CSAR: A Historical Perspective – Institutional Apathy

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a multi-part series. Part One can be read here.

By Brandon T. Losacker

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

Ecclesiastes 1:9, 11

History’s Instruction

This poetic caution speaks to foolishness – the proclivity to ignore the lessons of the past and believe today is different. This dangerous idea reflects a belief that our modernity graces us with knowledge and technology setting us above our ignorant predecessors and the lessons of the past. Combat quickly lays bare the siren song of modernity’s arrogance. Failure to learn history’s warfighting lessons can prove a profound hindrance to future success. Air Force Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) embodies a failure to apply history’s instruction and puts US airpower at strategic risk as it faces renewed potential for a hard and bloody fight.

This article visits traceable history of Air Force mismanagement of the combat rescue helicopter forces that are the backbone of the larger joint and coalition personnel recovery enterprise. It is a cautionary tale from the past about the present and near future. This is part of a series of articles that aims to prepare the force in advance of the next war, rather than in a belated response to it. This is a longer article, so grab a cup of coffee and settle in. Maybe two cups, it is history after all…

Contemporary Perspective

On 14 December 2010, an aerial refueling probe on an HH-60G assigned to Kirtland AFB, NM (serial number 82-23708) catastrophically failed in flight. The refueling probe literally tore itself off of the aircraft following a dangerous structural phenomenon known within the Pave Hawk community as Divergent Probe Oscillation (DPO). The crew of this helicopter lived, but only because the probe broke down in its violent swings and not up into the rotor system. In an apparent case of institutional apathy toward the safety of its helicopter aircrew, the Air Force did not ground the HH-60G fleet to determine the cause. As a point of comparison, in the summer of 2014, the Air Force grounded approximately 80 F-16Ds due only to the discovery of airframe cracks near the cockpit. This cautious, and appropriate, decision toward the fighter fleet stands in stark contrast to the Air Force’s treatment of its long-suffering CSAR force.

In the years since the 2010 probe failure, the health of the HH-60G fleet has continued to deteriorate. It now struggles to meet a 60% maintenance availability rate fleet-wide, has seen a 25% increase in the cost per flight hour, and has suffered from a prolific number of major airframe structural cracks. In spite of these challenges, Air Force Rescue continued their quiet and heroic combat mission to save lives even while their parent service took little concrete action to safeguard their own.

On 26 June 2014, the Air Force awarded Sikorsky Aircraft Company a contract to manufacturer 112 new HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopters (CRH); these aircraft will replace the existing fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawks. The contract was valued at $7.9 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 dollars with final delivery of the aircraft not expected until 2029. This award followed a last-minute decision on 4 March 2014 by then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James to fund it in the Air Force’s FY 2015 budget. Several months before this decision, in December of 2013, 74 lawmakers in the House of Representatives signed a letter urging the Air Force to support acquisition of the CRH. Then on March 4th, the very day of Secretary James’ decision, Senators Charles Schumer and Dick Durbin called Secretary James to urge her support for the program; they did this after learning of the following verbiage already published in the FY 2015 Budget Overview Book.

The FY 2015 President’s Budget includes recommendations to terminate or restructure weapons systems acquisition programs that are experiencing significant developmental problems, unsustainable cost growth, and inefficient or ineffective operations, and realign the funding to higher priority national security requirements. This includes … the Air Force’s delay of the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program {emphasis added}.

The manner in which CRH’s funding came about fuels a cynical perspective that sees Congress as the savior of Rescue and not the Air Force itself; which seemed happy to allow the CSAR force to continue an unabated deterioration. Nonetheless, Secretary James’ decision to include CRH funding was welcomed by the Air Force’s small community of combat rescue helicopter pilots and crewmen….the author included.

Our relief was due to the poor overall state of the old HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet in desperate need of replacement. The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter is based on the UH-60L Black Hawk platform (some early versions were based on the UH-60A), initially modified to perform special operation missions then adapted and further modified to the CSAR role. The intended airframe life for the UH-60 platform with a normal operating weight around 16,825 pounds is 20 years of service and 8,000 airframe hours. The average age of the Air Force HH-60G is nearly 25 years old, typically operated between 20,000 and 22,000 pounds, and several of the oldest models have accrued over 11,000 airframe hours. The many years of hard combat and flying training at such necessarily high weights have taken their toll. The original acquisition number, and program of record, for the HH-60G was 112 aircraft but combat and training losses have left just 97 remaining aircraft.

