Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Helicopter Wars

Last November, the Air Force announced plans to replace its inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue choppers with a new variant of the venerable HH-47 Chinook, built by Boeing. As we noted at the time, selection of the Chinook came as something of a surprise; not only was Boeing a relative latecomer to the competition, but many observers expected the Air Force would choose one of other contenders, the Sikorsky-built HH-92, or the Lockheed-Martin/Augusta-Westland US101. At stake was a contract for up to 140 new rescue helicopters, worth at least $15 billion to the winning team.

When the HH-47 was announced as the winner last year, it appeared to be a triumph of size and range over speed and stealth. With the ability to carry up to 44 troops, the Chinook's lift capabilities far exceed those of the smaller Pave Hawk, which carries only 10 personnel, in addition to its four-man flight crew. For search and rescue missions, the HH-60 is more constrained; it can carry only two litter patients, and that means leaving equipment at the rescue site, or flying with fewer pararescuemen (P.J.s), the highly trained SOF operators who actually retrieve injured or stranded personnel. The limited transport capabilities of the HH-60 sometimes required the dispatch of additional aircraft, increasing the number of assets exposed to enemy fire.

Selection of the HH-47 touched off a firestorm of controversy. Both Sikorsky and Lockheed-Martin filed protests, contending that their aircraft were a better choice for the next-generation combat search-and-rescue (CSAR-X) mission. Both claimed that their choppers offered similar range and lift capabilities for an airlift mission, and are much quieter than the HH-47-- an essential requirement for rescuing personnel behind enemy lines. Skikorsky and Lockheed-Martin have also noted that the a early Air Force analysis (conducted three years ago) rejected the HH-47 as "unsuitable" for the CSAR role. The defense firms were supported by members of the Connecticut congressional delegation (Sikorsky is headquartered in that state), and their counterparts from New York, where Lockheed-Martin would build the US101.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office agreed to sustain the protest, putting the chopper program on hold. While the decision was hailed as a defeat for Boeing, the GAO only found one of the two dozen (or so) protest points had any merit--the issue of lifecycle costs for the three CSAR-X contenders. So, when the Air Force issues a Revised Request for Proposals (RRFP) in a few weeks, it is expected to focus exclusively on that issue. The service believes that sustainment costs are the only issue that requires resolution, and once that hurdle is cleared, it can get on with the business of buying new rescue helicopters.

The urgency of that task was recently emphasized by the Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley. In a conversation with defense writers earlier this week, General Moseley warned against protracted, legal wrangling over the CSAR-X contract:

"Combat search and rescue is a big deal for people like me," Gen. Michael Moseley told the Defense Writers Group on April 24 in Washington, D.C. "So the notion of continued protests, and the notion of continued lawyers, and admin, and messing with this, is not right on the operational side when we are fighting the war."

But, given the potential value of the chopper contract, it seems unlikely that Sikorsky or Lockheed-Martin will give up without a protracted fight. And, in fairness, it should be noted that both the HH-92 and the US101 are excellent aircraft which could also meet the Air Force's search-and-rescue needs.

But so is the HH-47. Concerns about the "noise" issue are valid--but only to a point. Critics of the Chinook conveniently ignore the fact that the Army has long used a special-ops version of the chopper (the MH-47) with its famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Nightstalkers. Special ops variants of the Chinook are noticeably quieter than "line" CH-47s that perform transport duties for the Army. The same, advanced technology found in the newest special ops Chinook (the MH-47G) would also be incorporated into the HH-47, reducing its potential vulnerability for CSAR missions.

It's also worth noting that the nature of search-and-rescue missions is changing. As David Axe observes at the Aviation Week blog, the era of a CSAR force largely dedicated to retrieving downed aircrews is past. Over the past 15 years, you can almost count the number of those missions on one hand. Today's search-and-rescue force is being tasked to perform a greater variety of missions, over longer distances. To meet those requirements, the HH-47 is a pretty good choice. As Mr. Axe points out, the Air Force hasn't done a particularly good job of selling the program; CSAR-X still conjures up the images of a rescue package retrieving a downed fighter pilot from the jungles of Southeast Asia. That definition is too narrow for an aircraft that represents the service's second-most important acquisition program.


Also conspicuously absent from the CSAR-X debate is the platform once touted as a likely candidate for the job, the CV-22 Osprey. The Air Force plans to acquire 50 of the tilt-rotor aircraft, but they are earmarked for other roles, most notably as a long-range insertion platform, replacing HH-53 Pave Low helicopters. While the Osprey is a technological marvel, the Chinook can carry twice as many troops or the same amount of cargo (20,000 pounds), at comparable ranges. And, given the Osprey's troubled development history, the Air Force apparently decided it needed a more reliable platform for CSAR, and elected to replace the Pave Hawks with another rotary-wing aircraft.

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