Editor’s Note: As part of an effort to engage more of our audience, OTH is running a mini-series of a 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. The second vignette highlighting the criticality of a plentiful inventory is here. Please enjoy the third and final vignette on this mini-series.
By Brandon T. Losacker
“Too Close for Missiles, I’m Switching to Guns”: Effective Armament of a Rescue Helicopter
Sometimes violence solves problems. For CSAR, the most dangerous problem is the enemy threat in the objective area. The objective area is that area surrounding the location of the isolated person, or survivor. It is best characterized by the preparations that take place for the final extraction of the isolated personnel. It is analogous to the merge in air combat – combat identification, pre-merge maneuvering, communication, geometries, and weapons systems must all be ready.
Of the 28 helicopters lost to enemy action in SEA from 1964-1972, all but four of them were shot down in and around the objective area. Drawing meaningful conclusions for relevant baseline survivability requirements means looking also at the enemy weapon systems responsible for these rescue helicopter shoot downs.
This empirical data precipitates an important understanding. First, the objective area is the most dangerous portion of a CSAR mission. In fact, it is pretty much the most dangerous portion of the mission profile for any fighter or aircraft. This means any prospective CSAR aircraft needs to be able to fight in and around the objective area while also minimizing vulnerability time. This drives a couple requirements. Reducing the time spent in the objective area is one. Improved stand-off engagement is another.
Reduced time is largely a function of aircraft size and rotor downwash when hoists are required. The smaller the recovery vehicle and the less the downwash, the lower the aircraft can hover (or even land with appropriate obstacle clearance). Less downwash increases the safety and speed that personnel can operate beneath a hovering aircraft, the lower hover height means the survivor doesn’t have to be lifted as far to the helicopter. Hovering is important for CSAR, chances are we will not always have the luxury of fighting in open desert where landings are easy. Earlier discussions regarding increased speed likely bring the use of the CV-22 to mind. However, employing them as a dedicated CSAR asset – in the numbers required for viable coverage – runs afoul of historically validated requirements, not to mention their relative high purchase cost, operating expense, and low maintenance reliability.
The experiences in SEA and more contemporary conflicts suggest the future objective area threat will be formed from some combination of automatic weapons, AAA, and especially man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Improving survivability in this environment requires a rescue helicopter be equipped with some mechanism to build situational awareness of the objective area from a tactically viable stand-off distance and then target and engage identified threats from this same stand-off distance. Considering the maximum horizontal engagement ranges of historically lethal AAA systems and contemporary MANPADS, a tactically viable stand-off distance of about 4.5 NM, or a bit over 8,000 meters is required. In practice, this means equipping the rescue helicopter with a targeting sensor, lightweight precision armament capable of engaging enemy troops, and chassis mounted gun systems. Combat identification and target engagement capability, from stand-off, is obviously not a panacea for all enemy threats. However, continuing to assume that fast-fighters can flawlessly perform this threat identification and engagement, in a timely manner and in poor weather, is a denial of historical precedent, empirical data, and common sense.
So here’s the deal. America and her allies rely heavily on the Air Force’s dedicated CSAR force to conduct personnel recovery in time of major war. Unfortunately, this joint and combined personnel recovery enterprise is resting on a community that has been historically neglected by its parent service, is half the size it probably needs to be, and is flying aircraft that lack the speed and basic armament necessary to provide a relevant CSAR capability in a modern war. The next generation CSAR helicopter, the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), does not solve these basic problems. Canceling the CRH is not likely to be an option, and the current HH-60G fleet is on the verge of being dangerous today. Moreover, the HH-60Gs likely will not last long enough to wait for some new multi-decade developmental aircraft program. The right approach is to apply some basic lessons from the past and formulate a way ahead that acknowledges fiscal and political restraints.
By cost-effectively meeting the requirements for inventory, armament, and speed – using existing and adaptable technology – the Air Force’s combat helicopter fleet will gain new viability for CSAR and be well postured for some innovative multi-mission utilization. The next topic in the CSAR series will examine a proposal to achieve this viability and discuss the increased operational value inherent to this multi-mission utilization. This will be some dogma-challenging stuff. Stand by for the next installation of CSAR: Restoring Promise to a Sacred Assurance.
“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.