Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a multi-part series.
By Brandon T. Losacker
Code of an Air Rescue Man
It is my duty, as a member of the Air Rescue Service, to save life and aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.
— Brig Gen Richard Kight, Commander, Air Rescue Service, 1 Dec 1946 – 8 Jul 1952
Military mottos are as cliché as they are ubiquitous. They always seek to inspire; some through an earnest call to duty and many through a call to violence upon the enemy. It is the rare motto that rises from slogan to ethos. The closing words of Brigadier General Kight’s Code of an Air Rescue Man form such an ethos. The idea that our nation would send a willing force—the many—to save a desperate few defies cold logic. Yet the decades of dangerous service by Air Force Rescue testifies to their deep commitment to this very idea. The heroic daring of this force has earned it a reverence among the other Services that few, if any, Air Force communities can match. The accounting on their ledger is unbalanced, and it always will be. It is this illogical selflessness that epitomizes the best qualities of America and her people. Time and again, in war or natural calamity, our rescue crews charge unhesitatingly into the midst of death’s rage to save the desperate few. It is this quiet devotion that underwrites the Air Force’s promise to the combat aircrew it sends into harm’s way: We won’t leave you. There is great power in this promise.
Unfortunately, the Air Force’s current and planned rotary-wing rescue force is ill-equipped to fulfill this solemn assurance. The Service has failed to provide these rescue warriors the tools necessary for relevance. Instead, the Air Force seems to expect future combat rescue success without having applied the grave—and still relevant—lessons from combat in Southeast Asia, Operation DESERT STORM, and Operation ALLIED FORCE. As such, the USAF’s current and planned HH-60 aircraft fleet will be too few in number, and lacking the speed and baseline survivability for major attritional air war. The uncertain nature of future war necessitates a CSAR force well-prepared for its primary mission during a major war, but also useful across a broad range of airpower operations.
CSAR Series Part 1: Overview
This article constitutes Part 1 of a larger multi-part series of articles. It sets the stage for later analysis and deeper examination of the deficiencies in, and solutions for, the viability of the USAF HH-60 fleet. The overall objective of this series is to provide context, spur discussion, and motivate action to restore promise to America’s sacred assurance that she will not leave her warriors abandoned and without hope.
This series will necessarily have a strong bend toward Air Force operations. This is not Service parochialism, but acknowledgment of material fact. Joint and coalition Personnel Recovery (PR) is certainly not the sole responsibility of the US Air Force. However, in the context of a major peer conflict, the air component commander will have the great majority of PR “customers.” This makes the US Air Force the majority stakeholder in PR and the largest supplier of dedicated CSAR forces to this larger joint and coalition PR enterprise. Airpower is a vital component of multi-domain warfare. Air forces lose the ability to deliver airpower’s violence upon the enemy when squadrons and ready-rooms are no longer filled with the willing and able.
CSAR Series Part 2: Historical Analysis
Part 2 of this series will include analyses of historic combat operations, specifically CSAR helicopter shoot-downs and asset densities. This analysis highlights still-relevant survivability shortfalls in the legacy USAF HH-60G fleet; a fleet that will be in service for another 12 years. Specifically, the current HH-60G and forthcoming HH-60W cannot stand off from a survivor’s location, identify enemy threats, and then precisely engage them from reasonably survivable distances. This look at historical data will also reveal an average CSAR asset density ratio of one dedicated CSAR helicopter for every 6,107 square nautical miles of effective CSAR coverage area. This informs the requirement for a 212-CSAR helicopter fleet. Interestingly, there is only a 5.4% spread in the historic ratios that generated this average asset density ratio. Lastly, Part 2 will seek to demonstrate the benefit of a 50-75% increase in the flying speed of the soon-to-be-built HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopters (CRH). Such a speed increase dramatically reduces the number of supporting fighter and aerial refuelers necessary to execute a combat rescue mission. Decreasing the number of these supporting assets, with no increase in mission risk, frees assets for other air operations in support of larger theater air objectives.
