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?
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.
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.
Such assets are almost impossible to deploy internally via the H-60/S-70 Blackhawk design, especially with the big additional fuel tanks that are normally strapped down in the back of the cabin, taking up all the space.
As a result, the Special Tactics and Pararescue folks have to depend on "external" platforms such as the special operations community's high-demand MH-47Gs or CV-22 Ospreys. Otherwise, the Pavehawk crews would have to utilize performance-gutting sling loading, or rely on standard Army Chinooks to do a mission that their crews may not be trained for, and for which their aircraft are not optimized.
Slowly hauling a couple tons of gear that is swinging below your aircraft, deep into highly defended enemy territory, is an unacceptable solution to say the least. If a Pavehawk crew was engaged by the enemy under such circumstances, they would stand a slim chance of evading the threat and/or completing their mission, as they would have to cut the load free in order to take evasive action.
In the end, although the H-92 costs about a third more than the Blackhawk, you simply get so much more capability for the money, all of which is at the top of the Special Tactics and Pararescue communities' "wish list."
The S-92/H-92 just makes sense for the CSAR mission, much more so than the UH-60M-based CRH-60M.
Instead of replacing an existing capability with a slightly improved capability, why not spend a few more dollars to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of those who fly and operate from these 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 relatively small additional investment.
The opportunity cost that the USAF is wasting by not procuring the H-92 instead of CRH-60 seems relatively clear, and sadly the myth of incredible efficiency through commonality and "the fewer types in service the better" probably has more to do with their decision than actual logic.
With the recent announcement concerning the selection of the S-92 in the Marine One role within the DoD this justification is no longer valid. Just as well, the "let's get this done" mentality, after well over a dozen years of trying to field a replacement for the tired HH-60Gs, 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, an aircraft based on a design that is close to forty years old.
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 in successfully recovering a downed aircrew or extracting anyone that have fallen behind enemy lines 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 its high speed capabilities, really owns this realm. 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 quicker.
Additionally, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has already invested in building a fully missionized Osprey that can accomplish the CSAR task, the CV-22B. This aircraft has a fully integrated suite of sensors, countermeasures and communications systems that allow it to accomplish its mission in hotly contested environments.
The Special Operations Osprey's quick-and-far capability is not cheap, as each copy costs close to $100M, but one has to ask themselves what a downed aircrew is worth, in human cost, political cost, and monetary cost? The Marines' MV-22, a less advanced, stripped down 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 the CV-22B, which is already combat proven within the USAF, for at least a portion of the CSAR fleet requirements should really be examined. There may be the argument that the USAF already has this capability in the CV-22Bs they already possess, under the same command (AFSOC), no less, but then why do we need a less capable CSAR platform at all?
The reality is that the Pararescue/CSAR community is in a highly specialized business that requires constant training, thus greater numbers of CV-22s would be needed over the current planned inventory of around four dozen aircraft in order to fully fill the Pavehawk's shoes. Maybe decreasing the CRH-60 buy and increasing the number of CV-22Bs in USAF inventory would be a good high capability-low capability "mixed" option.
In the end we must ask ourselves a simple question.
Are we really going to buy an inferior asset, and put America's bravest soldiers at high risk in doing so, when a much better and more effective solution readily exists?
And does the existence of the CV-22B in the Air Force's fleet push the proposed CRH-60 into more rudimentary roles as the more capable Osprey would handles the deep penetrating rescue missions?
I doubt this is what the Pavehawk community would like, as 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 as Combat Search And Rescue?
Stealth Hawk: Finally, the low observable Blackhawk 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, Osama Bin Laden. 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 Pararescuemen and their aircrews at risk in a helicopter with a conventional signature, when clearly the US has something more survivable.
With this in mind, if the CRH-60M is the replacement for the Pavehawk, a portion of these machines should be built with the same stealthy composite airframe 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 the need to penetrate enemy airspace, abbreviated planning and execution, and the enemy's heightened state of alert, which all adds up to a mission set 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 CSAR mission goes seriously wrong and lives are lost?
In other words, if an F-16 goes down over an unfriendly place, and CRH-60M crews are lost due to enemy surface to air missile systems, it is inevitable that the press corps will ask "why weren't the stealth Blackhawks used instead?"
It is an interesting and relevant conundrum to debate, but I just don't see how you can put the "stealth genie back in the lamp" after the carcass of the crashed stealthy Black Hawk was seen by the entire world back in May of 2011.
Although the Stealth Blackhawk is harder to detect than a normal helicopter, it does not feature the speed of the CV-22B, or the internal volume both the CV-22B or the H-92. But what it lacks in these areas it compensates by offering the best chance of surviving over hostile territory.
Fielding a the Stealth Blackhawk as a Pavehawk replacement, or even as a partial replacement, also fits into the DoD's new focus of operating and surviving in an area denial/anti access scenario, one where a near-peer state competitor will possess high-end integrated air defense systems that may threaten low-flying CRH-60Ms, even with jamming and electronic attack support.
In the end, sending a CSAR crew (more like crews, plural, let's be honest) into highly contested air space against an alerted foe without low observable technology that we know exists, and has already proven itself to be effective, seems like a reckless decision, especially since the basic technology has already been lost the enemy.
