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Air Force to replace combat search and rescue helicopters

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 18, 2006) -- Sometime around 2012, downed U.S. military pilots will be recovered by Air Force combat search and rescue teams sporting a new helicopter -- something being developed now as the CSAR-X.

The CSAR-X will ultimately replace 101 HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, which now serve as the primary platform for Air Force CSAR teams to recover downed pilots and imperiled members of American and allied armed forces.

The CSAR-X program is the replacement for the ageing HH-60 fleet. The current fleet's size and availability for combatant commander’s use need to be enhanced, said Lt. Col. Michael T. Healy, deputy division chief for mobility, combat search and rescue, and special operations requirements.

"The HH-60 also has capability shortfalls, predominantly in range and in cabin size," he said. "It is just fundamentally too small of an aircraft to do the mission we are asking it to do."

The HH-60 replacement doesn't have to be a helicopter, though a Fiscal 2002 analysis of alternatives determined that a helicopter would probably be the most cost effective answer to Air Force Special Operations Command's call for a new airframe.

Today, the Air Force is considering proposals to replace the HH-60. Those proposals are all based on currently existing helicopters that will be modified to meet the Air Force's needs.

"We will select that which has the most benefit and cost effective solution and will then take that decision forward, meet a milestone decision with the defense acquisition board and award a contract in Fiscal 2006," said Lt. Col. Dave Morgan, Combat Search and Rescue program element monitor for Air Force acquisition.

The acquisition strategy takes an existing aircraft and adds the capabilities needed for the CSAR mission. Building a new search and rescue platform on top of an existing airframe will bring the new hardware to pararescuemen sooner, and will be more cost effective, Colonel Morgan said.

The CSAR-X requirements will makeup for many of the shortfalls of the HH-60, most notably the aircraft's size.

"If (the HH-60) were fundamentally a bigger aircraft, there would be other things we could do to it, such as improving the engines and adding different systems on to it that could meet our requirements," Colonel Healy said. "But when you have an aircraft that small you just can't add any more to it, there is no more room."

Colonel Healy said that, “no matter which candidate wins CSAR-X, it will include room for more specialized equipment and -- perhaps even more critical -- for more injured passengers who need to be rescued.”

An increase in cabin size was a requirement that was developed by direct involvement with the CSAR community; specifically with pararescuemen that fly in the HH-60. The cabin size requirement was so important, Colonel Healy said, that the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, chaired by then Vice Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, elevated it to the level of "key performance parameter"

The effective space in the cargo area of an HH-60 allows for only one injured person on a stretcher. In the new CSAR-X, pararescuemen will have room for four stretchers. In the past, CSAR rescuers in an HH-60 have been forced to leave equipment behind at a landing zone in order to accommodate extra passengers. In addition to more space for survivors, the CSAR-X will include seats for pararescuemen -- a feature absent in the HH-60.

The CSAR-X will also include features such as an auto hover mode that will shoot approaches and do landings without pilots having to touch the controls. These kinds of additions will help aid pilots during landing under brownout conditions.

Requirements for the CSAR-X also specify it be able to travel greater distances to a landing zone. The HH-60 can fly out about 160 nautical miles; perform a 30-minute rescue operation, and then return. The CSAR-X will eventually double that range to some 325 nautical miles.

The new CSAR-X aircraft will be added to the CSAR force until the force reaches the required number of helicopters - 141. At that time, the HH-60’s will begin to be retired, providing more needed capability to units that now operate with less than what they need.

The benefit the new airframe will extend beyond the Air Force. The combat search and rescue capability provided by Air Force Special Operations Command benefits all services in an increasingly joint military. That fact was reemphasized when the Joint Requirements Oversight Council validated the requirement for the aircraft, Colonel Healy said.

"They made a very strong statement that this is a critical capability for our combatant commanders all over the world," he said. "We can go places others can't. The CSAR-X is a very efficient and interdependent way to exercise this capability -- so we can rescue those Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and downed Airmen. This has a lot of joint impact."

The Air Force expects to begin purchasing the new aircraft by Fiscal 2009, with delivery by Fiscal 2011 and operational capability by Fiscal 2012. The cost of the new system is not yet determined because it will be based on the final source selection, Colonel Morgan said.