Saving CSAR: Inventory, Armament, and Speed – Three Missing Ingredients (Part three, vignette one of a multi-part series)

Editor’s Note: As part of an effort to engage more of our audience, OTH is introducing a mini-series of larger articles in smaller daily vignettes.  These vignettes are designed to allow the reader to think about the content for roughly a day.  Additionally, this will increase the specificity of conversations on each individual topic in various social spaces. Please enjoy our first string of vignettes discussing the founding of requirements for the future joint rescue vehicle. 

By Brandon T. Losacker

“When the history of the war [Vietnam] is written, the story of the USAF helicopter will become one of the most outstanding human dramas in the history of the USAF”

– The Honorable Harold Brown
8th Secretary of the Air Force and 14th Secretary of Defense


The Air Force suffered 1,736 aircraft combat losses during the war in Southeast Asia (SEA). In this deadly conflict, CSAR operations proved one of the most dangerous. Up through 1967 the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant had the highest loss rate in North Vietnam at .0088 [this means there were nearly nine helicopters shot down per 1,000 sorties].  The Air Force’s premiere CSAR helicopter at the time, the HH-53, endured the fourth highest loss rate in North Vietnam at 0.0041, and the highest loss rate in South Vietnam at 0.0017 [a threat environment akin to modern counter-insurgency.  Overall, the Air Force suffered 29 CSAR helicopter combat losses in SEA from 1964 through 1972. This is not many in raw numbers, but at peak there were only 60 CSAR helicopters in SEA, so the loss rates tell a compelling story of heroism and danger born by a small group of men. This war a good analogy for major attritional air warfare against a peer, and is an especially useful historical touchpoint given the available declassified data on recovery statistics and rescue helicopter losses. In terms of absolute military capability, the Unites States enjoyed a marked technological edge over its foes in SEA, and some may chafe at the notion the war was akin to fighting a peer adversary. However, geopolitical constraints and vacuous US strategic vision created an operating environment of relative parity between the US and its communist enemies. It certainly proved costly and dangerous to the airmen fighting them. Operation Desert Storm and Operation Allied Force also constituted challenging threat environments to the air campaigns – some information from them is leveraged appropriately – but their relevant combat rescue data is limited by classification and the shortness of the operations.

Using relevant historical data will shed light on the three missing ingredients so necessary for basic combat rescue viability in modern warfare: Inventory, Armament, and Speed.

Historical Backdrop

The bombing against North Vietnam (NVN) started in August 1964 and was largely unopposed by poorly developed NVN air defenses. However, by 1967, the communists had fielded and integrated a formidable air defense system which included early warning radars, ground control intercept radars, and a significant number of SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and AAA pieces. In July of 1965, NVN fired their first SA-2 missile; from that point on until the bombing halt in March 1968 the communists launched around 6,000 SAMs at US aircraft. Despite this prolific threat, the North Vietnamese succeeded in downing only 106

Air Force aircraft with their SAM systems. More devastating than the SAMs themselves was the way they forced USAF and Navy aircraft to operate at lower altitudes, contributing to the 1,443 Air Force aircraft lost to ground fire. Only 67 Air Force aircraft were lost in air-to-air MiG engagements, less than the number lost to Viet Cong base attacks. Nonetheless, following the war in SEA, the Air Force expended great effort and cost to mitigate future fixed wing combat losses by implementing Red Flag and pursuing advanced technological improvements like stealth.

Rescue was largely omitted from this extensive effort to apply lessons from SEA. This should alarm Americans and allies concerned with the rescue of isolated personnel. If the service has failed to understand and apply the lessons from the last major attritional air war, how can a current or future rescue helicopter force expect success in the next? It cannot.

Solving the Rescue survivability shortfalls of a war 45 years past is not a panacea for modern viability. But, it is nonetheless a critical element in fielding a survivable CSAR capability today. Two aspects constitute combat viability for any warfighting force; capability and capacity. Think of capability as technology, tactics, and training and capacity as sufficiency of resources, which is loosely synonymous with fleet size.  Both are required to save Rescue from its obsolescence, So what does the Air Force’s CSAR vertical lift fleet need in terms of capability – speed and armament – and capacity?

The “Need for Speed”: The Helicopter Speed Requirement for Effective CSAR

The 3rd Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group (3rd ARRG) – the parent command of the Air Force rescue squadrons in SEA – determined that if a rescue helicopter could reach a downed aviator inside of 15 minutes his chances of successful rescue were very good. After 30 minutes, his chance of recovery dropped off dramatically. In this study, the 3rd ARRG noted that 47% of all failed rescue attempts were due to the slow speed of the rescue helicopter. While this observation from the 3rd ARRG focused on speed, it is important to keep in mind that reduced time is a function of both aircraft speed and range. In the case of SEA, the aircraft were based in such a way they had overlapping unrefueled ranges allowed coverage of the most likely areas of aircraft shootdown.

Source: The author used Google Earth to create this image.

As a result of this analysis and Rescue’s experience in SEA, the Air Force drafted a proposal for a Combat Aircrew Recovery Aircraft (CARA) in the late 1960s to bolster the effectiveness of combat rescue. Despite the superiority of the HH-53 relative to other CSAR helicopters of the time, the 3rd ARRG still deemed “the helicopter [HH-53] …. too large and too slow.” The 3rd ARRG thought CARA should be smaller than the HH-53, have a minimum cruise speed of 400 knots, have hostile ground fire detection capability, an electronic countermeasure suite, and be equipped with a terrain following/terrain avoidance radar for all weather operations. A 400 knot cruise speed may be technologically unlikely for a vertical lift aircraft. The V-22 Osprey only cruises at 270 knots, and 240 knots at low-level. Therefore, while 400 knots may not be easily attainable, it does not justify the complete abandonment of attempts to increase the rescue helicopter’s speed. Sadly though, the HH-60G – and its planned replacement the HH-60W – are even slower than the Vietnam-era HH-53 and have no terrain following/terrain avoidance system for all weather operations. The HH-60 is smaller though, so that’s something.

