A distinguishing feature of the US military that sets it above virtually all others is its investment in critical enablers and support capabilities. For example, the US Air Force deploys fleets of globe-spanning cargo, aerial refueling and ISR aircraft. It has invested in specially trained personnel, such as combat air controllers who are members of Air Force special operations teams and FAA-certified air traffic controllers.
The Navy employs a fleet of gray hulls and commercially contracted logistics ships to preposition stocks of war materials and resupply expeditionary forces.
The Army has invested in a medical system for treating combat casualties that extends almost seamlessly from the edge of the battlefield to specialized treatment facilities around the world.
One task the US military does better than any other is combat search and rescue (CSAR) to find and extract friendly personnel, most particularly downed aircraft crewmen.
As a mission, CSAR first received serious attention during the Vietnam War. Investments in helicopters, special operations forces, advanced communications devices, airborne tactical controllers and close-air support allowed the military to undertake complex CSAR missions even facing intense enemy air defenses.
During the Vietnam War, US CSAR forces found and rescued 3,883 personnel while losing 71 rescue personnel and 45 aircraft. CSAR has played a role in virtually every significant US military operation of the past 40 years, including Somalia, the Balkans and Southwest Asia.
But the Air Force’s fleet of CSAR helicopters also plays a prominent role in non-combat rescue missions of civilians, including in the US homeland. Last year, military CSAR helicopters conducted some 12,000 rescues involving civilians.
Because of their unique equipment and training, Air Force rescue teams have been able to operate in environments and at altitudes that are inaccessible to state and local rescue teams. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the US and the typhoon that ravaged the Philippines provide vivid examples of the importance of readily available airborne search-and-rescue capabilities.
The CSAR fleet is in desperate need of recapitalization. Today, the US military relies for CSAR on a dwindling number of aging HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters. From an initial inventory of 112 helicopters, the fleet has slowly declined to fewer than 100 (67 operated by the active Air Force, 17 by the Air National Guard and 15 by the reserve).
Age and heavy use are resulting in falling mission-capable rates and rising maintenance costs.
The Department of Defense is more than a decade behind its timeline for recapitalizing the CSAR fleet. In the early 2000s, the Pentagon initiated what was then a $15 billion CSAR-X program to acquire some 140 new helicopters. A 2006 decision to award Boeing the contract for a variant of its CH-47 Chinook helicopter was canceled in 2009. The current program for a new combat rescue helicopter (CRH) is less ambitious, but no less important.
Recognizing that it faced a new budget environment, the Air Force reset the requirements for the CRH, focusing on acquiring an existing production helicopter with modifications using mature technologies and only limited integration of existing subsystems. A contract award is expected in the first quarter of fiscal 2014 with an initial operating capability in fiscal 2018.
Still, the CRH program may be in trouble. Several months ago, Defense News sources reported that the Air Force’s version of its budget for 2015 that included sequestration cuts also included cancellation of the CRH program. More recently, there have been rumors floating about the Pentagon that even the non-sequester 2015 budget dropped the priority accorded to the CRH program.
There is really no excuse for not proceeding with the CRH program, even in a period of austere defense budgets. Our Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps airmen are facing intensifying threats from advanced integrated air defenses. DoD has a moral obligation to provide those going in harm’s way with a robust SAR capability.
Moreover, the states and localities have become increasingly reliant on the Air Force’s CSAR fleet for domestic rescue missions. In the event of a major overseas contingency, the declining availability of the current fleet could place the Air Force in a bind between conflicting demands for this extremely valuable yet increasingly scarce asset.
The Air Force cannot continue to pretend that it can just get by with its inventory of CSAR helicopters, perhaps topped off with small additional procurements. A modern, capable CSAR fleet is one of those critical enablers that distinguish the US military from all others. The Air Force needs to protect this vital program in the Pentagon’s budget struggles that are just beginning.
Daniel Gouré is vice president of The Lexington Institute, Arlington,Va.