Combat Search and Rescue: Whose Chopper Has the Right Stuff for the Air Force?

Article excerpt

SUFFOLK, Va.--Three industry teams are competing to produce the Air Force's next-generation combat search and rescue helicopter, dubbed the CSAR-X.

The contractor teams--led by Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Sikorksy-- have widely different views of what it takes to win what could be a $13 billion contract.

All offer more powerful engines than those propelling today's platform, the HH-60G Pave Hawk, as well as a host of new electronic marvels. But some critics wonder whether the financially strapped Air Force couldn't do as well with one of the helicopters already in service.

The Air Force's helicopters, however, are getting on in years, with some of them predating the Vietnam War. They are being used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and readiness is suffering, according to Maj. Gen. Stanley Gorenc, the service's operational requirements director.

During the first quarter of 2006, Air Force helicopter availability rates in Iraq ranged from 54 percent for MH-53 Pave Lows, to 57 percent for HH-60s and 70 percent for UH-1N Hueys, Gorenc told the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. By comparison, availability rates in Iraq for all Air Force aircraft--including both fixed wing and rotorcraft--are running at about 90 percent.

In addition, the HH-60Gs are too small and slow, said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne. They lack the range and power to perform combat search-and-rescue missions in the demanding and remote desert and mountain environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. In 2003, one crashed in Afghanistan, killing all six Air Force personnel on board.

To correct such performance issues, the Air Force plans to begin replacing the current 101 HH-60Gs with 141 CSAR-X helicopters, Wynne told the House Armed Services Committee. The service intends to award the contract, worth a possible $13 billion, in September with aircraft deliveries to begin in 2010. The CSAR-X program is expected to reach initial operating capability by 2012.

"The CSAR-X will address the deficiencies of the current HH-60G by providing increased capabilities in speed, range, survivability, cabin size and high-altitude hover operations," he said.

The CSAR-X will be a medium-lift, vertical-takeoff and landing aircraft that can deploy quickly anywhere and operate from austere locations, as well as major air bases, Wynne said. It will be able to operate day and night, during adverse weather conditions and in all environments, including nuclear, biological and chemical conditions. The CSAR-X will be equipped with on-board defenses to enable it to fly in increased-threat environments, and it will be able to refuel in-flight, which will extend its airtime and combat mission range.

To meet these requirements, competitors for the contract are offering what they call advanced versions of their existing aircraft.

Team US101, led by Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, also includes Bell Helicopter and Europe's AgustaWestland. It is proposing the US101, an American variant of AugustaWestland's EH-101medium-lift rotorcraft, which was selected last year to become the next presidential chopper.

The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation's candidate is its HH-92 Superhawk, a bigger, souped-up version of the company's H-60 family of platforms, which include the Pave Hawk, Black Hawk and Seahawk and have logged more than 5 million flight hours in combat.

The Boeing Company's contender is the HH-47 tandem rotor aircraft, which is similar to the firm's MH-47G special operations heavy assault helicopter, the latest descendant of the venerable, Vietnam-era CH-47 Chinook.

Bell and Boeing decided in 2005 not to offer a fourth candidate--the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a fixed-wing platform. Instead, Bell is participating in the US101 effort, and Boeing is promoting its HH-47. …