Although the motivation for procuring such capability 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 deadly mission and come home alive.
Composite Force: Ideally, the CSAR mission could be split among three types, the CV-22B, HH-92, and low observable Blackhawks. This way, the best tool is available for different CSAR circumstances and threat levels. Furthermore, the group could work synergistically.
Just take the hose and drogue refueling capability now being tested by the Osprey's manufacturer, with it the CV-22B could offer organic mid-air refueling to a HH-92 force. Additionally, the CV-22, and even the HH-92 inventory could provide ground-based forward refueling points for the low-observable Blackhawk fleet, as it is most likely that these stealthy aircraft don't have a midair-refueling capability.
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 Blackhawks could push the final leg "downtown" using its low radar, sound, and infrared signature to its advantage.
For less contested environments, the HH-92 could be used, especially when the deployment of vehicles or larger forces is a necessity. In fact, with just the HH-92 and the low observable Blackhawk 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. This multi-role composite force could also be used for many other special operations missions than the just one the Pavehawk community is capable of today.
The increased procurement cost of such a mixed fleet is a tiny fraction of what other banner programs cost. If you are going to buy 2500 stealthy, deep penetrating F-35s, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, then you better have CSAR assets that are capable of retrieving their aircrews when they go down over hostile territory.
I doubt that the CRH-60 will be able to successfully penetrate the same threat level of hostile airspace that an F-35 can with a high degree of success. Simply put, procuring a very non-stealthy 40 year old helicopter design (CRH-60M) to go recover aircrews that fly $120M stealth fighters packed with the latest self defense and jamming systems seems like a serious mismatch in capability, one that could prove fatal not if, but when, an F-35 goes down behind enemy lines.
To give you an idea of what a potential composite CSAR force could look like, here is an example: 16 CV-22B, 20 Stealth Hawks, and 52 H-92s would offer a smaller, but much more flexible and capable force than the proposed 112 airframe all CRH-60M force.
You could mix and match these numbers to obtain a target cost, such as providing a SLEP for the existing HH-60G Pavehawk fleet, while procuring new Stealth Hawks and CV-22Bs for the most challenging missions.
As for costs, we have to ask ourselves if we can really put a bargain basement price on this mission. The CSAR, by its very nature, warrants the best technology available, as the whole idea of it, and the platforms used to execute it, is to go where someone else 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 technologies, we are letting wishful thinking get in the way of what history has taught us, which is that all aircraft are vulnerable to the enemy in one way or another and eventually examples will be lost if used enough in combat.
The risk of putting dozens more service members in harms way to save a single pilot using anything less than the best operational technology available may not be a risk worth taking, for a sitting president.
This single reality seems to eliminate the utility of these "new" CRH-60s for the very mission that they are being procured to accomplish. New or not, if they are not capable of surviving the mission they are assigned, then they are, in effect, expensive training and medevac choppers.
If I were the big guy in the Oval Office 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 if I ever have to approve a sensitive CSAR mission, I know that they will have the very best chance of success.
That may seem petty, but politics is just that, and every president is fully aware of the political outcome that befell Jimmy Carter after the "Eagle Claw" disaster. That was a mission where less than ideal assets were given a very tough mission set, and the result was devastating.
From its ashes the special operations community bloomed, but one has to ask themselves, are we falling back into a pre-Eagle Claw mindset? The purchase of the CRH-60 may be an indicator that this is true, to some degree. But even special operations, like Eagle Claw, at least have the advantage of long-term planning and time to forward deploy all of the assets needed. In a war-time scenario, however, Combat Search And Rescue can happen at any time our aircrews are at risk, and the mission is one that does not benefit from the luxury of long term planning, mulling over strategy and tactics or getting the perfect force in theater over a period of days or weeks.
The stealth choppers were used for a reason in Abbottabad, to ensure the best chance of mission success, and as a byproduct, the best chance of a positive political future of the Obama Administration. What makes a downed aircrew in a hostile territory any different?
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 from forward operating bases in the Hindu Kush. With a slightly smaller but more capable inventory, the USAF can refocus the CSAR mission and give our Pararescue teams and brave aircrews the tools that will get the job done and bring them home to their families at the end of the day, even in the face of the densest near-peer-state anti-aircraft threat.
The CSAR mission is so critical and dynamic, especially in the dawning age of America's all-stealth fighter force, and the community already represents a low density/high value capability, that anything else but the best capability mix available is really an unnecessary tragedy waiting to happen. If the DoD can afford 21 S-92s for moving around the President, than the CSAR community should, at the very least, be able to get the same platform for their dangerous work, as it would represent an adequate expansion in capability in comparison to the aircraft they have now.
Ideally, they would get the H-92 as well as other aircraft with unique capabilities, such as the Stealth Blackhawk and/or CV-22, that can survive deep within enemy territory, so that each CSAR mission can dictate what tools are required, and not the other way around.
Otherwise, we may find F-35 pilots stranded deep behind enemy lines along with their CRH-60 rescue crews, at which point the question becomes who rescues the rescuer?
Photo Credits: Defense Industry and the USAF, photos marked Foxtrot Alpha are via the author
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com