Future Air Force a Lot Like the Present, with Risk

07.02.10

Categorie: Air, David Axe, Finances |
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HH-60 at Bagram, Afghanistan. Photo by David Axe.

by DAVID AXE

For most of its near-future airplane needs, the U.S. Air Force will buy upgraded versions of current airplanes, according to service officials. The air branch will build gunship, Special Forces and electronic-warfare versions of the C-130J, update its oldest C-17 airlifters and replace today’s HH-60 rescue choppers with newer models of the same helicopter. Only the fighter force will get large numbers of new-design planes, in the form of the F-35A.

This is sound thinking, and echoes what the Navy is doing with its surface fleet and the Army with its helicopter force and tanks. But there’s risk. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told Air Force Magazine that the HH-60 is “a pretty good airplane. It’s not a perfect rescue airplane, but it can operate at altitude. It’s a resilient airframe. It’s proven.”

The folks who fly HH-60s in Afghanistan might beg to differ. Under-powered for its size and over-burdened with armor and weapons, the HH-60 can’t reach 9,000 feet under normal circumstances. In Afghanistan’s flat, low south, where some HH-60s are based, that’s not a problem. In the mountainous north, even routine rescues can pose huge challenges. For one mountain rescue, the 33rd Rescue Squadron had to strip all the weapons and armor from their aircraft. Luckily, they weren’t hit by enemy fire. If they had been …

Point is, proven weapons are great for budgetary and planning purposes. But if a proven weapon is proven to have deficiencies, continuing to rely on it might save money, and cost lives.

Related:
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U.S. Air Force’s Failure of Imagination
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Gates Budgetpalooza: Air Force Loses Altitude
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3 Responses to “Future Air Force a Lot Like the Present, with Risk”

  1. ELP says:

    The “sound thinking” stops at the F-35. USAF leadership has issued complete falsehoods on the status of the programs health.

    Part two of that is that once the F-22 does its work, F-16s (new-build or otherwise) along with other legacy aircraft, can do the remaining work.

    The truth about helicopters in the USAF is that the post Cold War PowerPoint warriors discovered that with x amount of maintenance dollars, you could sustain 3 HH-60s for the price of the bigger helicopter they retired. Done deal. No mention that capability was lost.

    Today, while the USAF has a large amount of highly skilled and dedicated people, it is at more risk than anytime in its history of having less and less capability.

    C-17s were built to be light in their design. Trying to get them to fly past 20 years will be the story of the C-141, a maintenance disaster by the time the airframe hits 30.

    The USAF should order a very small amount of C-17s every year. There is no “replacement” for this design. We don’t have the procurement skills to create another design without screwing it up. A C-17 design will be just as useful in 50 years as it is today.

  2. FlightDreamz says:

    I agree with Elp’s statements about the C-17. Fortunately, I’m confident that Congress will keep adding that back into the budget (at least this year anyway).
    As to the new HH-60′s. I would like to see an CV-22 Osprey take up that role (with it’s speed and altitude advantages) or at least BlackHawks with newer,uprated engines. I’d be surprised if Sikorsky didn’t have something up it’s sleeve, with all the money its making off of the two wars we’re engaged it. But with the USAF’s finances the way there are, I’m not optimistic.

  3. [...] – The Air Force is canceling new systems left and right across the board and turning to old models with life extensions, such as the C-17, C-5, and the HH-60 for CSAR operations. War is Boring lays out why the CSAR-X cancellation probably isn’t a good thing. [...]

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