The U.S. Air Force is at the lowest ebb in its 63-year history. Although its capabilities still far surpass those of other air services around the world, it is gradually using up the arsenal it acquired during the closing days of the Cold War. Over the last five years, the Air Force has seen its next-generation F-22 air superiority fighter terminated at less than half the required number, its next-generation bomber delayed by over a decade, and its plan to replace airborne surveillance planes canceled. Planners also want to end production of the service’s admired C-17 cargo jet at a mere 222 planes, even though the oldest C-17s will soon reach the end of their design lives and there is no chance of building something else.
You’d think at this point policymakers would be ready to train their sights on some other hapless victim of “rebalancing,” but no such luck. Two articles in the defense trade press last week signaled that the next blow to U.S. air power will be aimed at the Air Force’s search and rescue community, which for decades has led the joint force in retrieving downed pilots and other endangered personnel from harm’s way. The need for agile rotorcraft and highly trained personnel who can survive in hostile airspace to save warfighters at risk used to be deemed so important that it was rated the Air Force’s number-two modernization priority, second only to replacement of decrepit Eisenhower-era tankers. But apparently the rescue of lost soldiers and airmen doesn’t command the constituency it once did, because both articles indicated service leaders are moving to embrace the least capable option.
The first article, written by Stephen Trimble of Flight International, said “The Air Force has decided to buy 112 Sikorsky UH-60Ms to recapitalise its ageing combat search and rescue fleet, despite a standing requirement for a larger helicopter.” Trimble attributed this information to the service’s senior uniform acquisition executive, Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford. A second article appearing two days later by Marcus Weisgerber of Inside the Air Force cited Shackelford as saying no final decisions had been made on what would replace existing HH-60G search and rescue helicopters, but “it could be new H-60s modified to be rescue helicopters.” Weisgerber noted that the search and rescue fleet had dwindled to so few flyable helicopters that the service was already buying new H-60s in 2010 and requesting six more in 2011 as replacements, but he described that as a temporary solution. Weisgerber quoted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz endorsing an “off-the-shelf” solution acquired in the smallest feasible quantity, “given our resource constraints.”
Clearly, Air Force plans are trending away from the more capable alternatives considered only a few years ago, when Boeing’s HH-47 Chinook was selected in a three-way competition with the AgustaWestland EH-101 and Sikorsky H-92. That decision was later overturned because the Government Accountability Office questioned the way life-cycle costs had been calculated, but then defense secretary Robert Gates canceled the effort, putting the future of the whole mission area in doubt. What’s so odd about this process is that an “analysis of alternatives” conducted by the Air Force in 2002 cast doubt on the suitability of the H-60 for the mission given crew workloads, lack of defensive features, and other deficiencies. More recently, the Joint Forces Command re-validated requirements for a new search and rescue airframe in higher numbers than the Air Force is now apparently planning. One thing is clear, though: the H-60s the service is contemplating buying are far inferior to HH-47, EH-101 and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor alternatives that are readily available. So unless something changes, this looks like yet another mission area where the Air Force is losing altitude fast.
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