The Search and Rescue Shuffle

When fighter pilots get shot down behind enemy lines, they can count on rescue crews to risk their own lives to retrieve them.That's the ideal. In reality, the Air Force's Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) community has failed on a number of occasions in the last 15 years to come to downed fliers' aid. In the Gulf War, rescue forces were too slow to prevent the Iraqi Army from grabbing several aviators. And in 1995, downed Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady was retrieved from Bosnia by Marines, of all people.The result is some deep animosity within the service towards the small CSAR force, which flies around 100 old HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and a handful of even older HC-130 Hercules tankers.The Air Force announced last week that it was transfering responsibility for the CSAR force for the second time in three years. Historically, the rescuers have been administered by the tactical air force, which today means Air Combat Command headquartered at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. But in 2003, smallH92.jpgthe Air Force gave CSAR to Special Operations Command in Florida, citing SOC's expertise in flying helicopters low into enemy territory.But SOC was never happy with the rescue mission, seeing it as a distraction from its main, non-conventional missions. And when it came time to replace the old Pave Hawks, SOC started leaning towards the large, cumbersome 1960s-era H-47 Chinook helicopter, which SOC's Army flying battalions use for long-range missions.So last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley announced that ACC would take CSAR back from SOC. This would return rescue to "primary mission" status, according to Moseley, and allow SOC to focus on its core missions.Inside Defense expounds:

Moseley added that one factor that led him to approve the plan was that the move will make the commanders of ACC and [Pacific Air Force] "an advocate" for the CSAR mission during contingency planning.Senior Air Force officials decided to make the move after examining lessons gleaned from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Moseley said...."[Special Operations] has its own challenges and has its own priorities and often, combat rescue is not at the top of their list," Moseley said. ... "If you're a guy who's out hanging in a tree somewhere" after a U.S. military aircraft has been felled, Moseley said, "you're not amused by that -- you want somebody to come get you."
As a bonus, Defense News reports, the Air Force would gain control of the $8 billion CSAR-X/Personnel Recovery Vehicle program to replace the Pave Hawks, meaning it will choose an airframe it prefers, rather than one SOC favors.Look for the change to boost the modern, large-cabin Sikorsky H-92's chances of winning. Its main competition now is the Westland EH.101 that won the recent Presidential Helicopter competition.-- David Axe
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