DAYTON, Ohio — The U.S. Air Force is preparing a report to Congress detailing a major cost overrun that resulted from its decision to cut its HH-60W combat rescue helicopter procurement by 38 aircraft.

The service planned to buy 113 new helicopters from aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky, owned by Lockheed Martin. However, the fiscal 2023 budget request revealed a plan to cap the fleet at 75 helicopters and study the future of the combat rescue mission.

Program officials told reporters this week the Air Force’s decision to reduce its HH-60W buy will drive up the unit cost of the helicopter enough to trigger a report to Congress. By law, programs that see a unit cost increase of 25% or more must get certification from the Secretary of Defense that the effort is essential to national security. The process is called a Nunn-McCurdy Breach.

Agnes Serenko, HH-60W program manager, told reporters during an Aug. 10 briefing at the Air Force’s Life Cycle Industry Day in Dayton, Ohio, the service is preparing a report on the program’s cost. She gave no further details about the cost growth.

The HH-60W was meant to replace the Air Force’s aging HH-60G combat rescue helicopter. The new variant can carry twice as much fuel as its predecessor and carries advanced flight navigation tools and defensive systems. The Air Force has already ordered 65 HH-60Ws and its fiscal year 2023 budget request included $870 million to buy the final 10.

The change in strategy comes as the Air Force rethinks the role that combat search and rescue aircraft will play in future wars, particularly as the U.S. military shifts its focus from the Middle East toward a possible conflict with China or Russia. Recovering downed pilots and other personnel will likely look different and require navigating more hostile, complex threat environments that aren’t well-suited for a helicopter.

Officials from the Pentagon, Air Combat Command, Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Materiel Command are considering what that new approach to combat search and rescue might look like and lawmakers have called for a report on the service’s vision. The House version of the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill seeks details on how the service might perform the mission in different parts of the world and what capability gaps might stem from buying fewer HH-60Ws.

Ed Stanhouse, deputy program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and special operations forces, told reporters during the same Aug. 10 briefing the service is in the “exploration mode” as it considers the future of the mission.

“The team is looking at a variety of technologies,” he said, noting that the service is considering the utility of unmanned platforms as well as higher speed aircraft that can “keep up with a fighter.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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