CSAR/X is CRH is… probably dead. Or only mostly dead.

The Old AF Sarge’s Friday Flyby post this week features the Jolly Green Giants- Air Force helos dedicated to retrieving downed aircrews behind enemy lines.* This Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) has long been seen as critically important- if you’re shot down and alone behind enemy lines, the service will keep the faith with you, and do everything in its power to bring you home.

And the proud history of the Jollies lives on today, in the form of the HH-60G PaveHawk and its crews.

The problem is, the PaveHawk has been around for 30 years of hard use, and they’re falling apart. Indeed, of an initial purchase of 112, only 99 remain, and they’re effectively at or beyond the planned 7,000 hour service life, and many are suffering from cracks and other fatigue problems.  Further, while the PaveHawk was state of the art when purchased (compared to say, a UH-1 Huey), it has a relatively short range, and limited payload and cabin space.

This isn’t a problem that has cropped up overnight. The Air Force about a decade ago decided to start shopping around for a replacement for the PaveHawk, just as some very capable helicopters started to enter production in both the American civilian and European military markets. Examples of these capable new aircraft included the Sikorsky S-92, the Augusta/Westland EH101, improved versions of the CH-47 Chinook, and as an outside chance, the Eurocopter EC725.

And so the Air Force went about holding a competition to replace it’s old PaveHawks with a newer, more capable helicopter. The details of that competition are far, far too involved to delve into in a simple post. In the end, Boeing’s offer of a modified version of its MH-47G Special Operations helicopter for the Army, itself a modified version of the CH-47F just entering production then, won the competition. The HH-47H was a great choice. It was a large, powerful, long-ranged aircraft with plenty of room, and capacity for growth. It’s basic design was already in production, and most of the special equipment would also be shared with the Army’s MH-47G fleet, driving down unit costs. The volume of spare parts in service would also be leveraged to drive down lifetime operating costs. Most importantly, it was the most capable platform for the mission.

Immediately, the losing bidders protested the decision to the GAO.  Years passed, and eventually, the GAO said the process was indeed flawed. Note, the GAO didn’t say the HH-47H wasn’t capable, or that the competitors entries were better. Merely that the bidding process was flawed. All this before sheet metal had been cut on a single bird. And at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the government, all while the PaveHawk fleet was getting older and older.

Eventually, the Air Force was forced to simply cancel the contract to Boeing.

The aging of the PaveHawk fleet has gotten so bad the Air Force has been forced to buy the occasional UH-60M off the Army’s production line, and refit it with special equipment from an older PaveHawk simply to keep the minimum fleet available.

At any event, the Air Force announced the CSAR/X program was dead. And then immediately announced a wholly new program, the Combat Rescue Helicopter or CRH. Not surprisingly, the basic needs for the program looked an awful lot like the CSAR/X program. Something bigger, newer and longer ranged than the HH-60G.

Because of the way the solicitation was written, and various market factors, the CRH program has forced most of the “usual suspects” to either drop out, or not even bother bidding in the first place. In effect, the program is a sole source contract for the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.

The only problem is, in the age of the sequester, the Air Force is struggling mightily to find money. It’s something of a given that almost anything will be sacrificed upon the altar of the F-35 program. Second only to that is the KC-46 replacement tanker program. As it stands, the Air Force has basically told Sikorsky “fine, you win…” but as of now, there simply is no money to buy any aircraft.

The entire fiasco is an indictment of our flawed procurement process. It surely seems to me that back in the days of duplication and fraud, waste and abuse, the services certainly seemed to be able to buy more systems with less development times, and at less risk than today.

*Note, this mission is separate and distinct from the Air Force Special Operations for inserting and retrieving special operations forces. Different environments, different missions, different doctrine, and different training. To some extent, there is some crossover, but there has always been good reason to keep them distinct.

Sling Load

Craig here.  From the official US Army photostream:

Sling load operations

Caption:

Army Soldiers teach students sling load operations with a CH-47 Chinook helicopter at the Army Pathfinder School on Fort Pickett, Va., Aug. 19, 2011. The mission of a Pathfinder is to provide technical assistance and advise the ground unit commander on combat assault operations, sling load operations, air movement, airborne operations, and aerial re-supply by fixed and rotary wing aircraft. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen

XBrad has mentioned the Chinook a number of times.  It’s an old design that seems to take well to upgrades and improvements.  The CH-47 was designed to carry Pershing missiles and a catalog of other equipment long since retired.  I spent most of my time in the heavy divisions, so we didn’t have much that was sling loaded on a regular basis.  Perhaps the most often “production” payloads that I saw were my communications shelters.  We found that rather useful in Korea, where the roads were often too narrow for HMMWVs. None of my equipment was sling loaded in Afghanistan.  But we often loaded the equipment in the cargo section on a 463L pallet.

