Members of Congress are expressing concerns over a proposal to change the way the US Air Force performs combat search-and-rescue using CV-22 Ospreys. (Bell Helicopter)
WASHINGTON — A group of six US senators and three House members are expressing concerns to senior Pentagon leadership of an internal Air Force proposal to change the way it performs the combat search-and-rescue mission, calling the plan on the table unsuitable from a budgetary and operational standpoint.
While the move has not been finalized within the Air Force, the lawmakers criticized Air Force Special Operations Command’s proposal to absorb the CSAR mission from Air Combat Command and use a mix of Bell-Boeing CV-22 Ospreys and Sikorsky HH-60 helicopters. The mission is currently conducted by ACC using only HH-60 Pave Hawks.
AFSOC officials say the move, first reported by Defense News, could save the Air Force billions of dollars in the long term, a claim dismissed by the senators who said the plan “does not appear economically sound.”
Instead the Senators, in a June 26 letter to Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, call on the service to continue with Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, an effort to replace the CSAR current fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawks.
House members, in a separate June 28 letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called the potential change “misguided” and “unacceptable from both an operational and budgetary standpoint.” The lawmakers cite previous Defense Department studies that “dismissed the Osprey as unsuitable for the rescue mission due to its excessive downwash while hovering.”
The bipartisan group of lawmakers all have a stake in the current and future of the CSAR mission.
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy and Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Joe Courtney represent Connecticut, home of helicopter-maker Sikorsky, the only company to publicly announce a bid in the CRH competition.
Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Rep. Austin Scott represent Georgia, home of the Air Force Pave Hawk depot at Robbins Air Force Base and 347th Rescue Group at Moody Air Force Base.
Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer represents New York, home of a Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing. If Sikorsky wins the CRH program, partner Lockheed plans to modify new HH-60s with specialized rescue equipment in upstate New York.
Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy oversees the Senate National Guard Caucus. Under the proposed AFSOC plan, the Guard and Reserve rescue wings will continue to fly HH-60s.
Air Force officials say a decision has not been made as to the future of the CSAR mission, but it has been up for debate during the Pentagon’s strategic choices and management review (SCMR), designed to give DoD leaders options depending on the size of defense spending cuts.
AFSOC official argue that using a mix of CV-22s and HH-60s could save the Air Force more than $3 billion between 2015 and 2025.
Opponents of the AFSOC plan point to the CV-22s higher operating costs compared to the HH-60. Osprey supporters point to the greater range and speed of the CV-22.
The Air Force is on track to award the CRH contract this fall, according to sources.