The Air Force has a messy history with fielding new rotary wing aircraft, but a pair of experts believes the service will get it right this time with its Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) as the Air Force can’t further delay delivering a search and rescue replacement.

CRH is a replacement for Sikorsky’s [LMT] HH-60G Pave Hawk that has been in service since 1982. The HH-60G’s primary mission is to conduct day or night personnel recovery operations into hostile environments to recover isolated personnel during war. It also performs civil search and rescue, medical evacuation, disaster response and NASA space flight support, among other tasks, according to the Air Force. There are 67 Pave Hawks in inventory in the active Air Force with 17 in the Air National Guard (ANG) and 15 in the Air Force Reserves.

This isn’t the first time the Air Force has tried to replace the Pave Hawks. The service awarded a contract to Boeing [BA] in 2006 for what was known as Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X), only to have the program cancelled in late 2009 after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found fault with the service’s evaluation methodology. Boeing offered a rescue variant of its Chinook for the program, which the company valued in 2006 being worth more than $12 billion.

The Air Force has also struggled to replace its aging UH-1Ns that guard the ICBM fields in the plains of Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. The service announced last month that it will compete a replacement for the Hueys as opposed to issuing a contract without competition to Sikorsky, as was previously proposed.

Artist's rendering of the Air Force's Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). Photo: Sikorsky.
Artist’s rendering of the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). Photo: Sikorsky.

Lexington Institute think tank COO Loren Thompson believes that the Pave Hawks are simply too old for the Air Force to delay fielding a search and rescue replacement any further. Thompson said in a June 7 interview that unlike the B-52 bomber that has been in service since 1952, the Pave Hawks are not performing well. Thompson said roughly half of the Air Force’s Pave Hawks are out of service on any given day.

“The reason that fighter, bomber and tanker programs have been delayed is because the Air Force has existing planes that are still performing well,” Thompson said. “(Search and rescue) is one part of the fleet where if you don’t field the replacement, you might not be able to do the mission. To not have a rescue helicopter would be breaking faith with combat pilots.”

Thompson also believes the man nominated to become the Air Force’s next chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, will prioritize rotary wing platforms due to his history as a fighter pilot. Thompson said pilots want to be reassured that the service will come get them if they are shot down during combat. Goldfein has more than 4,000 hours flying aircraft, including the F-16C/D and F-117A.

“Having a way of retrieving downed pilots in combat probably figures as a high priority in (Goldfein’s) mental universe,” Thompson said.

Former Air Force chief of staff, retired Gen. Norton Schwartz, agrees that the Air Force can’t wait any longer to filed a search and rescue aircraft. Schwartz, president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security in Washington, said in a June 7 interview that the current Pave Hawks are so old, he flew them when they were at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in the 55th Squadron. Schwartz was chief of staff when the Air Force cancelled CSAR-X in 2009.

Schwartz said he believes CRH has the proper support from the Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and key committees on Capitol Hill to ensure the platform is fielded. He believes the best way to get CRH into service is to stick to the “traditional formula” of stable requirements and stable funding. Many times military services change requirements, or what they want the aircraft to be able to perform, while developing the aircraft, driving costs up to often unsustainable levels.

He also believes Goldfein prioritizes rotary wing vehicles enough to get CRH into service. Schwartz said he believes Goldfein, as a joint airman, has an appreciation for the mix of assets necessary for the Air Force to be successful.

This mix, Schwartz said, includes fixed wing platforms like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and a select number of rotary wing assets for personnel recovery. Goldfein is set to have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on June 16 at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

The Air Force in 2014 awarded Sikorsky, then of United Technologies Corp. [UTX], a $1.4 billion engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract. Sikorsky Program Director for CRH Tim Healy said in a May interview the contract also includes several training devices for both aircrews and maintenance crews as well as support, spares, technical publications.

Artist's rendering of the Air Force's Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). Photo: Sikorsky.
Artist’s rendering of the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). Photo: Sikorsky.

Sikorsky recently performed its preliminary design review (PDR), a key milestone that signals that the program is proceeding with detailed design review for the HH-60W air vehicle and logistics system, according to a company statement. Healy said Sikorsky is taking the UH-60M Black Hawk, which is currently in service with the Army, and is creating a unique variant of the aircraft that is about 83 to 85 percent common with the Black Hawk, but will be built from the ground up to meet Air Force combat rescue requirements. These requirements are takeoff, fly 195 nautical miles, hover for 10 minutes at 4,000 feet and 95 degrees Fahrenheit, pick up two survivors in stretchers and then fly back 195 nautical miles from where the aircraft originated.

Healy said one of the challenges involved with the combat rescue mission is that an agile, medium-sized helicopter is needed to perform rescues, but it also needs to carry a lot of gas to go the distances. He said this was traditionally performed by installing internal auxiliary fuel tanks, but Healy said these are inefficient ways to carry fuel. Instead, he said Sikorsky designed the main fuel system to have significantly more fuel than the basic UH-60M, which helped the company avoid about 300 pounds of weight growth.

With PDR complete, Sikorsky’s next milestone is beginning major assembly of the test aircraft, set for the middle of 2017. Healy said major assembly is when actual aircraft assembly is recognizable, as opposed to smaller components being put together.

Following major assembly is a 2020 deadline for required assets available (RAA), according to Air Force System Program Manager for CRH Dave Schairbaum. He said in a June 13 email RAA is when a number of requirements like delivery of aircraft to a training location or an operational location as well as delivery of training devices, are met. Another important deadline moving forward is the critical design review (CDR) set for June 2017.

The one big deadline both the Air Force and Sikorsky have circled on their calendars is an initial operational capability (IOC) goal of 2021. IOC is when a system can meet the minimal operational capabilities for a user’s stated need. Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, believes IOC in 2021 is “certainly feasible” technologically, but he envisions program slippage, or delay, due to budget pressure. The Air Force has a number of big-budget programs coming together in the next few years, including F-35, KC-46, the new B-2 stealth bomber and nuclear modernization.

Thompson said the Air Force performed some “complicated budget maneuvering” to get CRH into its fiscal year 2017 budget request, but the service made it happen because it was such a high priority. Schairbaum said Air Force Secretary Deborah James decided prior to contract award that the program would be fully funded and that she has not wavered from that position.

The Air Force implemented into its contract with Sikorsky a number of innovative acquisition techniques to help keep costs down and ensure the program gets fielded. Schairbaum said both EMD and low-rate initial production (LRIP) are firm fixed price (incentive firm) contracts that include a schedule incentive for meeting RAA earlier. Sikorsky, he said, implemented a hybrid software development strategy utilizing agile development for software that requires early, and more frequent, Air Force evaluation.

To keep costs in check and prevent requirements creep, Schairbaum said the Air Force is closely scrutinizing any changes to the requirements during the EMD portion of the program. He said changes to date have generally been to clarify the original requirements and that the Air Force has quickly resolved issues to avoid program delays and has continued to proactively mitigate risks.

If the Air Force likes what it sees after delivery of nine aircraft for EMD, Schairbaum said it would enter into a contract to buy likely 18 aircraft as part of LRIP, which would be set for fielding in between fiscal years 2021 and 2022. Full rate production (FRP), he said, would consist of buying likely 85 aircraft scheduled to be fielded between fiscal years 2023 and 2029.