Source: Christopher A. Mouton, et al. Rescuing Downed Aircrews: Value of Time. Rand Corporation; Santa Monica, CA. 2015., xv

A 2015 study by the RAND Corporation reinforces the 3rd ARRG’s analysis. RAND examined combat recovery data from 1968 in SEA and from 1991-2014. The above figure is from their report and shows the relationship between rescuability and time for combat recovery missions. Taking RAND’s analysis into account, it seems to temper justification for greater speed. Developing and implementing the speed necessary to intersect the rescuability curve in Region 1 is probably not fiscally practical.

However, the futility of increasing the rescue helicopter’s speed is true only if the justification for increasing speed is referenced just to helicopters flying to save a survivor.  This myopic perspective on CSAR misses the larger operational context in which increased rescue helicopter speed is vital.

CSAR missions do not happen in a vacuum. When executed in a major war a CSAR task force (CSARTF) must necessarily include a number of other assets to locate, support, and recover the survivor. Many of these required assets; command and control (C2), intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), fighters, and aerial refuelers are crucial contributors to an ongoing air campaign. By diverting these assets from ongoing air operations to support a CSAR mission the air component commander incurs a deficit. While CSAR may be a moral, strategic, and operational imperative, it still drains the bench of key players. Increasing the speed of our rescue helicopters may have only slight direct benefit to the rescuability of a downed aviator, but it can significantly reduce the demand for supporting combat aircraft to execute a CSARTF.

Note: This table excludes flying hour costs associated with the recovery vehicles or C-130 tankers or AWACS. The F-16 RESCORT data assumes a CAS mission configuration. The F-16 SEAD data assumes a SEAD mission configuration, one threat reaction, and roughly 11,800 lbs fuel capacity with drop tanks. The F-15C OCA data assumes one threat reaction, one merge, and roughly 22,800 lbs fuel capacity with a drop tank. It’s assumed aircraft depart the rendezvous (RNDVS) with full tanks, will swap out as 4-ships, and that swap-out occurs after the aircraft have consumed 70% of total fuel capacity to allow for flight to air refueling (AR) track and reserves. KC-135 fuel transfer capacity is assumed as 150,000 lb. It is assumed that a faster recovery vehicle would maintain at least the current range capability. Source: Mission planning data was collected and provided by the 34th Weapons Squadron, USAF Weapons School.

Increasing the speed of the rescue helicopter to 200 knots cuts one hour from the mission, cuts the flying hour costs in half, reduces the number of supporting fighter assets by 30%, and perhaps most importantly, reduces the required number of KC-135s from three to two. In an age of reduced fighter inventories and aging refuelers, this is huge.

Furthermore, increased speed reduces the time spent inside the weapons engagement zones (WEZ) of various enemy threat systems that might be encountered during the en route flying portion of a CSAR mission. The below table is a sampling of both contemporary and historically relevant threats; but the reduction in WEZ exposure due to increased speed holds true for man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and radar guided systems.

It seems then that a 200-210 knot cruise speed is a good performance target for a vertical lift CSAR aircraft. Faster is better obviously, but this 200-210 knot speed target balances between cost-effectiveness, technological feasibility, and operational benefit. This will be examined in greater depth in a later article.

Note: The calculations assume the aircraft are flying at low-level, then get engaged by the described weapons system – at two-thirds the guns maximum effective range – from one clock position left or right of the aircraft’s flight path. The aircraft breaks into a 30o bank turn and then rolls out at a point to most quickly escape the maximum effective range of the gun system. The decreases in exposure time are not linear because the turn radius, and therefore the arc length of the aircraft’s turn, increases with the square of its speed.  Source: Ranges derived from Major John C. Pratt. Air Tactics Against NVN Air Ground Defenses: 1 December 1966-1 November 1968. (Project CHECO Southeast Asia Reports. Headquarters Pacific Air Forces; Hawaii. August 1969) [Document now declassified]. xi. and Ike Guardia. Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns of the Soviet Union. (Osprey Publishing; Oxford, UK. 2015), 20.

The less drain a CSARTF makes on the air component commander, the more likely they can form and launch one, which in turn generates more recoveries. This is beneficial in any attritional air war in which the long-term projection of airpower depends on returning experienced aviators back to the cockpit. The helicopter speed increase also serves to reduce the amount of time localized air superiority must be gained and maintained. This is an important consideration during first phases of combat with a peer adversary. Just for truth in advertising, depending on the intensity of these first few days of air combat, it may be difficult to launch a CSARTF. This would mean any downed aviators would need to hole up for a few days. However, we as a coalition or joint force will need to start rescuing our aviators fairly soon thereafter. The more advanced the CSAR capability, with matched capacity, the earlier in the conflict these rescues can be executed even if it is not day-one. This is especially true if the recovery vehicles are organized, trained, and equipped to execute with less reliance on and demand for supporting assets.  It would be terrible if the pilots in our front-line squadrons were to look to their left and right, noticing the empty chairs in the ready room, and not believe any viable mechanism was in place for combat rescue.

Please return tomorrow to read the second vignette presenting the need for a critical number of helicopters intra and inter theatre to support conflicts across the globe.

“These things we do, THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.”

Brandon “Sack” Losacker is an HH-60G evaluator pilot and former instructor pilot in the Marine Corps’ UH-1Y utility and light attack helicopter, 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 was the top academic graduate of his Air Command and Staff College class. He is currently serving as the Chief of Personnel Recovery Operations for US Air Forces Central Command.

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.

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