The Air Force’s new combat search-and-rescue helicopters are slated to be delivered months early, but a new government-issued report detailing the current fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawks’ maintenance woes indicates the shift can’t come fast enough.

The service has employed Pave Hawk helicopters for combat search-and-rescue missions since the 1980s, but the inventory has shrunk over the years due to mishaps and excess wear. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last Thursday titled, “Air Force Plans to Replace Aging Personnel Recovery Helicopter Fleet,” shares concerns that maintenance issues affecting in particular reserve components who operate the HH-60s could be affected by the current delivery schedule.

Sikorsky's HH-60W combat rescue helicopter will replace the Air Force's aging HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet by the 2020s. Image: Sikorsky.
Sikorsky’s HH-60W combat rescue helicopter will replace the Air Force’s aging HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet by the 2020s. Image: Sikorsky.

The service’s fleet currently consists of 96 aircraft: 82 helicopters designated for duty, 12 for training and two for development and testing purposes. The GAO’s report noted that “the material condition of the Air Forces’ aging HH-60G fleet has declined and maintenance challenges have increased, in part due to extensions beyond the designed service life of the helicopters.”

Available helicopters currently average about 7,100 flight hours, around 18 percent more than their initial expected service life of 6,000 hours. Around 68 percent of the 96-helicopter fleet were mission-capable as of fiscal year 2017, below the Air Force desired mission-capable rate of 75 percent, it said.

Maintenance challenges also hinder the fleet. Helicopters spent an average of 332 days undergoing depot-level maintenance in 2017 compared with 233 days in 2007, more than a 40-percent increase.

New helicopters are on the way. Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin [LMT], is on contract to provide the HH-60W – a derivative of its UH-60M Black Hawk – to replace the Pave Hawk fleet in the 2020s. The engineering and manufacturing development phase contract, awarded in 2014, includes nine aircraft and related training and maintenance systems for nearly $1.6 billion.

Sikorsky currently has three Whiskey variant aircraft going through final assembly at its Stratford, Conn., facility. Two of those aircraft are engineering, manufacturing and development models and one is a maintenance trainer, a company spokesperson said in an email Friday. First flight is currently slated for the end of 2018, two months ahead of schedule, the company added.

The Air Force has indicated a desire to add up to 112 new aircraft to the fleet. The company produced the original MH-60Gs in the 1980s and 1990s.

The active component of Pave Hawks is scheduled to begin receiving new helicopters in fiscal year 2020, six years before the reserve component, the GAO report said. In May 2018, the Air Force’s active component HH-60Gs averaged about 2,000 more flight hours per helicopter than the reserve component.

The report noted that the current fielding schedule may pose a problem for the Air Force’s training of reserve component squadrons between 2025 and 2028.

The service’s training squadrons at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., conduct formal HH-60G training for both the active and reserve components, and by 2025, those squadrons are slated to be transitioned over to the new Whiskey models. However, up to seven rescue squadrons are still scheduled to fly Pave Hawks until 2028, and will require formal training on that helicopter, it noted.

The Air National Guard squadrons are set to receive new platforms beginning in 2027, toward the end of the fielding period. In the meantime, the Guard is scheduled to gain refurbished Army helicopters upgraded to Pave Hawk configurations beginning in 2019 to bridge the gap between the aging systems and the new platforms.

“Air Force officials said that they plan to maintain their fielding schedule because changing it would require renegotiation of the contract, likely increase costs, and possibly delay delivery of the new helicopters,” the report said. “Air Force officials acknowledged this potential training issue and told GAO that the Air Force was considering options to address it; including retaining some legacy HH-60Gs at a training squadron to provide training during any gap period.”

GAO did not make any recommendations as a result of the study, which was requested in a provision of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Its findings were sent to the Defense Department for any comments, but none were received, according to the report.