Few military missions are more dangerous than combat search and rescue (CSAR). Warfighters and noncombatants stranded in remote locations must be found and retrieved, often while enemies are doing their best to shoot down the rescuers. Sometimes those being rescued are badly wounded, and must receive life-saving first aid even before reaching hospitals. The mission can get so tough that Air Force CSAR crews are specially trained and equipped to perform it, using a helicopter called the HH-60 Pave Hawk. But Pave Hawks have taken a beating over the years, and their readiness to carry out rescue missions on short notice is declining. So the joint force is seeking a replacement.
Earlier this year, defense secretary Robert Gates canceled a planned competition to find that replacement. A winner had already been chosen, but losing contractors complained the Air Force had incorrectly assessed items like maintenance costs. The contest Gates canceled was a re-competition aimed at getting the selection process right. His decision to delay caused consternation in the combat search-and-rescue community, because Pave Hawks are wearing out fast.
However, Gates made the right decision. First, the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor had been excluded from consideration even though it far surpasses the performance of conventional rotorcraft in speed, range, endurance and survivability. Second, the government does not appear to have a coherent approach for trading off cost against capability when considering all the missions to which future CSAR aircraft might be applied. Third, fiscal pressures dictate that plans for accomplishing combat search and rescue in the future make greater use of aircraft the military services are already planning to buy, to reduce the budgetary burden of accomplishing a highly specialized mission.
In other words, the whole mission area needs to be rethought — which is what Gates seemed to be saying. As things stand today, the Air Force provides the most capable CSAR aircraft and crews to the joint force, but other services often must use whatever assets are available on short notice to recover personnel. If the Air Force sticks with plans to buy a conventional helicopter as its sole search-and-rescue vehicle for the future, then the day is not far off when the Marines will have superior CSAR capability to any other service because they are buying 360 MV-22 Ospreys. Marine Osprey crews may not have all the training and equipment of Air Force specialists, but the simple fact that Osprey can fly farther and faster than any conventional rotorcraft — while still being able to hover and land like a helicopter — will make it a better choice for combat search and rescue in many circumstances.
The CSAR community is ambivalent about Osprey because it wants a rotorcraft with maximum performance in high altitude and/or high temperature environments. That’s understandable, but it isn’t going to do endangered warfighters much good if the airframe selected can’t reach them, or takes too long to arrive. Some CSAR personnel also complain about downwash from the Osprey’s twin rotors, but based on thousands of operational sorties in Iraq, that seems to be a myth. So the obvious answer is to buy a mix of aircraft — conventional helicopters and tiltrotors. The Air Force special-operations community plans to buy 50 customized CV-22 Ospreys anyway; that buy could be increased and combined with a conventional CSAR helicopter. The Air Force would then have a search-and-rescue fleet optimized for all eventualities, rather than having to choose between airframes that are each uniquely well suited to certain, specific situations.
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