Here is an update (flightglobal providing excellent reporting as always) on the decade plus long saga of trying to field a replacement for the battle weary HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter fleet. As of now, if the current budget gets signed into law, the USAF will be procuring the CRH-60M. Basically this is a CSAR modified UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, of which the USAF is already flying over the Nellis Range Complex (you can see the pic linked here from the Nellis Range Complex focused site www.lazygranch.com). Although the HH-60G community just wants new helicopters at this point, the CRH-60M is hardly a game changing upgrade for this small yet incredibly important force. Sure, something new is better than something old, but once again the overreaction by the DoD in a time of austerity will sock the combat search and rescue community with an aircraft that is still far less than ideal for their incredibly challenging mission. Currently, the HH-60G flies with a massive hard-shell fuel bladder holding 97.5 gallons of jet fuel in its rear cabin. This is a huge consumer of space in the H-60/S-70′s cabin. These tanks fly with HH-60Gs almost permanently (in fact I have not seen one without them for at least ten years), and is a clear signal that the Black Hawk is less than ideal for the mission at hand.
Today there are fantastic alternatives to the Black Hawk for the CSAR mission, some are much more expensive and some relatively affordable in comparison. Additionally, the idea that a fixed single platform fleet is optimum for the CSAR role is also questionable. With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some alternatives to the CRH-60 and how they may offer a better, or even undeniable choice for the Air Force’s incredibly crucial combat search and rescue community.
Sikorsky H-92 Super Hawk: I have said for years that the S/H-92 Super Hawk is an ideal candidate for the CSAR mission, with evolutionary commonality with the Black Hawk, but much larger interior space, far greater range, and a rear ramp for accessibility. The CSAR helicopter requirement was so focused on procuring a larger airframe that in the mid 2000′s the CSAR-X competition ended in Boeing “winning” with a modified version of their CH-47G Chinook. The Chinook has a massive footprint, both in physical size and signature. In the golden age of the Bush Administration, where H-2 Hummers were being sold by the bushel on car lots across the US, virtually unlimited defense spending resulted in the unabashed concept that bigger was truly better. In reality this is not the case. The HH-47G was overkill for a one-size-fits-all CSAR force, and although it did offer more range and internal volume than almost all of its competitors (V-22 had more range), it would have been a ridiculous solution for the CSAR mission. Somewhere in between the HH-47G and the HH-60G was the twin-engine H-92 Super Hawk, with almost double the range of the Black Hawk, and close to the same capacity and accessibility enhancements seen on the HH-47G, but in a more relevant size scale. Additionally, the H-92 was less costly to procure and operate than the HH-47G by a sizeable margin, and would be much more familiar to existing Black Hawk aircrews and maintainers.
The addition of a rear ramp is a big deal for the pararescue community as they use dirt bikes, quads, rigid hull inflatable boats and other outsized gear and vehicles to accomplish their challenging missions. Such assets are almost impossible to deploy internally via the H-60/S-70 Black Hawk design, especially with that big fuel tank strapped down in back, and would require the bringing in of ”external” platforms for deployment of such vehicles or the use of performance gutting underslung transport. Hauling around a couple tons of gear at low speed into a highly defended area is unacceptable to say the least. If you are engaged you stand no chance of evading such threat and completing the mission. In the end, although the H-92 costs about a third more than the Black Hawk, you simply get so much more capability, all of which is directly on the CSAR/Pararescue communities “wish list,” for that extra capital outlay.
The S-92/H-92 just makes sense for the CSAR mission, much more so than the UH-60M base CRH-60. Instead of replacing an existing capability, with a slightly improved capability, why not spend a few more dollars to check the “want lists” of the vast majority of those who fly and operate from CSAR aircraft. The H-92′s far greater range (almost double without auxiliary fuel, which there is now plenty of room for if needed), more payload, and much greater accessibility is well worth a slightly larger investment. The opportunity cost that the USAF is wasting on not procuring this platform instead of CRH-60 is pretty undeniable, and sadly the myth of commonality and “fewer types in service” probably has something to do with their sad decision more than actual logic. That and “let’s get this done-itus” after well over a dozen years of trying to field a replacement for the tired HH-60Gs, a disease where “anything will new will do” is just another indicator of the sad state of procurement over at the Pentagon. In the end the H-92 is a relevant upgrade without spending irrelevant dollars and should be the default choice before procuring the CRH-60.
