After a decade-long saga, including one serious boondoggle of a development program, America's next "Marine One" will be based on the Sikorsky S-92 super-medium twin engine helicopter. But what about the USAF's critical Combat Search & Rescue mission? Couldn't they benefit from the S-92's features as well?
Finally Choosing A New Marine One
The fact that the Sikorsky won the Marine One contract is really a given, as they were the only company bidding on it. Years earlier, another helicopter was picked to replace HMX-1's VH-3Ds and VH-60Ns under a doomed program named "VXX." Two aircraft were in the final competition, the Sikorsky S-92 and the US-101, which was directly based on the Agusta Westland tri-motored EH-101, but program management and systems integration would have been executed by Lockheed Martin, with Bell-Textron assembling the choppers in the US.
These were the heady days of the Bush Administration's high military spending, a time when systems with the most complex and expensive capabilities usually won the day. As a result the US-101 team won the contract over the S-92. The resulting aircraft, based on the US-101, was renamed the VH-71 Kestrel.
The Kestrel program was controversial right off the bat. The aircraft was a European design, and much larger than both of the aircraft it was replacing. A mix of underestimation by the manufacturer and massive requirement increases by the Pentagon saw the unit cost of each of 23 helicopters skyrocket to an average of $400M per chopper.
That is more than a supercrusing, stealthy, ultra-maneuverable F-22A Raptor with all of its R&D costs rolled in.
Many saw the VH-71 program as the epitome of Pentagon waste, including the then-newly elected President Obama, who openly stated during a televised White House meeting "the helicopter I have seems fine to me."
By late 2009 the program was cancelled, and left behind in its wake were nine completed aircraft and other components in various stages of assembly.
After studying plans to get these orphaned aircraft operational, albeit with a lower baseline capability than what was originally planned and a cost of about $500M, the decision was made to sell off the fleet to Canada for their also-struggling EH-101-based CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue chopper program.
In the end the program was a mismanaged and extremely expensive disaster whose development could serve as a textbook definition of mission creep.
Since then, about a billion and half dollars has been spent upgrading existing "white top" HMX-1 aircraft so that they could soldier on till a new replacement aircraft was chosen.
Now, the choice has been made, and that aircraft is the twin-engine Sikorsky S-92 by default. But it really is a logical replacement for the VH-3D and the VH-60 anyways.
The S-92 represents an increase in capability over the VH-3D and VH-60N in all respects, without adding the additional complexity and cost of a third engine. The President has been successfully flying on Sikorsky helicopters for almost sixty years as well, and the S-92 shares many commonalities with the Blackhawk fleet that already serves in the presidential airlift role.
Changing this equation buy introducing a new manufacturer, supply chain concept and an entirely foreign aircraft, would result in greater risk, which is not welcome in such a critical and high-stakes mission set. Under this new "VH-92" program, the plan is that by 2023 there will be twenty one customized aircraft delivered to HMX-1, replacing both the VH-3D and VH-60 in the Marine One role.
More Blackhawks for the USAF's CSAR Mission?
Many think that S-92 Superhawk is an ideal replacement for many helicopters within the DoD's inventory. When it was originally unveiled under the militarized H-92 moniker in the late 1990s, many assumed that the aircraft's increased internal volume, cabin height, and range, along with its updated systems, Blackhawk commonality and rear ramp would be a huge hit with the Army, Air Force and possibly even the Marine Corps and Navy.
Peculiarly, this ended up not being the case.
With the announcement that the S-92 is finally being acquired by the Pentagon, and for the high-stakes Marine One role no less, maybe it is time that other military applications be applied to this capable aircraft.
Nowhere does an increased helicopter capability make more sense than in the Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) role, which is currently being performed by the war-weary HH-60G Pavehawk.
The USAF's attempt to replace its worn-out 1980s vintage HH-60G Pavehawk combat search and rescue helicopters has been an equally painful of an affair as finding a replacement for Marine One.
While the VXX program was underway in the mid 2000s, so was the CSAR-X program, which was created to find America's newest search-and-rescue option. Once again, out of the EH-101, V-22 Opsrey, H-92, and CH-47 entrants into the original competition, the biggest option won, that being Boeing's HH-47F Chinook.
Many people within the defense apparatus and defense journalism community were stunned by the selection of such a large machine to replace a Blackhawk derivative, and rightfully so, as the program was cancelled due to budgetary issues and a questionable selection criteria by the end of the decade. And frankly, it should have been.
The HH-47F was once again an example of overkill capability for plucking pilots out of enemy terrain, and its massive footprint, powerful rotor-downwash and large sound signature were all an issue, not to mention its high operating and acquisition cost.
Meanwhile, the HH-60G Pavehawks continued to soldier on under challenging conditions in Afghanistan, leaving a helicopter that, at the very least, is in desperate need of a deep service life extension program (SLEP), let alone a full-on replacement.
With this in mind, the USAF carved out a small portion of its sequester-handicapped budget for new choppers. Sadly, the service is attempting to replace the Pavehawk with a new version of the same aircraft, which was never an ideal candidate for the CSAR role in the first place.
As of now, if the current budget gets signed into law without Congress dismantling it, the USAF will begin slowly procuring the "CRH-60M" to replace the HH-60G Pavehawk.
The CRH-60M is basically a CSAR-modified UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, at least one 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 CSAR community with an aircraft, for decades to come, that is far less than ideal for their incredibly challenging mission.
Today there are fantastic alternatives to Blackhawk derivatives for CSAR duties. Some are wildly expensive, and some are relatively affordable.
Additionally, the idea that a 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-60M and how they may offer a better, or even undeniably clear choice as a new mount for the Air Force's incredibly crucial combat search and rescue community.
Sikorsky H-92 Superhawk: At face value the HH-92 Superhawk appears to be a perfect candidate to assume the Pavehawk's CSAR mission. It features evolutionary commonality with the Blackhawk, but offers much larger interior space, far greater range, and a rear ramp that will allow it to accomplish many more types of missions. The CSAR-X competition of the mid 2000s ended up with Boeing "winning," using a modified version of their CH-47G Chinook, which was overkill for a one-size-fits-all USAF CSAR force.
Although it did offer more range and internal volume than almost all of its competitors, except for the V-22, it would have been a ridiculous solution for replacing the Pavehawk. Somewhere in between the HH-47F and an updated Pavehawk is the twin-engine Sikorsky H-92 Superhawk, which featured almost double the range of the Blackhawk, which could be drastically increased with auxiliary fuel, and close to the same capacity and accessibility capabilities seen on the HH-47F, all within more manageable proportions.
Additionally, the H-92 was less costly to procure and operate than the HH-47F by a sizable margin and would have been much more familiar to existing Pavehawk aircrews and maintainers.
The addition of a rear ramp is a big deal for the Pararescue community and the USAF's Special Tactics Squadrons as they use dirt bikes, quads, rigid hull inflatable boats and other outsized gear and vehicles to accomplish their highly challenging missions.