It's no secret that the Air Force is anxiously awaiting the departure of John Young, the Pentagon acquisition chief. Over the past couple of years, Young has been fighting a protracted battle against the service and its broken acquisition process, challenging both the Air Force's procurement priorities, and how it handles the purchase of multi-billion dollar weapons systems.
Putting it bluntly, Mr. Young is not impressed by the USAF Acquisition Corps. He led efforts to strip the service of its authority to select the next generation of air refueling aircraft, after previous attempts ended in scandal and non-stop protests by contractors. Instead, the Air Force's new tanker aircraft will be selected by senior Pentagon officials, a move the service views as a public relations embarrassment and the micro-managing of its affairs.
Young is also an opponent of continued production of the F-22 Raptor, believing that money could be better spent on other programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). While the Air Force remains officially committed to more F-22s, many officials privately concede that production will be capped at barely 200 aircraft, a total in line with Mr. Young's expectations.
A few months ago, the USAF hoped that Young, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, would be moving on with the change of administrations. But with Defense Secretary Robert Gates remaining on the job for President-elect Barack Obama, it appears that Mr. Young will also retain his post, at least for a while. As the Danger Room noted a few days ago, a new defense acquisition chief was not among the senior defense appointments announced by the transition team. That suggests that John Young will be on the job for a few more months, if not another year.
And Mr. Young isn't easing up on the Air Force, either. According to Michael Fabey of Aviation Week, the Pentagon acquisition chief recently challenged the service's requirement for a dedicated, Combat Search-and-Rescue (CSAR) fleet. That represents a shot across the bow for another, critical USAF program--the plan to spend $15 billion on new rescue helicopters.
More than a year ago, the USAF awarded the helicopter contract to Boeing. But that deal was scuttled after protests from rival firms, and the program is now up for rebidding. Many analysts believe the next chopper deal will also face challenges, further delaying the purchase of new rescue helicopters, which will replace the HH-60 Pave Hawks now in service.
But John Young isn't sure the Air Force needs a standing rescue fleet--a refrain recently echoed by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). They note that the CSAR crews rarely perform their original mission, picking up aircrew members stranded behind enemy lines. Today, a Pave Hawk crew is more likely to insert or retrieve special forces personnel; perform medical evacuations under marginal flying conditions, or provide humanitarian and rescue support after a natural disaster. The traditional CSAR mission has become a small part of the repertoire.
That shift has led to complaints about mission "poaching" by Army aviation units, the Coast Guard and other DoD elements that handle those missions. If the Air Force is largely replicating those capabilities, the thinking goes, why not just get rid of their rescue fleet, and expand the rescue and SOF elements of the other services?
Fortunately, the Air Force is fighting back. A briefing prepared for the HASC reveals that USAF rescue units have saved the lives of 2,800 personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying missions in "high risk areas that the other services cannot support," due to availability and environment. The presentation also notes the contributions of Air Force assets in overseas rescue missions (including Tsunami relief in Indonesia), which cannot be easily supported by the Army and the Coast Guard.
While the service hasn't released the presentation, we also hope it highlights another, salient fact: CSAR is not some sort of ad hoc mission that can be performed by any medium or long-range helicopter and its crew. Retrieving military or civilian personnel under hostile fire or in difficult flying conditions requires specialized equipment and skill sets. We wonder if Mr. Young understands that it takes almost two years to train the pararescueman that fly as part of each CSAR crew, or that it takes years of practice for pilots and flight engineers to attain the required proficiency.
And, there's something to be said for a little redundancy in the SOF and rescue arena. In the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster, every chopper and crew becomes a valuable asset. Residents of New Orleans didn't particularly care who "owned" the heliopter that carried them to safety after Katrina.
Likewise, if you're a SOF team or downed aircrew member who needs extraction, it's reassuring to know that the Air Force has dedicated CSAR assets. In fact, the USAF has more rescue choppers than any other service, and they routinely train with other elements (A-10s, HC-130s) that form the CSAR mission package. When aviators where shot down in Vietnam, Kosovo or Iraq, it was an Air Force rescue chopper that was usually tasked to bring them home. More than a few CSAR crews died in the effort--a reminder of the dangers associated with their mission.
Mr. Young's past critiques of Air Force operations and acquisition policy have been largely accurate, but his questions on CSAR are ill-informed and off-base. The requirement for the humanitarian and SOF support missions flown by USAF rescue units will almost certainly increase in the coming years, and there's no guarantee that future conflicts won't require more aircrew extractions.
All the more reason to maintain dedicated CSAR squadrons within the USAF, and get on with the business of choosing a new rescue helicopter.