CV-22 Osprey: Many would argue that the Osprey is the finest combat search and rescue machine on the planet. Whereas so many of the Osprey’s missions could be accomplished by the aforementioned H-92 Super Hawk, at a third of the price no less, the unique circumstances of the CSAR mission set really makes tilt-rotor technology highly relevant. The biggest factor of recovering a downed aircrew or extracting others that have fallen behind enemy lines alive, is time. The faster you get to the target and extract it the higher the chances that all those involved will come out unscathed. The Osprey, with is high speed capabilities, really owns this realm. Additionally, the aircraft’s rear ramp, large cargo hold and relatively long range (about 40% longer than even the S-92) offers the same unique elements that the S-92 features, but it can deliver those elements to targets farther away and much faster. Additionally, AFSOC already has invested in building a fully missionized aircraft that can accomplish the CSAR task, the CV-22B. This aircraft is has a fully integrated set of subsystems that allow it to accomplish its mission in hotly contested environments. The CV-22B already has a fully integrated terrain following radar, larger fuel tanks, rescue hoist, secure communications, FLIR, and about every defense countermeasure currently on the market amongst many other missionized improvements. This capability is not a cheap one, but one has to ask themselves what is a downed aircrew worth, both in human cost, political cost, and monetary cost? The MV-22, the less advanced Marine derivative of the Osprey, has already proven its unique ability to race in and extract downed aircrew in Libya, with incredible results.
The CV-22, with its all-weather low level penetration capabilities and advanced self defense suite, would be the ideal asset for the CSAR mission, and procuring CV-22B, that is already combat proven with the USAF, for at least a portion of the CSAR buy should really be examined. There may be the argument that the USAF already has this capability in the CV-22Bs they already own, under the same command no less, but then why do we need a less capable CSAR platform at all? The reality is that the pararescue/CSAR community are in a highly specialized business, and greater numbers of CV-22s would be needed over the current planned inventory of around four dozen aircraft. In the end we must ask ourselves a simple question, are we really going to buy an inferior asset, put Americans at risk in doing so, when a much better and more effective solution readily exists? Will this leave the CRH-60 CSAR fleet for more rudimentary roles, with the more capable CV-22B multirole special operations fleet doing the deep penetrating rescue missions? I doubt this is what the CSAR community would like but why would you use an asset that has a lower chance or survival and mission completion for such a high value, high risk mission set?
Stealth Hawk: Finally, I think the low observable Black Hawk has to be brought into the discussion. On the highest profile deep penetration mission in recent history it was deemed that the very best technology would be brought to bear in an attempt to extract or kill the highest value target in the world. I find it a little hard to justify using such assets on a mission to capture or kill Bin Laden but not to rescue a downed American aircrew deep behind enemy lines. Now that this precedent has been publicly set it may be politically “sensitive” putting PJs and aircrew at risk in a helicopter with a conventional signature when we clearly have something more survivable. So if the HH-60M is the replacement for the CSAR mission, a portion of these machines should be build with the same stealth composite modifications (although I think this aircraft is fully composite) as seen on the aircraft that crashed during Operation Neptune Spear. If this modification/aircraft is not available to even CSAR units, one of the most demanding and risky missions in the world, due to depth of penetration behind enemy lines, the speed in planning and executing, and the enemy’s heightened state of alert, arguable much riskier than the Bin Laden operation, then how will officials answer the question of why this technology was not used if or when a mission goes seriously wrong and lives are lost? It is an interesting and relevant conundrum to debate, but I just don’t see how you can put the “genie back in the lamp” after the carcass of the crashed stealthy Black Hawk was seen by the world back in 2011.
