The U.S. Air Force on April 30 canceled a program to help aircrews on the Lockheed Martin [LMT] HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter overcome degraded visual environments (DVE), but congressional defense authorizers want the service to submit a report on the cancellation and to restore funding for the effort, which may also lead to a system to help aircrews in the HH-60W Jolly Green II, which is to replace the Pave Hawk.
The House Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill contained the directive, and, since the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill did not counter the provision, the thrust of the House language will stand in the report on the defense authorization conference bill, which the House has approved and which the Senate is likely to do shortly.
Neither the House nor the Senate appropriations measures thus far have included funds for DVE mitigation for HH-60s.
“Uncharted wires and low visibility brown-out conditions present military helicopters with additional hazards during training and operational missions, sometimes leading to aircraft damage, aircraft loss, or aircrew fatalities,” HASC said in a report on its version of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill. “The committee supported plans by the Air Force to leverage investments made by the Army and U.S. Special Operations Command and field a DVE capability to its HH–60G Pave Hawk fleet. However, the fiscal year 2022 budget request eliminated nearly all HH–60G DVE funding, leaving only $5.6 million for contract closeout.”
In 2019, Sierra Nevada Crop. received a $75 million contract to outfit 85 Pave Hawks with the company’s Degraded Visual Environment System (DVES), which was to integrate a number of sensors, including infrared, light detecting and range, and millimeter wave radar, to overcome DVEs (Defense Daily, May 24, 2019).
Military officials have reported that degraded visual environments have caused a significant portion of DoD rotary wing crashes and aviation fatalities since 2002. In degraded visual environments, aircrews have low or zero visibility during takeoff, normal flight and landing under conditions that can include brownout, smoke, sand, snow, rain, night and fog.
“Information provided to the committee from the Air Force cited delays caused by integration challenges as the reason for cancelling the DVE program,” the HASC report on the committee’s fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill said. “In a June 30, 2021, committee hearing on the fiscal year 2022 budget request for rotary wing aircraft, the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics testified that the planned divestment of the HH–60G fleet within this decade influenced the decision to cancel the DVE project.”
After the cancellation, HASC denied an Air Force request to reprogram about $8.5 million in fiscal 2021 funds from the DVE program to other needs. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), the chair of the HASC tactical air and land forces panel, was the lawmaker who first noted the HH-60G DVE program cancellation and asked the Air Force about the decision at the June 30 hearing.
In the report on HASC’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, the committee said that it was concerned about “the abrupt DVE cancellation and the deemphasis on increasing flight and aircrew safety.”
“Though the Air Force claims that near-term HH–60G retirement justifies not fielding a DVE system, the replacement combat rescue aircraft, the HH–60W Jolly Green II, has no DVE system in its current program baseline,” per the report. “The committee notes that in 2018, an entire crew of seven service members died when their HH–60G Pave Hawk flew into an undetected wire on the border between Iraq and Syria. Accordingly, the committee directs the secretary of the Air Force to submit a report to the House Committee on Armed Services by December 15, 2021, on a plan to restore the DVE integration and fielding effort to the HH–60G program. The report shall include a schedule for integration and fielding and the associated remaining costs.”
Given the timing of the enactment of the final defense authorization conference bill, a report on the latter will move back the timing of the required submission of the DVE system restoration study by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
The service has said that it is considering DVE mitigation modifications for the HH-60W, but slower than expected fielding may complicate equipping the helicopters with those modifications.
“Efforts to improve the HH-60W Jolly Green II’s performance in degraded visual environments are underway and progressing and [are] included under the Air Force’s initial plans to upgrade capability,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement.