Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of Brandon Losacker’s series on the future of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). Previous articles in the series can be found here. If interested in the more detailed study that discusses the math and concepts that underpin this series, please see here.
By Brandon T. Losacker
Let’s get straight to the point: to save Rescue the Air Force should purchase 149 HH-60W helicopters, arm them, modify them with Vectored Thrust Ducted Propeller (VTDP) technology to achieve 200-210 knots, and apply them as multi-mission (CSAR, Light Attack, and Strike Control) aircraft. The Air Force can likely do this for approximately $321 million extra per year in acquisition cost from Fiscal Year 2019 through 2028. Do not worry, we will walk through a brief primer on the VTDP technology, explain why light attack and strike control are complimentary missions to CSAR, and examine Air Force precedents to a multi-mission aircraft approach.
A Speed Hawk Primer
Any proposal to achieve increased speed for CSAR aircraft should be guided by several critical criteria. First, a “pretty good” speed solution relatively soon is better than a “perfect” solution decades from now. Second, a speed-solution must not abandon the proven benefits inherent to conventional rotorcraft. To wit, this means minimized downwash for safety, minimized time and altitude in a hover – whether over terrain or water – while still supporting crew-served side-firing weapons for point defense of the helicopter and survivor in the objective area. Third, this solution must enable carriage of improved forward firing armament for more survivable stand-off engagement of threats in the objective area. Lastly, the solution must be cost effective enough for application in the quantities necessary for both multi-mission utilization and at least 75% of the ideal number of CSAR aircraft for two major wars. These four criteria are derived from both historical and contemporary analysis contained in this series’ earlier articles. Moreover, they provide a useful broader context to the discussion, lest someone view speed as the aircraft quality most synonymous with CSAR capability. If it were, the best CSAR aircraft would be a two-seat F-35B. It’s fast, it can hover, and it could pick someone up.
A number of technological solutions may enable this speed increase at minimized cost, but only one seems prepared to deliver in a relatively short period of time: Vectored Thrust Ducted Propeller (VTDP) compounding. In December 2016, the author interviewed key principles at Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (PiAC) as part of a research project through the Air Command and Staff College. The following discussion is derived from that research effort (please note that this is merely a discussion of available solutions, not an endorsement of any company, the author gets nothing from this, nor has received anything).
In June 2007, Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (PiAC) flew an advanced VTDP compound helicopter technology demonstrator, the X-49A Speed Hawk (a modified US Navy SH-60). Since then the X-49A has flown 86.6 flight hours and 79 flight events in which it achieved 180 knots KIAS in level flight and saw on average a 50% reduction in vibration and fatigue loads versus a base Navy SH-60. This initial X-49A excluded critical drag reduction components (like fairings and rotor mast shrouds) and used only the original engines with no supplementary power unit (SPU). These results indicate a compelling potential solution to the current HH-60’s speed deficit.
Note: A Supplementary Power Unit (SPU) will replace the existing auxiliary power unit (APU) and is expected to add 650shp to the drive-system. The SPU is a non-developmental power plant. Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) is the US Army’s effort to increase main power plant output turbines by 50%, while reducing fuel consumption by 25%. The ITEP power plant will be a form-fit replacement for the GE T700 engines on the HH-60G/W.
The fixed lifting wings and the thrust from the ducted tail propeller will increase the speed and efficiency of the aircraft for greater long-range mission utilization. The high mounted lifting wings will permit movement in/out of the cargo door, retain useful fields of fire from crew-served weapons, provide hard-points for external stores, add in-wing fuel storage, and relieve upward of 50% of the lifting loads from the main rotor at cruise. Additionally, the flaperons in the wings provide for redundant roll control for the helicopter when maneuvering in forward-flight. The VTDP components may add 8-10% more to the empty weight of the HH-60. However, the addition of the SPU and load-relief on the main rotor allow for higher useful weight capacity and a power-to-weight ratio – at maximum gross – on par with the HH-60G/W.
