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USAF Backs Off Of Nuke Support Helo Need

UH-1N

This article first appeared in AWIN First.

After years of general officers arguing for a more robust helicopter to provide security for nuclear missile fields in the U.S., the Air Force Global Strike Command chief says he has shelved a plan to replace aging Bell UH-1Ns for now.

With the funding crunch in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski has "no expectation of a new helicopter in the next few years." The UH-1Ns are being used to transport security crews in support of nuclear weapons in U.S. missile silos. At issue, however, is that they carry too few people, too little weight and lack the necessary range.

Kowalski says it is a "common malady" at the Pentagon to "lack discipline of execution" on finishing projects "before we are distracted by the next shiny object." He spoke at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast in Washington Feb. 6.

This reprioritization is one of many examples in recent weeks of planned belt tightening at the Pentagon owing to a series of cuts offered by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the ongoing funding of operations at fiscal 2012 levels under a continuing resolution, and the threat of another budget cut if sequestration takes effect next month.

"This is the sort of shiny object discussion,c Kowalski said of a new helicopter, despite the shortcomings of the UH-1N. Two years ago, Kowalski said the Air Force was considering bypassing a competition for what was then known as the Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP), an effort to replace the missile support helicopters as well as the Hueys used for executive lift missions from Andrews AFB, Md. That plan fell flat with Congress.

Since then, however, the service has selected Sikorsky to provide a modified H-60 for the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, which is designed to replace aging HH-60Gs. Kowalski said his command is monitoring that program and looking at whether the missile support helo effort can "follow on" to the CRH buy.

His current focus, however, is to maintain the Hueys and incrementally improve their capability where feasible. An example would be the addition of proper night-vision-capable cockpits, which he says can be added at low cost to improve the ability to respond to an emergency on the missile field at night.

Kowalski also says that the fleet can provide more capability with little investment by allowing operators to apply lessons on battlespace awareness and information sharing that have been learned by crews supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Kowalski also says he is "comfortable at where we are at today … with the weapons we have currently in the pipeline" for the complicated task of destroying buried targets, such as nuclear and chemical weapons facilities in Iran and North Korea." The premier capability for this mission is a B-2 outfitted with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator; Kowalski says inventory is sufficient and the fleet is combat ready.

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