Range, Payload Still Key In Choosing CSAR-X

Jan 6, 2009
By Michael Fabey

Recent U.S. Air Force interim reviews of the candidates vying for the service’s $15 billion combat, search and rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter replacement show that the service indeed is much more serious about making sure the winner meets a spectrum of key requirements – including those that help it survive a war-zone mission – according to sources familiar with the effort.

However, concerns remain among those who helped draft the service’s initial CSAR-X aircraft requirements that the Air Force still may be focusing too much on range and payload – factors that helped the Boeing HH-47 Chinook variant beat out Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky in the first go-round.

That Boeing victory was upended after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) twice sustained protests by the losing bidders, who complained that the service didn’t properly consider the lifecycle costs of each proposal.

This time it appears the Air Force is looking to make its decision as protest-proof as possible, sources say, not only by making lifecycle costs a lower priority in determining the winner, but also by making the bidders address the requirements more thoroughly.

As part of that desire to meet requirements, the Air Force has granted an extension to Jan. 20 to deliver a revised proposal. The initial due date was Jan. 5

The major concern of those who helped draft the initial CSAR-X requirements, though, is whether the Pentagon understands exactly what a good CSAR aircraft needs to do. A recent DOD Inspector General (IG) investigation of CSAR-X requirement changes found that those alterations are in line with the needs of special operations forces (SOF) fighting the so-called global war on terror.

While CSAR missions – and CSAR-X requirement development – fell for a time under the purview of Air Force special operations, the service’s own Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) found the needs of the two camps to be significantly different.

Indeed, in interviews with Aerospace DAILY, current and former CSAR pilots and rescue personnel say what they need – a maneuverable aircraft that can survive a combat zone and allow stable medical treatment in the air and on the ground – often does not rank high on the SOF priority list.

Take rotor downwash as an example, they said. SOF missions don’t include trying to secure an injured, possibly unconscious crash victim on a litter while performing tricky triage at the same time, and these tasks are almost impossible under a small tornado of wind. Hovering higher to reduce downwash isn’t an option in a combat zone, where higher altitudes can make one an easier target.

Troubling finding

The IG finding, they said, deeply troubled them. Comparing the CSAR mission with SOF operations demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the CSAR mission and needs, they say. And even more troubling, according to rescuers, are recent remarks by Pentagon acquisition chief John Young that he doubts whether the Air Force needs a dedicated CSAR aircraft fleet for the mission.

On the one hand, some of the material included in the service’s own CSAR AOA would provide fodder for Young’s argument – a large percentage of CSAR missions were handled by the closest available rescuers, not a dedicated aircraft. But the majority of successful rescues were with dedicated aircraft.

Also, today’s combat zones need a survivable platform unlike those in previous years, according to those who have done the job. Range, payload, electronic warfare, ballistics tolerance and maneuverability all come into play, they say, and any one of those requirements could prove key in conducting and surviving a CSAR mission.

Image: Boeing

Aerospace Daily and Defense Report

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