CSAR Series Part 3: Solutions
The third article will examine and discuss existing material solutions to equip and modify the legacy HH-60G fleet and forthcoming HH-60W for operational viability. Discussion in Part 3 assumes cancelation of the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program is a political non-starter, and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) is too immature to replace the decaying and largely inadequate fleet of HH-60Gs soon enough. Therefore, an immediate technological upgrade to the HH-60Ws is the fastest and most cost-effective way to ensure the Air Force can keep faith with its aviators. Specifically, upgrading the HH-60W with Vectored Thrust Ducted Propeller (VTDP) compound helicopter technology (which has a Technological Readiness Level of 7) will produce 200-210 knot helicopters.
Right sizing the CSAR fleet with 212 HH-60W helicopters, upgraded for speed, range, and armament, creates opportunity to multi-role these assets for higher threat CSAR, lower threat Light Attack Support, and Strike Control. While this proposal defies current Air Force dogma, it is a compelling value proposition that builds upon historic Air Force rotary-wing employment and established roles and mission agreements.
A multi-phase acquisition and upgrade plan will be outlined in Part 3. This plan will provide a conceptual roadmap for upgrading the legacy HH-60Gs with basic self-defense capability while offering a phased approach to acquiring 212 HH-60Ws and upgrading them with VTDP technology. Amortized over approximately 14 years, the material cost of this plan is approximately $400million/year above the current cost of the CRH program.
Several assumptions provide the cognitive context of this series. Key among them is the assumption that a major peer-conflict is increasingly possible in the next five to ten years. As such, the operating environment of the next major war will be characterized by all or some of the following:
- Rapid tempo of execution. The war may still last for an extended period, but the pace of action within the conflict will be rapid.
- Advances in competitor-nation capability will make air superiority localized and fleeting, at least initially.
- Denied position, navigation, and timing (PNT) data will hinder employment of GPS guided munitions from helicopter-escorting fighter aircraft. It will also hinder employment of autonomous recovery aircraft.
- Contested/degraded communications, such as satellite, voice, data link, and remotely-piloted aircraft command links will keep manned-aircraft relevant in the next major conflict.
- Contested/denied trans-oceanic logistics lines-of-communication necessitates increasing the permanent forward presence of CSAR aircraft and squadrons.
An air war characterized by high attrition will require a heavy emphasis on recovering downed aircrew and returning them back to the fight. The experience of the German Luftwaffe offers poignant testimony to the importance of preserving human capital—well-trained combat pilots—during the conduct of a major war. On September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe entered World War II as the world’s most capable air force, but by 1944 was left an impotent shell by their inability to replace skilled pilots lost to wartime attrition. As one Luftwaffe general commented:
During aerial combat, the unit’s cohesion was quickly lost, and it had to reassemble and take up a new position. This was hardly ever accomplished, as such maneuvers presupposed a superior state of training, which was particularly lacking. The Jagdgruppen Kommandeure often stated that they would rather attack a superior enemy with four or six of their best pilots than take an entire Gruppe of 25-30 aircraft into the air because most pilots were too poorly trained to maintain contact…
A properly sized and modernized CSAR force is more than moral necessity, it is an asymmetric advantage during attritional air warfare. A CSAR force inadequate to the demands of major war against a committed and capable enemy directly undermines the long-term sustainability of American airpower.
Failure to ready the CSAR force for a major war invites great strategic risk. Every entity, organic or organizational, has some level of loss tolerance. Business entities can only lose so much money before they become insolvent. The body can only withstand so much blood loss before it dies. In this same way, nations, and the militaries that defend them, have some inherent level of loss tolerance. At its heart, this is what major war is all about; getting the enemy to reach their loss tolerance before you do, and in so doing, convincing them that capitulating to your will is in their best interest. All warfare, in some way, is attritional. Air warfare against a peer enemy is no different. Viable and effective combat search and rescue is a strategic necessity. The current and planned CSAR helicopter fleet is inadequate to fulfill the Air Force’s sacred assurance that it will not leave its warriors behind. Change is required and time may be short.
“These things we do, THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.”
Maj. Brandon “Sack” Losacker is an HH-60G evaluator pilot and former instructor pilot in the Marine Corps’ UH-1Y. He is stationed at Shaw AFB, SC. He has over 2,400 flight hours, including 400+ combat missions spanning three combat deployments. He is a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and is currently serving as the Chief of Personnel Recovery Operations for US Air Forces Central.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.