WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force wants to cut the total number of new combat rescue helicopters it plans to buy by one-third, a sign of how it is adjusting to a post-Afghanistan threat environment.
The Air Force originally planned to buy 113 HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopters, the successor to the HH-60G Pave Hawk. But the service’s proposed budget for fiscal 2023 includes money for 10 more Jolly Green IIs that year — and those would be the last, capping the procurement at 75.
The root of the Air Force’s decision to scale back its combat rescue helicopter purchase lies in the military’s shift away from counterinsurgency-focused conflicts, such as the wars in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State group. Instead, the military is preparing for a potential fight against a technologically advanced peer or near-peer adversary such as China or Russia — one in which the airspace would likely be highly contested and helicopters would be more vulnerable.
“The scenarios that we’re most worried about are not the same as they once were,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a March 25 briefing with reporters. “The acts of aggression like we’re seeing in Europe, or we might see in the Pacific by [China], put us in a very different scenario from a combat rescue point of view.”
In a follow-up email, the Air Force said the decrease in the total quantity of HH-60W purchases was part of its overall plan to ensure its future force has the right balance of capabilities in a conflict with near-peer competitors.
The Sikorsky-built Jolly Green II was designed from the ground up to fly Air Force pararescue specialists on combat rescue missions. Pave Hawks, on the other hand, are heavily modified Black Hawks.
Sikorsky redesigned the HH-60W’s fuel tanks to increase cabin space and make the helicopters safer in the event of a crash. The aircraft includes multiple cameras as well as communications and intelligence capabilities so airmen can rapidly receive and analyze the information needed to conduct rescues.
In an emailed statement, Lockheed Martin, which owns Sikorsky, said the program is progressing and production is underway. So far, 17 HH-60Ws have been delivered to the Air Force.
“We are working closely with the Air Force to meet their CSAR [combat search and rescue] mission requirements to field the [Defense Department]’s only dedicated CSAR helicopter, and provide the most capable platform to the warfighter,” Lockheed Martin said. “We look forward to continuing deliveries of this vital capability to our customer.”
The Air Force has so far awarded four production lots for the helicopter, most recently in February. Sikorsky officials said in an interview in Orlando, Florida, earlier this month that the Air Force would likely start ordering Jolly Green IIs for the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve in Lot 5 next year.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Air Force’s decision makes sense.
“They’re not completely divesting from the [combat rescue] mission, they’re just reducing” the number of helicopters being purchased, Harrison said in a Tuesday interview. “It does reflect the reality that the strategic focus is moving towards a much more contested air environment, in which case helicopters are not well suited to operate.”
During the two decades of conflict in the Middle East, the Air Force was able to operate in all but uncontested airspace.
But in a high-end fight, the Air Force would have to contend with sophisticated enemy radars and air defense systems, which would be much harder for helicopters — even up-to-date helicopters like the Jolly Green II — to evade.
Helicopters are “good for picking up downed pilots in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where we can operate somewhat with impunity in the air,” Harrison said. “And they’re good for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief-type operations. But those things aren’t the focus of the strategy anymore. The focus is on the high-end fight, and these helicopters don’t provide as much value in the high end fight.”
Sending a combat rescue helicopter into that kind of a high-threat environment could result in a situation where it gets shot down, and even more airmen are endangered.
“Would you really want to send in a helicopter and risk the crew of that helicopter in order to save one pilot that’s been downed somewhere?” Harrison said. “That’s a hard decision to make. And in a highly contested environment, where it is more and more likely that the helicopter crew will not make it out alive, that means that this platform is not as useful, that commanders are not likely to make that decision.”
And while electronic warfare systems onboard a rescue helicopter could help confuse and jam enemy radar systems, Harrison said, they can only do so much to try to hide a rotary-wing aircraft.
“Just because of the physics of having a giant rotor swinging around at high speed, that creates a huge radar signature as well as an acoustic signature,” Harrison said. “Ultimately, you’re dealing with a platform that is difficult to conceal.”
It also remains to be seen how much appetite lawmakers will have for reducing the HH-60W purchases, Harrison said, or whether Congress will restore some in future years.
John Venable, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank and a former F-16 pilot, said in a Wednesday interview that the Air Force is making a mistake by slashing its combat rescue helicopter buys.
Combat rescues in a contested environment would undoubtedly be difficult, Venable said — but not impossible. And even if it is dangerous, he added, the Air Force needs to be ready to try, and to have enough helicopters on hand to carry out such rescues.
“In a high-threat environment, it will be very challenging to execute CSAR missions,” Venable said. “But it has always been the contract of the Air Force that we would have CSAR assets available, since helicopters have been flying, to go in and rescue pilots. And we will make sure that we give every effort to recover those pilots if they are in fact shot down.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.