HH-60W Driving Overhaul Of Air Force’s Search And Rescue Playbook
New helicopter, new tactics, new focus are setting the stage for evolving combat search and rescue for the future fight.
The U.S. Air Force’s first two Sikorsky HH-60W Jolly Green II Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopters arrived at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in April ahead of formal Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E), which is being led by the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC). Their arrival came at a turbulent time for the eagerly-awaited “Whiskey,” being shortly after a decision to curtail the new helicopter’s procurement was included in the FY23 budget that was published in late March.
The USAF’s weary HH-60G Pave Hawk CSAR helicopter fleet has long been in need of recapitalization after decades of heavy operational use, yet the decision would leave the USAF with just 75 HH-60Ws. This is well short of the originally-envisaged buy of 113 HH-60Ws, and also of the existing 99-strong fleet of HH-60Gs. USAF leadership says it wants to curtail Jolly Green II procurement due to the changing threat environment from advanced adversaries such as China. Congress has since come back and demanded a targeted fleet size of at least 85 helicopters be included in the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act.
Editor's Note: Welcome to Inside Nellis Week day three at The War Zone! Each day this week we will have a major feature on the aircraft, tactics, munitions, and people that are leading the world in air combat training and development.
“We got our first two HH-60Ws in April,” said Lt Col Keith “Donk” Craine, commander of the 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) and Director of the CSAR Combined Test Force (CTF) at Nellis. “These are actually the first two HH-60Ws off the production line and the bulk of the Developmental Test [DT] was completed with them. They are heavily instrumented, but eventually that equipment will get pulled out to make them more operationally representative, and more useful for the Nellis community.”
Nellis is an extremely important location for USAF CSAR. The 88th TES sits under the CSAR CTF, with Det 1 of the 413th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) also resident to conduct DT. “We are all in the same buildings,” Craine explains. “We share office space and sorties and get early looks on new capabilities for that tactical view.”
“The CSAR CTF is the umbrella organization for conducting both developmental and operational testing for the HH-60G, the HH-60W, the Guardian Angel weapons system – which is Pararescuemen, Combat Rescue Officers and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape [SERE] experts, as well as isolated personnel.”
Nellis also features an operational CSAR unit in the form of the 66th Rescue Squadron (RQS). “The 34th Weapons Squadron [WPS] is across the street too,” says Craine. “They run the Weapons Instructor Course for HH-60 and HC-130, so we are close with them and frequently fly Weapons School syllabus sorties.”
The first flight of the HH-60W took place on May 17, 2019, and DT was primarily undertaken at Duke Field, Florida, by the 413th FLTS, with the small 88th TES Det 2 also in situ to provide early operational feedback throughout.
“The biggest change in the “Whisky” is that we are replacing some very tired and worn-out HH-60Gs that have been put through the wringer in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the globe in the last 20 years. We are seeing a large increase in the amount of maintenance required in order to keep them flying. So we now have an aircraft in the HH-60W that when we schedule it, we can count on it being ready to fly. Most significant from an operational standpoint is a modern cockpit. In the HH-60G, we have round dials and gauges, but now we have a cockpit with four multifunction displays, modern communications, and a data link capability which will allow us to integrate better with the rest of the Combat Air Forces [CAF].”
I expect this fall we are probably going to fly a large number of sorties with the Weapons School. “We expect there’s going to be pretty significant changes in what the syllabus looks like moving from the HH-60G to the HH-60W and so we are going to help them develop that syllabus and take advantage of the new capabilities.
Craine says Nellis has grown a more robust footprint of HH-60Ws as of July when it started full-scale aircrew conversion training. The first two helicopters actually arrived earlier than expected, but with DT complete they could be released to Nellis three months early. A third aircraft was delivered in June, with one per month from then onwards until the end of the year. The first two at Nellis are the only examples the test units will actually receive. The remainder will be assigned to the WIC, but they will all be shared.
The HH-60W is a derivative of Sikorsky’s UH-60M, but this is a new airframe, with parts that do not exist on any other H-60, as Craine explains. “One of these is the fuel tanks. We have 4,300 lbs of fuel that we can carry internally – that’s almost twice the internal fuel capacity of any H-60. It means we have the performance of the UH-60M but about 250 nm of range, which gives us around 10-15 minutes in the terminal [rescue] area. We also have aerial refueling capability, plus the HH-60W has active vibration control that reduces crew fatigue, making it much easier to fly.”
Explaining the benefit of operating at Nellis, Craine says: “We have everything from the ability to fly at high altitude through to brown-out landings in the desert. Another important factor is the targets we can use. We can fire at 360-degrees even with the .50 cal gun. That’s pretty unusual. But the most important thing is our ability to work with so many different types here. We have the 422nd TES right here, and we have the 556th TES that flies General Atomics MQ-9s. It means we have experts from all communities, and conversely, they can also see what we can do.”
The CSAR CTF is not just about the hardware, it also includes a Combat Rescue Officer, two SERE specialists, and five Pararescuemen. The Guardian Angel division is currently combining DT and OT to take a deep look at new kits and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs).
“Our newest division is Isolated Personnel, which we stood up after the annual CAF Weapons and Tactics Conference [WEPTAC] earlier this year,” explains Craine. “There’s a lot of focus on platforms, but ultimately the most important part of the recovery process is the isolated person themselves. If they're not actively participating in the recovery, it makes our job significantly more difficult.”
“Previously, we have approached it from an equipment standpoint; the radios, things like that, and we haven’t looked at the TTPs to make them more effective, make it easy for us to find them, but conversely very difficult for the adversary to find them behind enemy lines. A lot of our TTPs have been in place since Vietnam, so it’s something we’ve started dipping our toes into because we’ve been using outdated, or not fully vetted, TTPs in a lot of cases. We are therefore making a full pass on all of this.”
“There’s also an equipment element to this. Some units are still flying around with the old PRC90, which is a Vietnam-era radio. So, feedback on the next-gen survival radio is one thing we are involved in. We have prioritized reliability, ruggedness, and battery life.” Many aircrews around the world carry smartphones, but Craine underscores that their utility in day-to-day life may not translate into military operations. “Ejecting at 400 kts means you need a rugged radio. A smartphone may not survive that process. It certainly can’t be immersed in water for hours on end. So, touchscreen phones lack certain capabilities – even though survival apps might seem advantageous. Honestly, I’d rather know exactly where an isolated person is faster, so I can go rescue them before they need any of that other stuff.”
The CSAR CTF at Nellis is taking modern personnel recovery into a new generation on several fronts, not just the HH-60W itself. While the USAF wants to look at how it will pluck endangered isolated personnel to safety in highly-contested environments, it must also ensure it has the right means at its disposal in the immediate future. That’s the role of the Nellis CTF that Craine leads.
Of the intent to cut procurement to 85 aircraft, Craine acknowledges that it will clearly have an impact on USAF CSAR capacity. “The HH-60W will give us much improved capability, but the reduced numbers mean that we will have to lean more heavily on our international and joint partners to make sure we cover this wide-ranging and enduring mission set.”
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com