In summary, the Speed Hawk, or similar technological solution, solves significant operational challenges for the Air Force’s CSAR mission. An HH-60 Speed Hawk retains or enables all the positive survivability characteristics inherent to a helicopter, but with the speed necessary to operate within the current constraints of supporting fighter assets:
- It will support improved armament.
- Similar to the conventional HH-60, the Speed Hawk will exhibit less disruptive downwash and achieve lower hover heights with better obstacle clearance relative to other potential rescue vehicles. Lower hovers reduce aircraft silhouetting and reduce exposure time to potential enemy action. Importantly, this reduced downwash also improves the speed and safety of overwater hoist recoveries.
- Finally, the Speed Hawk will retain side-firing weapons for accurate and responsive threat suppression when the aircraft is most vulnerable, during low and slow operations in the objective area.
These improvements in the rescue vehicle will improve its overall mission effectiveness. The increase in capability will allow the platform to perform additional missions like Strike Control and Light Attack, while simultaneously reducing the demand for escort assets during a CSAR mission.
Why a Multi-Mission Aircraft?
Light Attack and Strike Control will provide a recurring operational value for an expanded CSAR helicopter force, while simultaneously enhancing core CSAR competencies and capabilities like weapons employment and integration with fighter aircraft. The Air Force wants CSAR, but when it comes to resourcing, the weight of effort goes to the Air Force’s raison d’être: the execution and support of aerial delivered violence upon the enemy. The Air Force cares primarily about power projection. It always has. That is why it exists. Multi-mission utilization for CAS and Strike Control helps provide the CSAR helicopter force a recurring airpower mission it currently lacks. Furthermore, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) recognizes a need to preserve his 4th and 5th generation power projection capability by fielding a fleet of light attack aircraft suitable for austere operation in low-intensity conflict. Having been shot-down himself and rescued, he undoubtedly appreciates the value of a ready CSAR force. So why not build a fleet that does both?
Multi-mission utilization means the CSAR helicopter force would no longer be dedicated exclusively to CSAR, but rather designated for CSAR. As designated CSAR forces, the HH-60G crews could be employed by the air component commander for broader airpower missions, provided they maintained a responsive CSAR posture. Importantly, Close Air Support (CAS) – the procedures and tactics inherent to light attack – is already an implied task for the HH-60G in the conduct of a CSAR mission. When an HH-60G crew provides aerial-delivered fires in close proximity to friendly ground forces that require the detailed integration of those fires, they have met the doctrinal definition of close air support. Light Attack will merely build on these skills. Additionally, the procedures and tactics for strike control – whether in the capacity of Strike Control and Armed Reconnaissance (SCAR) or airborne Forward Air Control (FAC[A]) – are analogous to those used in the execution of a CSAR mission.
The technical and cognitive benefits of performing light attack and strike control are appreciable. As a UH-1Y pilot in Afghanistan, the author has executed both real-world combat assault and CAS missions. The experience as a CAS pilot provides significant benefit to the ability to execute complex CSAR missions; primarily because of the dynamic problem solving and integration that must take place in a CAS mission. The assault experience, while rewarding and important to the Marines’ mission, provides no appreciable improvement in core skills for CSAR.
