Robot Rescue? Air Force Seeks New Way to Recover Downed Troops
The CSAR helicopters it’s currently buying can’t handle the mission in a conflict with China, officials say.
Declaring its current and planned fleets of combat search and rescue helicopters ill-suited to the vast Indo-Pacific theater, the U.S. Air Force is looking for better—and possibly uncrewed—ways to rescue troops should conflict break out with China.
The service currently handles such missions worldwide with 99 HH-60G Pave Hawks. It has begun to buy HH-60W Jolly Green IIs to replace them, but last year announced that it would cut its planned purchase from 113 to 75. That change, which reflected the past years’ shift from counterterrorism to great-power competition, displeased Congress, which put an extra 10 HH-60Ws in the 2023 budget and passed a provision to keep the production line running.
On Wednesday, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs went to Capitol Hill to make the case for another solution.
The HH-60W is “not particularly helpful in the Chinese” area of responsibility, Lt. Gen. Richard Moore said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Service airland subcommittee.
That’s largely because the Sikorsky-made aircraft is not expected to be “survivable to the threat environment,” said Lt. Gen James Slife, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations. “You end up losing more people trying to recover somebody than the person you lost to begin with. And so the challenge we're facing is really how to address the question of how we will do personnel recovery in a contested environment.”
So the Air Force is now considering “non-traditional” methods, such as unmanned platforms, to “fulfill that moral imperative of leaving nobody behind,” Slife said.
When asked whether the Air Force will still use HH-60Ws in the Pacific, Slife said it depends on the scenario and the threat.
“There’s still applicability for them, but I don’t think that’s the end state of our personnel recovery mission area,” Slife said.
The Air Force is working to get the remaining HH-60W helicopters on contract with Sikorsky “in the next several days,” Andrew Hunter, the service’s top weapon buyer, said at the hearing.
Moore said the fleet of 85 HH-60Ws will be “more than sufficient” for the service’s combat search and rescue needs, while other aircraft can handle the less demanding task of personnel recovery.
“There are literally thousands of platforms in the Department of Defense that can do personnel recovery. This fleet is for something very specific: it was purchased for Iraq and Afghanistan,” Moore said.
NEXT STORY: CENTCOM Hires AI Guru from Google