deployments to Iraq have revealed little downwash difficulty beyond what would be expected from any rotorcraft. It said the airframe was inadequately protected when the V-22 is more survivable than any conventional helicopter and is being equipped with a belly-mounted turret and ramp gun. It questioned the ability to hoist people while hovering when Air Force and Marine crews frequently do just that in mountains, jungles and deserts.
In fairness, the joint agency did acknowledge that V-22s fly much farther and much faster than any conventional helicopter, while still being able to land and takeoff vertically. But agency personnel don’t seem to get the point that no amount of training and equipment on a next-generation chopper is going to make much difference if the aircraft chosen can’t reach the remote locations where warfighters are stranded, or if the aircraft takes so long to get there that the enemy finds our warfighters first. Perhaps before the Pentagon has its next round of competition to field a new combat search-and-rescue airframe, it should have a fly-off of all available aircraft to see which does a better job. That would be a good remedy for all the nonsense about downwash and other supposed problems that impedes accurate analysis.
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