We’ve Been Here Before
Using HH-60s for light attack and strike control may challenge modern dogma in an Air Force that holds CAS as the exclusive domain of fixed-wing aircraft. However, this was not always the case. Arming Air Force helicopters for greater survivability and utilization as light CAS aircraft invites discussion of roles and missions agreements. The use of Air Force helicopter gunships in combat was of great interest to senior Air Force leadership in the late 1960s. In a reply teletype message to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, dated February 1967, the Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces provided this:
Ref is CSAF guidance on arming SAW [Special Air Warfare] helicopter for use in SAW role and indicated strong initial support for project from COMUSMACV [Commander US Military Assistance Command Vietnam] fundamental to successful implementation of program. 7AF [7th Air Force] has advised close contact with MACV (MACSOG) has so far indicated no resistance to use of AF gunships support [to] SAW operations. 7AF is pressing with AF MACSOG personnel [to] use these helicopters as gunships. Rationale in urging immediate employment is to cite ‘accomplished fact’ should opposition to using AF helicopters as gunships [in] SAW operations arise later.[i]
Air Force leadership was keen to establish helicopter gunships as another service instrument of airpower, an instrument particularly well suited to conduct light close air support in low intensity warfare. The timing of this message, and the combat introduction of the Air Force helicopter gunship, is important. The McConnell-Johnson Agreement of 6 April 1966 released the
Air Force’s claims to rotary-wing aviation, with three important exemptions revealed in the excerpt. By using Air Force helicopter gunships in the Special Air Warfare (SAW) role within one year of this agreement the service set precedent for their later use. In early1967, Air Force UH-1F helicopter gunships conducted their first combat missions providing close air support (CAS)
Excerpt from the McConnell-Johnson Agreement of 6 April 1966
to Military Assistance Command Studies and Observation Group forces (source document references MACSOG vs the more common MACV-SOG). A normal MACSOG mission involved “slick” UH-1F assault aircraft escorted by other gunship-UH-1Fs armed with 2.75in rockets and 7.62mm miniguns. This organic escort capability was well suited to providing highly responsive fire support for the slick aircraft landing and operating in the objective area. While the mission intent certainly differed between special air warfare and combat search and rescue, the dangerous and prolific threat of automatic weapons in the objective area did not.
The Air Force eventually upgraded from the single-engine UH-1F to the twin-engine UH-1N, these UH-1N gunships remained in use until around 1985. The exemptions in the McConnell-Johnson Agreement also encompassed Search and Rescue (SAR). It logically follows that the
Air Force has latitude in how it equips and employs its helicopters when it comes to SAW and SAR. Equipping CSAR helicopters with improved armament will correct a survivability shortfall, expand operational flexibility to enable light CAS and strike control, follows service precedent, and is in accordance with roles and missions agreements.
The Numbers Game
As discussed in previous articles, the currently planned 112 HH-60Ws is inadequate to the needs of two simultaneous major wars. The ideal answer is 212 vertical–lift CSAR aircraft that have robust armament, minimized downwash and size, and are ~50-70% faster than the current HH-60G. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and smartly managing a rapid personnel and experience growth to a 212 fleet is tough. Especially since the Air Force is already short on pilots. However, 149 aircraft can be an adequate balance between growth, acquisition cost, training expansion, and multi-mission utilization. That is also the maximum number of HH-60Ws that Sikorsky can produce under the CRH contract. Of the 149 aircraft, 130 would be combat-coded and, at normal availability ratios, that means 87 would be ready for a maximum effort surge to cover a major attritional war. That 87 would be roughly 75% of the CSAR aircraft necessary for both a European and Indo-Asian war. Conceivably, joint and allied forces could cover the remaining 25% of personnel recovery capacity.
Note: HH-60W RDT&E (Research, Development, Test and Evaluation), LRIP (Low-Rate Initial Production), FRP (Full Rate Production). Importantly, the actual projected manufacturing capacity of the HH-60W production line is about 149 aircraft, assuming production capacity is maximized for each fiscal year. However, the total planned production is only 112 aircraft. Source: This data is compiled from Attachment 12 of the original CRH Contract, # FA8629-12-R-2400, dated 9 October 2012, and the DoD Combat Rescue Helicopter Selected Acquisition Report dated May 2016.
149 HH-60W Speed Hawks provides a myriad of operational benefits. First, it enables a standard deployment package of eight aircraft, and a sustainable deployment capacity of 16-20 aircraft a year. Secondly, if staged from one location, this 8-aircraft package can provide 24 hours of CSAR coverage and roughly eight hours of non-surge CAS coverage per 24 hour period. Having 149 aircraft enables an increase in the overseas squadrons in Europe and the Pacific and provides helicopters to the New Mexico Air National Guard – which presently has no aircraft of its own. It also allows creation of an entirely new unit, which in the author’s assessment should be a Reserve or Guard unit at Hill AFB, Utah. This location enables routine integration with F-35s, access to excellent training ranges and environments, and provides an attractive location for pilots that want to serve, but desire to do so while living permanently in the mountain west.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve will operate the HH-60G until 2029! Any comprehensive plan to revitalize Rescue must address the “legacy” HH-60G’s baseline survivability shortfalls, particularly regarding objective area awareness and armament.
