The Old AF Sarge’s Friday Flyby post this week features the Jolly Green Giants- Air Force helos dedicated to retrieving downed aircrews behind enemy lines.* This Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) has long been seen as critically important- if you’re shot down and alone behind enemy lines, the service will keep the faith with you, and do everything in its power to bring you home.
And the proud history of the Jollies lives on today, in the form of the HH-60G PaveHawk and its crews.
The problem is, the PaveHawk has been around for 30 years of hard use, and they’re falling apart. Indeed, of an initial purchase of 112, only 99 remain, and they’re effectively at or beyond the planned 7,000 hour service life, and many are suffering from cracks and other fatigue problems. Further, while the PaveHawk was state of the art when purchased (compared to say, a UH-1 Huey), it has a relatively short range, and limited payload and cabin space.
This isn’t a problem that has cropped up overnight. The Air Force about a decade ago decided to start shopping around for a replacement for the PaveHawk, just as some very capable helicopters started to enter production in both the American civilian and European military markets. Examples of these capable new aircraft included the Sikorsky S-92, the Augusta/Westland EH101, improved versions of the CH-47 Chinook, and as an outside chance, the Eurocopter EC725.
And so the Air Force went about holding a competition to replace it’s old PaveHawks with a newer, more capable helicopter. The details of that competition are far, far too involved to delve into in a simple post. In the end, Boeing’s offer of a modified version of its MH-47G Special Operations helicopter for the Army, itself a modified version of the CH-47F just entering production then, won the competition. The HH-47H was a great choice. It was a large, powerful, long-ranged aircraft with plenty of room, and capacity for growth. It’s basic design was already in production, and most of the special equipment would also be shared with the Army’s MH-47G fleet, driving down unit costs. The volume of spare parts in service would also be leveraged to drive down lifetime operating costs. Most importantly, it was the most capable platform for the mission.
Immediately, the losing bidders protested the decision to the GAO. Years passed, and eventually, the GAO said the process was indeed flawed. Note, the GAO didn’t say the HH-47H wasn’t capable, or that the competitors entries were better. Merely that the bidding process was flawed. All this before sheet metal had been cut on a single bird. And at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the government, all while the PaveHawk fleet was getting older and older.
Eventually, the Air Force was forced to simply cancel the contract to Boeing.
The aging of the PaveHawk fleet has gotten so bad the Air Force has been forced to buy the occasional UH-60M off the Army’s production line, and refit it with special equipment from an older PaveHawk simply to keep the minimum fleet available.
At any event, the Air Force announced the CSAR/X program was dead. And then immediately announced a wholly new program, the Combat Rescue Helicopter or CRH. Not surprisingly, the basic needs for the program looked an awful lot like the CSAR/X program. Something bigger, newer and longer ranged than the HH-60G.
Because of the way the solicitation was written, and various market factors, the CRH program has forced most of the “usual suspects” to either drop out, or not even bother bidding in the first place. In effect, the program is a sole source contract for the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.
The only problem is, in the age of the sequester, the Air Force is struggling mightily to find money. It’s something of a given that almost anything will be sacrificed upon the altar of the F-35 program. Second only to that is the KC-46 replacement tanker program. As it stands, the Air Force has basically told Sikorsky “fine, you win…” but as of now, there simply is no money to buy any aircraft.
The entire fiasco is an indictment of our flawed procurement process. It surely seems to me that back in the days of duplication and fraud, waste and abuse, the services certainly seemed to be able to buy more systems with less development times, and at less risk than today.
*Note, this mission is separate and distinct from the Air Force Special Operations for inserting and retrieving special operations forces. Different environments, different missions, different doctrine, and different training. To some extent, there is some crossover, but there has always been good reason to keep them distinct.