When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the Air Force’s planned re-competition of a next-generation combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopter earlier this year, it wasn’t so clear where that mission was headed. While each military service possesses helicopters that can be used to recover personnel at risk, the Air Force’s HH-60G Pave Hawk units are uniquely trained and equipped to carry out such missions in wartime. They are intrinsically versatile, because any aircraft and crew that can accomplish missions as challenging as combat search-and-rescue can also perform other missions, such as medical evacuation and special-forces insertion/extraction.
But the Pave Hawks are old, and their age is beginning to affect their availability on short notice. So the fleet needs to be modernized, unless the joint force has decided to walk away from its commitment to retrieve warfighters at risk behind enemy lines. That doesn’t mean Gates was wrong to call a halt, though, because the Air Force was planning to replace old helicopters with new helicopters, not exactly the most imaginative approach to next-generation operations. Since current combat search-and-rescue doctrine was developed, the joint force has begun fielding the revolutionary V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, which far surpasses the performance of any conventional rotorcraft in speed, range and endurance. Leaving V-22 out of the CSAR mix seems foolish, not to mention dangerous.
The reason V-22 was left out the first time around was money: tilt-rotors cost more than helicopters. But that logic is myopic. If it can fly farther and fly faster, then a tilt-rotor will be of greater value in situations where warfighters are trapped deep behind enemy lines, or where time is of the essence (like in medical evacuations). Besides, the force will get a lot more bang for its bucks if it fields airframes that can accomplish many missions rather than a few. In other words, the V-22 only looks more costly than a regular helicopter if you ignore the many ways in which it out-performs a helicopter. A more imaginative concept of operations would recognize that having a craft that flies as far and fast as a fixed-wing airplane while being able to hover and land like a helicopter opens up all sorts of possibilities not previously available in the CSAR mission area.
An affordable way of realizing this untapped potential would be to field a mixed fleet of tilt-rotors and conventional helicopters. The Air Force already plans to operate HH-60s and a special-operations version of the V-22, so it could easily stay on its present path while buying additional increments of both airframes (or just re-engining aged Pave Hawks). The Marines also can, and no doubt will, conduct combat search-and-rescue using both tilt-rotors and regular helicopters. The Army could rely on a mixed fleet of CH-47 Chinooks — the copter originally picked as the next-gen CSAR craft — and V-22s drawn from other services. Or the services could buy a better helicopter, say the US-101, to use along with the V-22. But leaving V-22 out of the CSAR mix is a false economy — the military can save money and lives by tapping the most revolutionary aircraft of this generation to fill in the gap between what a conventional helicopter and an airplane can do, in search-and-rescue and many other missions.
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