Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Battling for the CSAR Mission

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.


kitanis said...

Way back in the early 90's I was assigned to Osan AB and had a ARS PJ for a roommate in the dorm's when I first got there.. they were flying MH-60's at the time as they recently got rid of the MH-53's that they had before,

I was floored when he told me that US Army helicopters who came to the base were more than likely were grounded by the USAF until their systems were brought up to USAF Safety Standards. Apparently, a HH-60 in the Army is not the same as a HH-60 in the Air Force.

Back home, Portland, OR was teed off when it was suggested to remove the MH-60's from the local Air National Guard. Those helicopters served a valuable contribution to rescues in the Cascade Mountains, subplimenting the Army National Guard helicopter force.

Just a man... said...

This was on the Early Bird a few days ago and highlights the importance of the CSAR mission...

January 9, 2009

Missions Leave No Soldier Behind In Afghanistan

All Things Considered (NPR), 8:00 PM

MICHELE NORRIS:The war in Afghanistan is the first war in U.S. history where no soldiers have been listed missing-in-action. One reason, the military insists on bringing back everyone, and they have the search-and-rescue teams to do it. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has this report of a single dangerous mission to recover a fallen soldier.

TOM BOWMAN: It happened just over a year ago. Captain Ed Blanchet and his helicopter crew were sitting down to dinner at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Captain ED BLANCHET (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): We were eating at the dining hall when they called us on the radio. And we stopped eating and just ran.

BOWMAN: Ran to their helicopters, specially designed Black Hawks called Pave Hawks. They were loaded up with sophisticated navigation gear, infrared systems that can peer into pitch black night, hoists capable of lifting 600 pounds. Within minutes, they were flying north through the rugged peaks of northeast Afghanistan. Flight reporters capturing the radio chatter. (Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: The two helicopters flew in lights-out to avoid being spotted by the enemy. Two hours later, they arrived at the ravine where American soldiers had clashed with Taliban fighters. The two helicopters circled.
Aboard Blanchet's helicopter, Master Sergeant Tom Ringheimer scanned the ground through his night-vision goggles.

Master Sergeant TOM RINGHEIMER (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): There wasn't a lot of moonlight, so it was really, really dark. You couldn't see a lot of shadows. It was just a lot of black spots. You just kind of pick the spots in between it. (Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: Hundreds of feet down in the ravine, they spotted a human form on a ledge surrounded by emergency glow sticks. The helicopters dropped off four rescuers high up in the valley. The men rappelled with ropes down to where the soldier lay. Blanchet says they didn't have much time.

BLANCHET: We wanted to do this before the sun came up, because a hovering helicopter is an easy target during the daytime.

BOWMAN: They could see Taliban campfires not too far away. The soldier had fallen into the ravine after a skirmish with Taliban forces. His unit was ambushed after a meeting with tribal leaders. Then things got complicated for the rescue team. The men on the ledge couldn't climb out of the ravine with the dead soldier. They came to recover one soldier; now, the crew had to pull out the rescuers as well.

BLANCHET: They were basically trapped. They couldn't get back out of there; they couldn't get back up the terrain. So, that's when it was necessary for us to have to go in and then try to hoist them out.

BOWMAN: The two helicopters worked as a team. Captain Blanchet pulled up. The second helicopter flew into the narrow space. The ravine was shaped like a wedge, and its walls narrowed toward the valley floor. The crew dumped fuel to make the helicopter lighter and easier to maneuver.
Master Sergeant James Karmann was a flight engineer on that second helicopter. He said it was like parallel parking; on three sides were sheer rock faces.

Master Sergeant JAMES KARMANN (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): We had about 10 feet on the front and the right side and the tail of the aircraft.

BOWMAN: Karmann leaned out the door, trying to position the hoist to lower a litter to the rescuers below. That's when the wind picked up.

KARMANN: It started pushing the aircraft backwards. And we managed to stop the aircraft just with a matter of inches between our tail rotor and the rocks there.

BOWMAN: The helicopter pulled away. It hovered nearby to provide cover for the second helicopter. (Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: Then it was Captain Blanchet's turn again. The 30-year-old pilot from Florida with six years in the cockpit angled his helicopter toward that wedge of rock. He tried something new.

BLANCHET: We actually had to turn the helicopter around and back it in.
It was the only way to fit it in.

BOWMAN: So, that's how you eventually got to him?

BLANCHET: Yes, we actually backed the helicopter kind of around the corners of the cliff.

BOWMAN: In that position, the helicopter began to descend lower, between those narrow walls, so the cable could reach the men on the ledge.

RINGHEIMER: It was a shale. It was really loose shale rock, so their footing was really precarious. So, we had to be really careful not to blow those guys off the rocks.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Ringheimer moved to the other side of the helicopter to help with the cable. That's when he got his first look at the rock wall, 10 feet away. He remembers just one thought crossed his mind. (Soundbite of laughter)

RINGHEIMER: We better not screw up. Otherwise, it'll be a bad day for everybody.

BOWMAN: It took 45 minutes and several attempts, but the crew pulled the rescuers and the dead soldier into the helicopter. (Soundbite of radio

BLANCHET: (Unintelligible) we will be able to extract our entire team with one American hero. (Soundbite of beep)

BOWMAN: With little time to spare, says Captain Blanchet.

BLANCHET: We had just enough gas to try to get them out that one last time before the sun came up.

BOWMAN: The troop carefully placed the fallen soldier in the back of the helicopter for the long flight back to Bagram Airbase.

BLANCHET: During the flight, it's very quiet. During that flight as you start to think, and you really start to identify and relate with that soldier.

BOWMAN: That soldier's name was Sergeant Jeffrey Mersman. He was just 23 years old and on his fourth combat tour. He left behind a wife and four stepchildren. His father, Robert Mersman, says he never heard the full story of the recovery until now.

ROBERT MERSMAN: I don't know how to say it. I guess words can't describe the thanks I have for them for doing that, for retrieving him.

BOWMAN: On that night, more than a year ago, the helicopter crew returned to that same dining hall where they'd gotten the emergency call six hours before. They ordered meals and ate in silence. Tom Bowman, NPR News.