I can feel the rotor wash now….

Mules

Articles about this robotic Squad Mission Support System, or robo-jeep, have been floating around a couple days now.

In case you didn’t see this, Army is set to sent four Lockheed’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) robot jeeps to Afghanistan where they’ll haul supplies for troops. The trucks are being sent there as part of a test program to see just how useful robot cargo trucks can be. The 11-foot long trucks can carry a half a ton of supplies for  up to 125 miles after being delivered to the field in a CH-47 or CH-53 helo.

The SMSS can either lock on to and follow the 3D profile of a soldier using its on-board sensors or it can use GPS to navigate along a pre-programmed route. Oh, and yes, there’s still the option for a man to hop in and drive it.

At about a half a million a pop, that’s a pretty expensive proposition. And it doesn’t solve the problem of the fact that there are a lot of places light infantry go that no vehicle can follow. And that very terrain where the vehicle can’t go tends to be the places where reducing the loads on an infantryman’s back would do the most good, such as extremely steep terrain.

This isn’t exactly a new problem, either. Jeeps, of course, were a handy way to move a lot of stuff around the battlefield, but even so, they were pretty large and heavy, and only had a rated payload of 500 pounds. So the Army set out to find an even better vehicle to support light and airborne infantry. The result was a mechanical mule.

The M274 Mule served from about 1957 to the very early 1980s.

The entire concept of the Mule was to make the lightest, simplest vehicle possible to carry loads. The vehicle was a simple aluminum or magnesium alloy platform. It had a tiny air cooled 2 or 4 stroke engine, no suspension beyond low pressure tires and a little padding on the driver’s seat, and a dirt simple three speed manual transmission. But its 4-wheel drive and 4-wheel steering gave it decent off road mobility. It also had a very impressive load capability. With an empty weight of about 860 pounds, it was rated for a load of 1000 pounds. One Mule might not be able to carry the entire load of an infantry platoon, but you could fit a pretty goodly resupply of water, rations and ammunition on one. And it was simple enough that maintenance was easy even for troops with only the most minimal mechanical training. It also didn’t hurt that the vehicle was dirt cheap.

The Mule was used for more than just carrying supplies. Especially in airborne units, and in the Marine Corps,  where weight and space were at a premium, Mules were used as prime movers for supporting weapons. One commonly seen weapon was the 106 mm recoilless rifle mounted on a Mule. The 106 mm RR was the main weapon of the anti-tank platoon of the airborne infantry battalion. Mounted on the Mule, the platoon was able to rapidly move the weapon, crew, and a ready supply of ammunition throughout the battalion area. Other weapons the Mule carried included company 81 mm mortars (though these were dismounted for firing), and occasionally M2 .50cal machine guns. Later, some Mules mounted the M220 TOW missile system.

As handy as the Mule was, it wasn’t without its problems. First, while it wasn’t road bound, it was restricted to the terrain it could traverse. No vehicle, especially a wheeled vehicle, can go everywhere. Like I said, that’s where the infantry really needs something to carry the load.

Also, the Mule was a pretty dangerous vehicle. There was absolutely no protection for the driver. With a fairly high center of gravity and all wheel steering, it wasn’t hard to flip the vehicle over, crushing the driver. An accident at the top speed of 25 mph could easily have fatal consequences.  Proper training could mitigate this to some extent, but young troops who have only been driving civilian cars for two or three years, and unused to operating off road were often convinced of their invincibility, and all too often disregarded proper procedure with painful consequences.

After the withdrawal of the Mule from service, light forces either used Humvees, or carried their loads on their backs. But for many purposes, the Humvee is simply too large, and for many others, using soldiers as pack animals wasn’t entirely practical either.

Eventually*, the Army started using small numbers of commercially available utility vehicles to carry loads, particularly for airborne and air assault units. One popular model was the GATOR-M, which has seen use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’m certainly dubious that providing an autonomous supply vehicle is worth the investment in development costs or production expense. The vehicle, even if it does work perfectly, will still face the problem that it cannot traverse the very terrain the infantry needs to conquer.

If you really want to provide a means of transporting heavy loads where the infantry goes, you will have to revert to an older technology, older even than the Mechanical Mule.

*Long after I’d left- I always had to carry heavy loads on my back!