Rescue Chopper Requirements Sacrificed for Rivalries

This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

Nearly a decade ago, U.S. Air Force officers formulated a list of requirements for a new combat, search and rescue helicopter replacement eventually called CSAR-X. Stung by failures through the end of the last century, CSAR experts knew they needed a smallish medium-lift helicopter that could be deployed quickly and survive some of the worst combat environments.

As U.S. forces continue to find themselves waging irregular warfare or facing natures wrath, combatant commanders could be forced to move the CSAR fleet around in a snap for quick deployment. The aircraft needs to be able to take and return fire just to penetrate, survive and return from combat or disaster zones with no clear fronts.

The current CSAR fleet of H-60 variants lacks the inherent capability to do the job, experts say. "We had all of that experience through the 90s," one of the early requirement writers said. "The key was to get in an aircraft without a large logistics footprint."

Instead, the Air Force picked what many military aviation experts consider to be a heavy-lift helicopter a Boeing HH-47 Chinook variant that took longest of all the competing platforms to prepare for its mission after being deployed, and which has a questionable survivability record, according to some of the very Air Force CSAR experts who set down those initial requirements.

Bigger not better

Bigger in this case is not better and that comes straight from the Air Forces own 2002 Analysis of Alternatives for the CSAR aircraft. CSAR experts say larger helicopters are clumsy, slow and bulky, and present a bigger target.

In its defense, Boeing says it has supplied a combat-proven, medium-lift helicopter that meets CSAR requirements, even though its own literature has listed the Chinook as a heavy-lift model and the 47 is the biggest of the three competing CSAR-X candidates, by a relatively large margin.

"Procuring the HH-47 for the CSAR mission makes as much sense as entering a Winnebago in a NASCAR race," said John Guilmartin, a retired Air Force pilot with two Southeast Asia combat tours flying "Jolly Green" HH-3E and CH-53 rescue helicopters.

Now a history professor at Ohio State University, Guilmartin logged some 130 combat missions over a span of nine years and participated in the Gulf War Air Power Survey, an Air Force-sponsored study of the impact of air power on the first Gulf War. Part of the task forces charter was to examine CSAR in the conflict.

Boeing disagrees with Guilmartins assessment and his ability to make an informed one.

"Hes not a Chinook pilot," said Rick Lemaster, Boeing HH-47 program manager. "If he had flown combat missions in a 47 in the last 10 years, then he might be able to apply his insight in CSAR here."

But Guilmartin stands by his CSAR experience and his belief that the Chinook would be a disaster, a lumbering beast.

How it happened

To find out how this happened with a $15 billion program the Air Force says is one of its top priorities, Aerospace DAILY interviewed scores of experts in and out of the service, many of whom have been involved with the CSAR-X program from its inception, and several who wrote the requirements for the new helicopter fleet. As might be expected, several of the key officials are now working or have worked for contractors involved in the fight for the contract, which is now in the midst of its third proposal request review.

Read the rest of this story -- one of several in Mike Fabey's series -- some gouge on Dutch F-16s in Afghanistan, Lockheed's confidence in the JSF and Aussies blowing up roadside bombs from our Aviation Week friends at Military.com.

-- Christian

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