I’m always delighted when I get emails from people. A lurker saw Pave Low John’s comment of a recent post, and mentioned that his brother was a Pave Low gunner for many years. I figured that since it’s such a small community, PLJ would almost certainly know him. Turns out, he did. And while putting people in touch with each other, I also asked PLJ for his thoughts on the rotary wing fleet in the Air Force. I’m going to share a bit of our exchange.*
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the travesty that has been the Air Force’s inability to buy a decent helicopter, both as regards a MH-53M replacement, and more spectacularly the whole CSAR-X fiasco. I understand there are differences in the Special Operations and CSAR missions, but for the life of me I can’t grasp why the MH-47G wouldn’t be a pretty good fit for the Air Force, and capitalize of the economies of scale of buying an in production platform. Instead, now, after somewhere around 15 years of bidding, protesting, suing and whatnot, the Air Force is going to end up buying Sikorsky S-92s. Mind you, this is at a time when their argument is that they must reduce the numbers of types they operate to retire the A-10, and yet they want to introduce a platform virtually no one else in the world operates!
For that matter, the obvious answer for the UH-1N replacement is to simply piggyback on the Army’s UH-60 buy, but they can’t even figure out a way to do that! These aren’t complicated issues. Why is it there is no common sense anymore? Please, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to share them as a guest post on the blog.
Pave Low John:
Yeah, CSAR-X and the missile site support helicopter replacement are a mess and if it makes you feel better, I agree with you 100% on the MH-47G and the Blackhawk option for the missile fields. Here is my .02 cents, but it may take a while, I got some strong opinions when it comes to these issues.
Here’s the deal when it comes to CSAR – to really do it right, you need at least three difference kind/sizes of airframes. Kind of like playing golf, you need the right club for the situation. You need a long-range heavy-lift platform for high-altitude/vehicles/CRRC/long-range overwater rescues (some version of the H-47 is the best bird for this role, hands down); you need a small platform that can do urban rescues (MH-6s are, and have been, the best at this mission, obviously); finally, you need a medium-sized helo that can fill the gaps between the MH-47 and the MH-6 (lots of possibilities, including newer MH-60s, NH-90s, Super Pumas, S-92s, etc…)
Now, that is a perfect world scenario. With all the usual budget and organizational restrictions, the USAF is going to want to pick just one platform for Rescue. Which is stupid, but there it is. So the MH-47G is the best pick, because it covers the most bases (that is also why the MH-53J was originally designed to be a rescue asset until USSOCOM snatched to away from ARS back in the 1980s, thanks mostly to the failed operation at Desert One). The Army already flies the MH-47E/F, so training, simulator support, etc… is already there, the USAF just has to pull it’s head out of its ass and just buy HH-47s. I was working in AFSOC HQ back in 2004 and 2005 when AFSOC owned the rescue mission, and if AFSOC hadn’t lost the mission back to ACC in late 2005, I’m absolutely convinced the MH-47G (called the HH-47G at the time) would have been selected. But the fighter guys got Rescue back and screwed it all up, and it is still screwed up to this day.
As for the replacement for the UH-1N replacement, the Air Force has neglected the missile security mission for decades and they just don’t want to spend money on the problem. UH-60s could fill the role of both gunships and security team transport but again, the Air Force has screwed it all up. They know that they need something to support the missile convoys and launch sites, but they don’t want to spend more money than they are right now (and UH-60s do cost more to fix and fly than UH-1s, but you get more for your dollars, obviously).
It all boils down to one factor really: The Air Force, as an organization, does not understand rotary-wing issues and dislikes anything rotary-wing related on a general basis. It smacks too much of the Army and the Marine Corps and the “fighter mafia”-types that really run the Air Force has let their parochialism cloud their judgment when it comes to Rescue and Missile Site Support. I was a helicopter pilot my entire career in the Air Force (with the exception of my first year of pilot training flying T-37s and T-38s) and there was no doubt that I was a red-headed stepchild compared to even the tanker toads flying KC-135s and KC-10s. No matter how many deployments I made overseas or how many hours I logged in combat, I was never treated as a “real” aviator by the fixed-wing crowd that makes up the leadership of the Air Force. They would say a few nice words now and again, but when it came down to money and where to spend it, helicopters were always at the bottom of the priority list. Hell, the Air Force even got rid of the rotary-wing half of the only Combat Aviation Advisor squadron in the DoD — just to fund some improvements to the AC-130! The AFSOC three-star told us right to our face that the five million dollars a year he was spending on Mi-17s and UH-1Ns and UH-1Hs in order to train foreign aviators was simply too much. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AC-130, those guys do great work, but that was a really stupid move. The U.S. Army is still having trouble picking up that mission, which they didn’t want in the first place (due to a number of factors, but that is a post for another time) and all that experience was scattered to the wind, never to return. So when you watch the news and see a story about the U.S. having trouble training Iraqis or Afghans or whoever to defend their own country, just remember that the Air Force deliberately closed down the only part of the entire U.S. military focused on training foreign units in rotary-wing operations. Just to save 5 million dollars a year.
So there you have it. The USAF doesn’t like helicopters, it doesn’t understand their missions, and just wishes the whole debacle would just go away so they could get back to important issues like the F-35 and….the F-35, I guess. I could go on but I think that is the simplest way to look at it. It all comes down to culture and the Air Force “culture” doesn’t include helicopters. Since no one outside the Air Force is going to make them address this blind spot until something really bad happens, it could be a while before things improve for Air Force rotor-heads.
Most of this is the Air Force’s fault. Some, however, is Congress and the DoD’s fault. We’ve set up an insanely complex system to assure that major systems procurement is fair and that the systems bought fulfill the mission the best way possible. Unfortunately, the process has fallen to regulatory capture, wherein the process has become more important than the product. For instance, the missile security mission- every time the Air Force moves a nuclear warhead for a Minuteman missile (for maintenance or what have you) security forces in a UH-1N Huey escort the weapon. But the UH-1N is terribly old. The obvious answer is to replace it with the UH-60M, currently in production for the Army. But even if the Air Force didn’t want that big of a helicopter, it shouldn’t take years to simply decide to buy another utility lift helicopter. There are any number of suitab
le helicopters currently in production, including Huey variants that would do nicely. You and I, being normal people, say, look, the Huey is getting kinda old, let’s buy some new helicopters, maybe the Bell 412. Maybe have a bidding war or competitive fly-off between the UH-60M and the Bell 412, where the contractors compete for our business. Instead, the Air Force pays contractors to study the issue. It’s insane.
*With John’s permission. I treat commenter private information such as email addresses with discretion.