The future of a long-stymied US Air Force effort to buy new combat search-and-rescue helicopters is once again uncertain as top-level generals intensely debate the type of aircraft and which arm of the service is best suited to conduct this critical mission.

For several months, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has been quietly lobbying to take over the combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) mission from Air Combat Command (ACC), arguing, according to sources and internal Air Force documents obtained by Defense News, they can do the mission with fewer aircraft, at lower cost.

AFSOC wants to perform the mission with Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a small contingent of Sikorsky HH-60 helicopters, the same type of aircraft that fly the mission now. The active-duty would operate a mix of CV-22s and HH-60s, while the Air National Guard and Reserve, as they do now, would only fly HH-60s.

The debate comes as the Air Force is preparing to award a contract for up to 112 new helicopters to replace battle-worn HH-60G Pave Hawks.

The Air Force spat is just one example of the internal battles raging throughout a military grappling, for the first time in more than a decade, with how to handle smaller budgets.

For the Air Force, it is the latest wrinkle in a series of failed attempts over a more than 10-year period to replace an aged fleet of CSAR helicopters. The service views CSAR and personnel recovery as a core mission.

Currently, the Air Force operates about 100 HH-60G Pave Hawks in the CSAR mission. About two-thirds of those aircraft are flown and crewed by active-duty airmen. The rest come from the Guard and Reserve.

The combat search-and-rescue helicopter replacement program, called CSAR-X, was designed to replace the HH-60G. The medium-sized aircraft was supposed to be larger, more powerful and technologically advanced than existing Pave Hawks.

In 2006, the Air Force selected the Boeing HH-47 Chinook, but voided that decision after the Government Accountability Office sustained protests by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, who each submitted losing bids.

Since that time, the program to replace the Pave Hawk has undergone numerous requirement changes and schedule delays.

Requirements have been scaled back as the budget declined, leading Sikorsky to place the only publicly acknowledged bid in the latest competition. The Air Force is expected to announce a winner in September.

Even if the CSAR mission stays in ACC, its future could be in jeopardy if defense spending cuts, known as sequestration, remain in place. Those cuts could reduce the Air Force budget by about $10 billion per year over the next nine years.

DoD is preparing for future budget cuts through a process called the Strategic Choices and Management Review. The future of the CSAR mission has been part of those discussions, sources said.

“As the Air Force plans for future sequestration, we are looking at all options for saving resources,” Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said.

Asked about the future of the CSAR mission, spokespersons for ACC and AFSOC deferred comment to Air Force headquarters.

Air Combat Command oversees the CSAR mission and the fleet of Pave Hawk helicopters. AFSOC briefly oversaw the rescue missions from 2003 until 2006, when Gen. Michael Moseley, then Air Force chief of staff, moved the mission back to ACC.

At the time, the Air Force said the return to ACC “ensures the Air Force core competency of combat search and rescue is directly linked to the Combat Air Forces and the personnel they support.

“Under ACC, the CSAR assets can be mobilized faster during a national crisis, integrated into combat training, and tasked to support all [deployment] rotations,” the 2006 Air Force press release said.

Others say that CSAR naturally fits within the AFSOC construct.

“Significant efficiencies can be gained for the Air Force and [the Defense Department],” a current AFSOC brief claims, “while presenting a strong, credible and flexible force.”

A typical CSAR squadron includes HH-60s and Lockheed Martin HC-130 tankers used to refuel the helicopters.

Maj. Gen. George Williams, AFSOC vice commander, said moving the CSAR mission into AFSOC would save the service more than $3 billion between 2015 and 2025. Williams, according to briefings and sources, believes the CV-22, already operated by AFSOC, is a better fit for the mission because it can fly longer distances, faster than the HH-60.

AFSOC wants to replace 31 of the 66 HH-60s with 18 new Bell-Boeing CV-22s.

ACC opposes the AFSOC proposal, particularly, according to sources, Gen. Michael Hostage, ACC commander.

ACC staff officers argue in an internal white paper that there are “no savings” by canceling the Pave Hawk recapitalization and buying CV-22s. Others in command pointed out that ACC’s CSAR fleet is dedicated solely to rescuing downed air crews. If the mission moves to AFSOC, sources questioned the priority the CSAR mission would be given if the Ospreys are also responsible for special operations taskings.

The AFSOC plan was dismissed in May by senior Air Force leadership, according to sources.

However, the issue was discussed during scheduled four-star meetings earlier in June. Following those discussions, sources said the Air Force’s strategic planning directorate was ordered to draft a program change request and lay out the specific mechanics of the transfer from ACC to AFSOC.

The move doesn’t indicate a decision has been made, sources said, but does show the senior leadership is seeking more details on what an AFSOC CSAR organization would look like. ■

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