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

Editor’s Note: As part of an effort to engage more of our audience, OTH is running a mini-series of larger group of articles. These vignettes are designed to allow the reader to think about the content for roughly a day.  The first vignette which discusses History and the Need for Speed can be found here.  Please enjoy the second of three vignettes discussing the founding of requirements for the future joint rescue vehicle.

By Brandon T. Losacker

The Requirement for a Larger Helicopter Inventory

To be successful in future conflict, the Air Force needs 212 CSAR helicopters. That’s 100 more than planned under the Combat Rescue Helicopter program. This number could flex if capable joint or coalition assets can be leveraged to augment Air Force CSAR. However, under current constructs this is a bit uncertain. Historic asset density ratios from SEA, Desert Storm, and Allied Force are a compelling indicator for the number of dedicated vertical lift CSAR helicopters.

Dedicated combat rescue forces provide support over a large geographic area in any conflict. In SEA, the number of combat aircrew recoveries peaked from 1967 through 1969 – 192, 263, and 214 respectively – before slowly dropping off in the later years of the war.  This roughly corresponded with a growth in deployed USAF rescue aircraft to a highpoint of 71 – 60 helicopters and 11 HC-130 refuelers – in 1969 and 1970. The astute historian will note this period was largely after the 1968 bombing halt of North Vietnam (NVN). However, the fact that the HH-53C had the highest loss rate of any Air Force aircraft in South Vietnam (SVN) testifies to the danger of those missions. I think this makes the historical data from this period valid for analysis. The geographic area of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos was roughly 367,518 square nautical miles. Dividing this effective CSAR area by the 60 rescue helicopters present during the peak years gives a rescue asset density of one rescue helicopter per 6,125 square nautical miles.

During Operation Desert Storm, the coalition suffered 43 fixed-wing combat losses, amounting to 87 coalition airmen shot down. Of these 87 airmen, 47 were killed, one was listed as missing (US Navy Captain Scott Speicher, his body later recovered in 2009), and 24 were immediately captured due to proximity to Iraqi ground forces. That left 16 airmen isolated and conceivably rescuable in enemy territory; of these, eight were rescued successfully, all by special operations helicopters [no conventional USAF rescue forces were deployed, they were not combat deployable at the time]. As a raw percentage, only 9.2% of the total downed airmen were recovered. This lower rescue rate, as compared to SEA, probably resulted from several factors. The most prominent is the lack of cover, for both survivor and helicopter, afforded by the open desert terrain. Another potential factor is the slow speed of the available CSAR aircraft relative to the distance they had to travel to the survivors. Time was not on their side. So, is rescuing 9.2% (8 of 87) of the total downed airmen “bad,” or is saving 50% (8 of 16) of all “rescuable” downed airmen “good”? The merits of this debate notwithstanding, Desert Storm is a relevant data point in the quest for right-sizing the CSAR fleet.

The effective combat search and rescue area for Desert Storm covered all of Iraq, Kuwait, and the portion of Saudi Arabia that encompassed the coalition operating bases. The Google Earth calculated area of Saudi Arabia portion is roughly 86,100 square nautical miles. Added to the areas of Iraq and Kuwait, 127,792 and 17,818 square nautical miles respectively, makes the total CSAR area for Desert Storm approximately 231,710 square nautical miles. Dividing by the 37 special operations helicopters dedicated to CSAR gives an asset density of one rescue helicopter per 6,262 square nautical miles.

Operation Allied Force was an air campaign to drive Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces from Kosovo to protect ethnic Albanians from persecution. During the operation, Air Force had two fighters shot down – an F-117 (Vega 31 – then-Lt Col Dale Zelko) on 27 March 1999 and an F-16 (Hammer 34 – then-Lt Col David Goldfein) on 2 May 1999. Air Force special operations helicopters rescued both pilots. According to On a Steel Horse I Ride: The History of the MH-53 Pave Low in War and Peace, there were nine MH-53 and four MH-60G helicopters assigned CSAR responsibility for Allied Force. The combat SAR area for Allied Force included Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro for a total area of 77,152 square nautical miles. This gives an asset density of one rescue helicopter per 5,935 square nautical miles.

This average asset density ratio inherently accounts for marked differences in aircraft capabilities such as speed and range. For example, the HH-53C of SEA was twice as fast as its HH-43 compatriot and had three and a half times the range. This make the asset density ratio a compelling tool for operations and acquisition.

Let’s assume a conflict in Europe against a peer adversary would have a rough CSAR area of 360,227 square nautical miles [this includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova, Bulgaria, Poland, and Iceland (Iceland is strategically vital for control of North Atlantic logistics lines of communication)]. Applying the average density ratio predicts a need for 59 dedicated CSAR helicopters. The Air Force only has five HH-60Gs in Europe. I mention this because, unlike other Air Force aircraft such as fighters, bombers, and tankers, vertical lift CSAR aircraft are very difficult to self-deploy across the Atlantic. Moving the needed number of CSAR helicopters would require dozens of transport jets; jets that will need to be used for the movement of additional ground forces, ordnance, etc.

There are currently only 97 HH-60G CSAR helicopters in inventory and plans to buy only 112 new HH-60W replacements. Assuming 12 of the HH-60Ws go to the training squadron and one to a flight test squadron, only 99 will be combat-coded. If the HH-60W lives up to its availability goal of 67.4%, only 67 of the 99 combat-coded HH-60Ws will be readily available for deployment. Assuming a 59-helicopter requirement for a European conflict, it will take a maximum effort surge by all active and reserve component units to meet the need for just this one theater war. Such a surge leaves virtually zero dedicated-CSAR capacity for conflict anywhere else; none for the Middle East, none for homeland defense, almost nothing else save a single squadron in Pacific Command. Fighting near simultaneous conflicts in the Indo-Asian Theater – assuming the Pacific theater CSAR area approximates that of a European conflict – will require a total Air Force inventory of roughly 200 to 212 HH-60Ws.

Regardless of whether one actually thinks a two-theater war is likely, building the capacity for it will enable multi-mission utilization, and provide an operational value not available in a smaller fleet size.

Please return tomorrow for the final vignette. The last addition will discuss the need for effective armament to support self-defense and offense application of firepower in the objective area. 

“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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