Historical Perspective – Southeast Asia

US involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia grew during the latter part of the 1950s and into the early 1960s. By 1961, USAF programs to train Vietnamese air forces had led to a significant increase in American air combat activity in Vietnam. From this early period in the conflict until June 1964, the Air Force had no rescue units assigned to duty in Southeast Asia. This shortfall in capacity and capability was rooted in Air Force decisions following the Korean War.

During the Korean War, the Air Rescue Service had more than 12,000 personnel, but after the war the force was drawn down to only 1,465 men and 66 aircraft. Furthermore, during the interwar period between Korea and Vietnam, the Air Force had withdrawn any wartime mission from Air Rescue activities. The Air Force believed any future war would be nuclear, so any conventional combat capability in Air Rescue was pointless. This decision created a technological void in personnel recovery systems and led to a lack of support and low priority for Rescue and the USAF helicopter fleet. The end result of this institutional neglect was a rescue force unable to provide relevant combat deployable assets from 1961-1964. During this period there were 143 casualties due to aircraft crashes and the Air Force had to rely solely upon Army, Marine, and Vietnamese Air Force assets to rescue its downed aircrew.

In June 1964 the first Air Rescue Service HH-43 Huskies (call sign “Pedro”) – designed for peacetime local base rescue and firefighting – arrived in SEA with no formalized training, equipment, or concepts for combat rescue. The air refuelable HH-3E Jolly Green Giants – and later the HH-53B/C Super Jolly Green Giants (both call sign “Jolly Green”) – arrived in SEA through the late 1960s, providing the joint force with viable CSAR capacity and capability. After Korea, the Air Force incorrectly predicted that future conflict would invalidate CSAR. This incorrect decision required years of effort before Rescue could finally provide theater-wide CSAR for the attritional air war over SEA.

Historical Perspective – post-SEA to Desert Storm

CSAR in SEA gave birth to the HH-53 Pave Low III program in 1976. During the war, night recovery operations proved more survivable than daylight missions and a special program was initiated under Military Airlift Command (MAC) to provide the HH-53 with full night and adverse weather capability. This suite of systems included a gyro-stabilized forward looking infrared system (FLIR), Doppler navigation, projected map display, terrain following and terrain avoidance (TF/TA) radar, and substantial self-protection equipment. MAC funded seven aircraft after diverting funds from the C-5 fleet and fielded the new HH-53 Pave Low rescue helicopters in 1980.

Following the abject failure of Operation Eagle Claw in the spring of 1980, the Air Force Chief of Staff ordered the immediate transfer of the Pave Low HH-53s from the Air Rescue and Recovery Service to Air Force special operations. This left Rescue with non-modified HH-53s (all eventually transferred to Air Force special operations) and HH-3s. Neither was equipped with viable self-protection equipment, relegating conventional Air Force rescue forces to low or no-threat environments.

After the move of the modified HH-53 Pave Low helicopters to special operations, the Air Staff began work on a plan to replace its aging fleet of HH-3s. In 1982 the Air Force received nine UH-60A Black Hawk models, which were eventually upgraded to the HH-60G and assigned to the 55th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron. These aircraft were considered special operations capable and the 55th eventually became a Special Operations Squadron in 1988. As part of this plan, the Air Staff aimed to procure 243 HH-60D helicopters for CSAR. Incorporating lessons from the Pave Low program, these HH-60Ds would be fielded with an inertial navigation system (INS), TF/TA radar, and FLIR. Congressional procurement cuts combined with Air Force Council actions in FY 1984 scaled the planned procurement of HH-60Ds down to 99 HH-60Ds and 90 HH-60As (the “A” was basically identical to a US Army UH-60A Black Hawk). Motivation for this change was budgetary; the HH-60D was superior in capability to the HH-60A but the “D” model cost $22 million per aircraft compared to the $10 million for the “A” model. The entire procurement program was terminated in FY 1985, leaving Air Force Rescue equipped with Vietnam era HH-3 helicopters.

As described in Colonel Darrel Whitcomb’s book, Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm, the following discussion took place among the Air Force Council members during a meeting concerning procurement of the HH-60D. The following account comes from Colonel Tony Burshnick, then chief of plans for MAC:

Our case was being presented by a rescue guy from the Air Staff… the Vice Chief [of the            Air Force]…listened to this pitch and he said, “That [HH-60] is a great, great helicopter.” And then, of course, the price tag came up. [The board members] yakked about it around the room and they finally decided that they were going to kill it. It was too expensive. I said, “Wait a minute. You’re killing rescue service.” And the guy said, “If we put all that money into the H-60, there won’t be any money to buy fighters so there won’t be any fighter pilots to rescue.”…So there was no [HH-60].

