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Congress to Hagel: Keep Funding Search-and-Rescue Helos

Dec. 13, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY and BRIAN EVERSTINE   |   Comments
Operation Iraqi Freedom
The Air Force in October issued a request for proposals to purchase 112 new helicopters to replace its HH-60 Pave Hawks. (Air Force)
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The Air Force’s effort to recapitalize its fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters can’t fall victim to budget cuts, 74 congressmen said in a Dec. 12 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“We believe this mission is too important to allow arbitrary budget pressures to thwart providing these lifesaving aircraft, and the Air Force should move forward with its acquisition strategy to recapitalize the [combat rescue helicopter] fleet in an expeditious manner,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “We appreciate that the Air Force has competing budgetary demands, but those must not interfere with equipping the Air Force to execute the vital and essential mission of rescuing downed pilots, as well as saving our service members in harm’s way.”

The lawmakers, including Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., quoted former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley as saying the mission of rescuing downed pilots is a “moral imperative.”

Service leaders say that the combat rescue program is in the “fabric of the Air Force,” and that recapitalization must come at some point. However, a Pave Hawk replacement isn’t a top priority under sequestration alongside the F-35, KC-46A tanker and the long range strike bomber.

“The question for us is in what order to we recapitalize as the budget comes down,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said today. “The combat rescue helicopter is something we want.”

Until the budget is approved, no modernization program is a “given,” he said.

“It’s a critical platform, it’s a critical mission that we provide to the joint fight,” acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said. “It’s a sacred trust.”

The Air Force in October issued a request for proposals to purchase 112 new helicopters to replace its aging and heavily used Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawks. Some of those helicopters have been conducting rescue missions since 1982. At a maximum cost of $6.8 billion, this recapitalization program will be one of the service’s most expensive aircraft acquisitions over the next few years.

But the Air Force’s two previous recapitalization efforts have failed, forcing the service to prolong the use of the three-decade-old Pave Hawks. The lawmakers said this effort’s plan to use a fixed-price, incentive firm contract “will allow it to recapitalize equipment in a budget constrained environment.”

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Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.

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