This article first appeared in AviationWeek.com.
As the U.S. Air Force gets ready to recapitalize its current combat, search and rescue (CSAR) fleet, service and industry officials are hoping that history will repeat itself and the Defense Department will again realize the importance and need for a more modern dedicated CSAR fleet.
Almost immediately after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced cancellation the Air Force's $15 billion CSAR-X program to replace the existing HH-60 fleet -- the service's number two acquisition priority -- the Pentagon issued a Resource Management Directive, according to industry and military sources. The directive would recapitalize the CSAR capacity at half of the Fiscal 2010 budget allotment, giving the service about $2.8 billion with which to work.
That will be a tough pill to swallow for the Air Force, as a major report from earlier this decade indicated. In its "Combat Rescue Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) Combat Rescue Future Recovery Vehicle Final Report," from February 2002, service officials were less than keen about continuing with the aircraft for CSAR missions.
"The expert panel identified four deficiencies: visual lookout, avionics, workload, self-defense in terminal area, and alternate insertion and extraction (AIE) with wounded crew member. Each of these deficiencies was ranked as critical," the AOA said.
At the same time, the Air Force is used to CSAR receiving short shrift.
"The tumultuous upswing and downswing of rescue forces throughout the last 50 years suggests that senior leaders' interest in combat, search and rescue has been purely reactive to current events and not based on meeting 'future' contingency operations," the AOA said. "Combat, search and rescue has always been marked by a lack of capabilities prior to hostilities due to decreases in force structure, followed by stop-gap thinking by military leaders and quick fixes to rebuild a rescue force only during times of combat or crisis."
According to the AOA, the Emergency Rescue Squadron was first established during World War II in 1943, but it wasn't until the Air Rescue Service began CSAR missions in the Korean War that the mission came into its own. By 1954, the ARS had 50 squadrons.
But after the Korean War it was cut down to 11 squadrons by 1961 -- only to be rebuilt again three years later to meet needs in Southeast Asia.
In 1966, the newly dubbed Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) had a force structure of 10 helicopter detachments. By the early 1970s, there were 355 CSAR aircraft under the service.
But when Vietnam operations ended, that service was cut to 214 aircraft in 1976. A year later, the military started to buy the HH-60D Nighthawks.
In 1984, the budget called for 240 Nighthawks. Within three years the program would be canceled. After that, all remaining ARRS-assigned HH-53s were transferred to Special Operations and modified to Pave Low MH-53s.