In the context of the time, the prevailing Air Force view was that cataclysmic war in Europe against the Soviet Union would present a significant enemy threat to a rescue force. As a result, there was little institutional motivation to invest the resources necessary to field a conventional CSAR force capable of operating in such a contested environment. An assessment from the 2nd Air Division (then MAC’s subordinate organization responsible for both special operations and rescue) highlighted this idea, stating special operations helicopters would provide combat recovery on a relative-priority basis and aircrew should plan on an extended evasion period until a rescue effort could be executed.

Finally, in 1989, MAC revitalized the initiative to procure new helicopters and secured funding for 16 UH-60 helicopters to be modified into HH-60Gs that same year. These were to be the first of a recurring purchase of 10 aircraft per year for several years. Sadly, the HH-60G Pave Hawk never reached technological parity with the MH-53 Pave Low despite sharing a similar name.

The end result of this institutional neglect and mismanagement after the war in SEA was a conventional CSAR force completely unprepared for major combat in Operation Desert Storm. Due to Air Force institutional mismanagement after the war in SEA, conventional combat rescue helicopters were unsuitable for major combat and none were deployed. Instead, dedicated CSAR helicopter forces were provided by US Special Operations Command, to include the MH-53 Pave Lows originally destined for Rescue but later wrenched from the conventional force.

From the mid to late 1990s, the conventional Air Force CSAR force was simultaneously rebuilding its wartime capacity and providing CSAR coverage in Iraq supporting the no-fly zones. As a result, special operations helicopters and a Marine Expeditionary Unit were tasked with providing personnel recovery support in the Balkans for Operation Deny Flight and later Operation Allied Force. In June of 1995 an Air Force F-16 pilot, Basher 52, was shot down and subsequently rescued from enemy territory by a Marine Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) team launched from the USS Kearsarge.

In the spring of 1999, Air Force special operations helicopters twice more proved their ability to conduct CSAR missions. Rescue task forces consisting primarily of MH-53 Pave Lows, MH-60G Pave Hawks, and A-10 Thunderbolt II’s executed the daring rescues of Hammer 34 and Vega 31. Importantly, General David L. Goldfein – the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force – was Hammer 34. Without question, he is a man who benefited from the selfless heroism of many, determined to save the life of just one.

Conventional Air Force CSAR forces deployed to provide coverage for the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the first traditional CSAR mission since Vietnam, those forces rescued a downed F-14 crew, call sign Junker 14. Since then, Air Force CSAR forces have provided many years of combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the larger war against terrorism. The nature of these wars quickly morphed into asymmetric counter-insurgency operations. In this sense, the medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and personnel recovery operations undertaken by this force have not fit the traditional concept of CSAR. As with many communities within the military, CSAR adapted to the needs of the fight and over the course of the last 16 years saved thousands of lives. This recent experience does not make traditional CSAR irrelevant – a look at current geopolitical tensions affirms CSAR’s necessity – but it does highlight an important truth: a CSAR force must be useful in both low-intensity and major war.

Air strikes in Libya targeting pro-Qaddafi forces began on 19 March 2011 as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn. At the outset of hostilities, Air Force CSAR assets were not in place to support recovery operations. On 21 March 2011, an F-15E Strike Eagle (call sign Bolar 34) crashed, forcing the crew of two to eject over Libya. The Air Force’s 56th Rescue Squadron (RQS) was tasked with providing personnel recovery support for the Libya campaign but it did not execute the rescue mission for Bolar 34. This squadron had just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan where it had been primarily providing MEDEVAC support. One of the HH-60G pilots assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron during this time, who was on both the Afghanistan and Odyssey Dawn deployments, had this to say about their involvement, or lack thereof, in the Bolar 34 recovery:

…we’d just left NAS Sigonella and put all of our gear onboard the USS Ponce and gotten everybody qualified on decks that day. We were I think 12-14 hours away [from the survivor’s location] so they went with the TRAP who had V-22s and were already in [position]. The USS Ponce had driven north to Italy to pick us up.

Asked to explain why the 56th RQS was not in place earlier, the officer replied:

I can’t remember the exact date of return from OEF [Afghanistan], but I think we got to NAS Signonella 18 Mar [2011] or so and it was under a month from the OEF trip as we were calling people on CTO [post-deployment leave]. We were an afterthought as always {emphasis added}, so it was a hurry to get down there because people were already flying combat sorties, then we broke crossing the [English] Channel and made it down there in 2-3 days then picked up the boat after a day or two. Guys rotated in/out fairly routinely after the one month on the USS Ponce when we were at NAS Souda Bay and then the Grecian Base Kalamata taking turns on the HMS Ocean.

