US airmen load simulated casualties onto a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. The sequester-level budget under consideration does not include funding to sustain the Pave Hawk or buy a replacement. (Senior Airman Marcus Morris / US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — If sequester remains in effect, the US Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) mission is in danger of disappearing, according to multiple defense sources.
Funds for new CSAR helicopters are not included in the service’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal that includes sequestration spending cuts, the defense sources said. Moreover, funds to extend the lives of about 90 battle-worn Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters is not part of the sequester budget.
Each US military service is developing at least two budgets for 2015, one that includes sequestration spending cuts and another that builds on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal, which is $52 billion above the federal spending cap.
Funding for the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, which would purchase more than 100 helicopters for the CSAR mission, fell below the cutting line as the service struggles to find savings under a sequestered budget.
About two-thirds of the Pave Hawk fleet is flown and crewed by active-duty airmen, while the rest come from the Guard and reserve.
For months, the Air Force has been poised to award the contract to a Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin team — the only publicly announced bidders — but has held back the contract due to the budget uncertainty.
Without long-term sustainment funds, the HH-60G fleet will eventually need to be replaced. Without CRH being funded, that replacement will not exist. In other words, if the budget plan remains, the Air Force would have to drop the CSAR mission — or at least, shrink it significantly.
The CRH program is the Defense Department’s second attempt in the past decade to replace its heavily used Pave Hawks, some of which have been performing military and civil rescue operations since 1982. The Air Force wants to buy 112 new helicopters.
In 2006, the Air Force awarded Boeing a contract expected to be worth $15 billion under the Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter program (CSAR-X). But after the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest from competitors Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, over how the contract was handled, the deal was canceled in 2009. It took nearly 3½ years to relaunch CRH following the CSAR-X cancellation.
Service officials planned to award the CRH contract this year, but the program has again seen delays. Despite public statements that the Air Force desired multiple bidders, only one team — United Technologies subsidiary Sikorsky, working with Lockheed Martin — actually submitted a bid. Three other competitors dropped out under the belief they would not be able to meet the program price cap of $6.8 billion.
The service delayed a contract award until the first quarter of fiscal 2014 “due to additional time required to complete the source selection and Milestone B processes, as well as impacts from the DoD furloughs,” according to an Air Force spokesman.
If the service decides not to award a contract before the end of the year, it would likely need to inform Sikorsky by early December.
“We have not gotten any indication,” said David Morgan, Sikorsky’s director of Air Force business development. “We are waiting with great anticipation. I would assume that we will hear something, probably in early December, whether it is progression towards contract award or an extension of source-selection process.
“I don’t think we’ll hear any bad news because I think the budget process is still playing out in Congress, we’re still under a [continuing resolution], so I don’t think anything will be final until the president submits his budget in February,” Morgan added. “Either they will progress or there will be a delay. I don’t think we’ll hear any bad news until we hear all the bad effects of sequestration.”
The company will need to update its pricing for the competition if the source-selection process is extended, but Morgan said that should result in very little change, mostly based on updated inflation figures.
While it sorts out whether to move forward on the CRH contract, the Air Force is facing internal fights about whether the CRH program is even necessary.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) spent several months this summer pushing to take over the CSAR mission, under the belief that its Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft could perform the mission at a lower cost. That idea has met resistance, both on Capitol Hill and from Air Combat Command, which operates the mission.
Air Force Options
The notion that mission-specific platforms could be in peril from sequestration is not new. Service officials have been very clear that their top modernization programs — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, KC-46 tanker replacement and the new long-range strike bomber — will be protected in the budget. Anything else is potentially on the table.
“We’ve looked at every modernization program in the Air Force,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said last week. “If we go full sequestration, we will have to cut about 50 percent of them just to be able to afford some level of readiness and to modernize the force.
“The fact is, General Welsh is in a really tough spot,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who served in a number of Pentagon roles. “Various advocates make the argument that their platform of choice is a wonderful system, and it’s usually true. But given a $1.2 trillion cut in defense spending, what do you retire? You have to make tough calls and you have to base force structure cuts on a vision [for what prepares you for the future].
“If the Air Force makes the decision in their [sequester-level budget] to discontinue funding CRH, I assume it has an alternative plan for the combat rescue mission, be it upgrading current platforms or eventually procuring something else,” he said. “I just can’t see walking away from that mission.
“I think it’s too early to start criticizing such a move because nothing is final until the president’s budget is released, and I’m sure there are a lot of options that are in consideration. The fact is that under a sequester the Air Force — all of the services — are not going to be able to support every mission area as they have in the past.”
A major life-extension program for Pave Hawks may be cheaper than buying new platforms in the short term, but Gunzinger warns that such a “short-term strategy” could lead to larger costs.
Taking funds for the new rescue helicopter may be the service “circling the wagons around their top three programs,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “CRH/CSAR is conspicuously absent from that list.”
Like Gunzinger, Aboulafia is skeptical the service could cut the mission entirely. It is more likely the Air Force would try to downsize the force in order to extend the life cycle of the Pave Hawks, he said, which could get them through the lean years intact.
“They can probably buy themselves a few years with this strategy, but longer than that and they’ll need either a return to CRH or a major [service-life extension],” said Aboulafia, adding that using some CV-22 Ospreys for the mission could also prevent wear and tear on the Pave Hawks.
Proponents of the mission argue that it is important to get the CRH upgrade done as soon as possible.
“The people that fly this mission, they have been deployed so much, and they have worn this equipment out so bad that it is a big deal to be able to address this,” retired Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, former Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview with Defense News.
Moseley was perhaps the most vocal, high-level advocate for the CSAR mission during his tenure as chief. Now a consultant for Lockheed and others, he said his passion for the mission stems well beyond his business allegiances.
“We need to somehow focus on modernization and recapitalization of that mission area so it is as survivable as we can make it and as capable as we can make it,” Moseley said. “So, this latest inclination of buying new H-60s, that’s fine. That’ll work like a champ.”
If that can’t get done, Moseley said, the next best option is to sustain the current fleet.
“Now we’re at a point where it looks like the most realistic program would be to buy some new Blackhawks and [modify] them with the latest gear, which will be OK,” he said. “It just won’t have the range that the bigger helicopters would have, but we’re where we are.”
As chief, Moseley accelerated CSAR-X by five years and made it the service’s No. 2 acquisition priority, behind purchasing a new tanker.
While at the Pentagon, Moseley proposed buying one helicopter that could meet the missions of CSAR, continuity of government, missile field security and Marine One. Three different types of helicopters perform those missions.
The former chief also dismissed the idea of moving the CSAR mission into AFSOC.
“This is not a special ops mission. I just reject that and find it curious that people keep bringing that up,” he said. “This has nothing to do with special operations. This has everything to do with having to go at high noon off of a scramble alert pad to go pick somebody up right now.”