Although this aircraft may be more limited in range than the standard UH-60M (although this handicap may be more than mitigated by a full carbon fiber air-frame), and does not feature the speed of the CV-22B, or the volume both the CV-22B and the H-92, it makes up for these traits by offering the best chance of survivability when the need to push deep into a highly defended territory arises. In the end, sending a CSAR crew (more like crews) into highly contested air space against an alerted foe without this technology seems like a reckless decision, especially since the basic technology has already been lost the enemy. Although the motivation for procuring such technology for CSAR duties may be partially political, it is also about giving the war fighter at the greatest risk the best tools possible to accomplish their mission.
Composite Force: Ideally, the CSAR mission could be split among three types, the CV-22B, HH-92, and low observable Black Hawks. This way the best tool is available for different CSAR circumstances and threat levels. Furthermore, the group could work synergistically., With the the “basket” refueling capability now being tested by the Osprey’s manufacturer, the CV-22B could offer mid-air refueling to the HH-92 force. Additionally, the CV-22 and even HH-92 inventory could provide forward refueling for the low observable Black Hawk fleet as it is most lively that a midair refueling capability does not exist on these aircraft. Such a force mix would allow for a highly flexible CSAR fleet, as well as indigenous refueling capability, both in the air and on the ground, for long range and high-risk recovery missions, ones where the low observable Black Hawks can push the final leg “downtown” using its low signature to its advantage. Additionally, for less contested environments, the HH-92 could be used, especially when the deployment of vehicles or larger forces is a necessity. With just the HH-92 and low observable Black Hawk procured for the dedicated CSAR community, and a dozen or so CV-22B added to the AFSOC inventory, the best mix of capabilities would be brought to the CSAR mission for the dollars spent. Additionally, the increased procurement cost of such a mixed fleet is a tiny fraction of other programs. If you are going to buy 2500 stealthy F-35s, then you better have the assets that are capable of retrieving the aircrews when they go down over incredibly hostile territory. I doubt the CRH-60 will be able to accomplish this with a high rate of success.
For instance: 16 CV-22B, 20 Stealth Hawks, and 62 HH-92Gs would offer a smaller but a much more flexible and capable force. As for costs, we have to ask ourselves if we can really put a price on this mission? The mission, by its very nature warrants the best technology available, as the whole idea of the CSAR mission, and the platforms used for it, is to go where another has already been shot down or is under direct enemy threat. By throwing “low potential” assets at this incredibly risky mission, one that will only continue to become more volatile with the proliferation of advanced surface to air missile and integrated air defense system technologies.
For a sitting President, the risk of putting dozens more service members in harms way to save a single pilot using anything less than the best operational technology may not be a risk worth taking, which circularly eliminates the utility of these “new” CRH-60s in the first place. If I were the big guy with the veto pen, I would be adamant about funding this particular mission to a point where the best mix of assets can be acquired so that such missions have the very best chance of success. It may seem petty but this is politics. The stealth choppers were used for a reason in Abbottabad, to ensure the best chance of mission success and thus the political future of the Obama Administration. What makes a downed aircrew in a hostile territory any different? Operation Eagle Claw, and Black Hawk Down are still very fresh in the minds of White House politicos. Thus procuring the best assets for this deadly job will be essential in surviving politically. If investing in a game changing force mix means that there will be less “airframes on the ramp” so be it. You do not need a Pave Hawk to pluck wounded soldiers out of the Hindu Kush, refocus the mission and give our pararescue teams and brave CSAR aircrews the tools that will get the job done and bring them home to their families, even in the face of the densest peer-state anti-air threat. The CSAR mission is so critical and dynamic, especially in the dawning age of an all stealth fighter force, and the community already represents a low density high value capability, that anything else is really an unnecessary tragedy waiting to happen.