It is complete conjecture to speculate what may have transpired differently had the 56th RQS been deployable sooner in the conflict, but the fact remains the Marine Expeditionary Unit was there and USAF CSAR forces were not. On the evening of 21 March 2011 a Marine TRAP team again successfully rescued a downed Air Force aviator. Launching once more from the USS Kearsarge, this TRAP force consisting primarily of MV-22 Ospreys, AV-8B Harriers, and a KC-130J tanker crossed into Libyan territory and saved Bolar 34 Alpha, an F-15E pilot isolated on the ground who was at risk of capture from pro-Qaddafi forces.

In June of 2014, the United States admitted to flying manned aircraft over Islamic State (ISIS) territory in Iraq. US and coalition efforts increased as the operation moved from reconnaissance to include strike operations; on 24 December 2014 a Jordanian F-16 pilot ejected over ISIS territory and was subsequently captured. In February 2015, ISIS released video showing him being horrifically burned to death. As a result of this capture and execution of the downed Jordanian pilot, another coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, refused to conduct airstrikes until combat rescue forces were in place. Importantly, this demand from the UAE was six months into manned aircraft operations against ISIS. In no way is the author stating Lt Muath al-Kaseasbeh could have been saved if CSAR forces had been in place, any such stance is counter-factual conjecture. The larger point is that CSAR forces were not even available to try.

Conclusion

Since the conclusion of the Korean War, the US Air Force has consistently made poor decisions regarding the equipping and organizing of its CSAR helicopter forces. These decisions have, in many instances, inhibited USAF CSAR forces from being there when needed because of deficiencies in capability (technology and equipment) and capacity (inventory and unit organization). These errant decisions were frequently driven by budget prioritization or the service’s flawed belief in its ability to predict the future.

The Air Force’s contemporary handling of its vertical lift CSAR forces rhymes with this unfortunate past. There is a strong body of thought within the Air Force that any future war with a peer adversary will be so deadly CSAR will not be executable, and advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous killing machines will render manned aviation – and therefore CSAR – an interesting historical footnote [if there are any people left to study history]. Indeed, pilots may go the way of mounted-cavalry officers. It seems plausible enough; the seeming reasonableness of such predictions make them so compelling. But if we assume the nature of war will always find a way to directly pit human against human in a grave orchestration of aerial destruction, we are obligated to posture Rescue to come to the aid of our airmen. Failure to prepare for this potentiality can lead to a circular logic trap: The next war will be really deadly, so let’s not waste money on building relevant CSAR capability and capacity for it. Which begets… Our CSAR forces don’t have the capability and capacity to fight in this war, so we can’t send them or they’ll be in too much risk.

The Air Force must look for innovative ways to break its cycle of neglect toward its combat rescue forces, learn from its own history, and prepare them for the next war. Unfortunately, it took a last-minute decision by the Secretary of the Air Force to salvage the CRH program from further delay. As it is, under current projections, the aged and increasingly problematic HH-60G will continue in service until 2029. The fact that the Air Force was willing to delay CRH – knowing the problems it faces in the current HH-60G fleet – is a clarion call for those concerned with our nation’s ability to recover its isolated and endangered warriors.

The question now is: Will the new CRH HH-60Ws provide the capability and capacity to be relevant in the next major war, at least one in the near term? If not, what can be done that is both feasible and achievable?

Thought to Ponder

Here’s something to mull over: Has Air Force Rescue been complicit in its own deterioration?

Have we clung so tightly to the self-evident value of the mission that we failed to articulate and innovate ways in which we can contribute to airpower projection as opposed to being mere consumers of airpower capacity? Like petulant children, we expected the Air Force to understand our importance while we simultaneously failed to understand what was most important to our service – the execution of aerial delivered violence upon our Nation’s enemies.

Can Rescue be recreated in a way that restores relevance for the joint and coalition personnel recovery enterprise while also providing a compelling contribution to the projection and employment of airpower? I think so…

“These things we do, THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.”

Maj. Brandon “Sack” Losacker is an HH-60G evaluator pilot and former instructor pilot in the Marine Corps’ UH-1Y, he is stationed at Shaw AFB, SC. He has over 2,400 flight hours, including 400+ combat missions spanning three combat deployments. He is a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and is currently serving 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.

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