Phase-1: HH-60G Block Cycle 172 Upgrade Cost: ~ $75 million
- Equip ~65 HH-60Gs with an advanced targeting sensor
- 65 aircraft will include the Air Reserve Component, Flight Test, the Weapons School, and the two overseas HH-60G units.
- 65 advanced sensors will cost approximately $1,000,000/unit = $65 million
- Mounting kits, wiring, rocket pods for 65 HH-60G = $10 million (best guess)
- Equip ~65 HH-60Gs with an advanced targeting sensor
The Air Force should buy the additional 37 HH-60Ws available under the existing Combat Rescue Helicopter contract.
Phase-2: Max HH-60W Production Capacity – Total 149 HH-60Ws Cost: $1,502.2 million
- Sikorsky can produce 149 HH-60Ws by the end of FY27
- Additional 37 HH-60Ws at $40.6 million/unit flyaway cost = $1,502.2 million
PiAC needs roughly three years to design and flight test the operational components for an HH-60W Speed Hawk. Allowing another year to manufacture and assemble the kits puts earliest introduction just before FRP Lot 5 in FY25. Modification while still on the production line is pretty cheap, about 10% of the “base” price of the HH-60W.
Phase-3: Modify 79 HH-60Ws to Speed Hawk configuration, on production line Cost: $587 million
- RDT&E for the Speed Hawk-specific components = $350 million
- 79 HH-60Ws modified at 10% of an assumed base price of $30 million = $237 million
The 70 HH-60Ws produced before development and inclusion of the Speed Hawk kits will need to be modified post-production at a maintenance depot. That will probably cost about 50% of the base cost of the HH-60W.
Phase-4: Modify 70 HH-60Ws to Speed Hawk configuration, at depot Cost: $1,050 million
- 70 HH-60Ws modified at 50% of an assumed base price of $30 million = $1,050 million
Total Cost: $3,214 million Amortized (FY19 – FY28): $321million/year
More Pilots? Not Exactly….
Increasing the HH-60 fleet from 112 to 149 aircraft will require more crew, both officers and enlisted. Achieving this growth, especially for pilots, is a difficult proposition these days… but only if the Air Force insists on keeping two pilots in the cockpit. Instead, the Air Force should consider introducing Weapon System Officers (WSO) to the HH-60 to facilitate this personnel growth. If the HH-60 is made a multi-mission force, it only makes sense to leverage a rated officer field specifically created to manage aircraft weapons systems. The HH-60 community uses copilots much like WSOs already. The only compelling non-emotional counter yet offered to the author is the concern with a pilot being shot. This is certainly valid, but the author is confident a WSO can be taught basic aircraft handling to a proficiency level that would allow them to take over for a wounded pilot and safely land the helicopter. A beta test would be required to validate or discount this idea.
The Air Force current rotary-wing CSAR force is not well, but there is tremendous potential and talent within it. I fervently hope the Air Force lifts its CSAR force from its increasingly challenged state and recasts it as a viable and capable community of warriors dedicated to preserving and protecting the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The choices being made now should reflect the strategic and moral imperatives that underpin the sustainability of airpower projection. As we look around the global wood, it appears that night is falling, and that dark evils are increasingly on the move. Let us not forget the sacred assurance to the men and women we send into harm’s way to defend us against these evils.
In September 1939, the Luftwaffe entered World War II as arguably the world’s most capable and combat experienced air force, but by 1944 was left an impotent shell by its 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…
“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 has over 2,400 flight hours, including 400+ combat missions. He is a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, was the top academic graduate at Air Command and Staff College, and currently serves 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.