Andrea Shahal-Esa of Reuters altered us this morning that everyone but Sikorsky, with its updated H-60, has dropped out of the USAF's competition for a new combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopter. Boeing (H-47), Bell-Boeing (V-22), Agusta Westland (AW101), and Eurocopter (EC725) have all concluded, as the article cites unnamed managers, that the terms of the RFP are "so narrowly framed that they effectively excluded their aircraft from consideration." That is, the Air Force Department is requesting an aircraft with more-or-less the latest H-60's performance characteristics, and nothing more. In return, it is offering to pay no more than $6.84 billion for 112 aircraft, or just about $61 million per airplane, all-in. With price basically the sole criterion for selection, it's inconceivable that anything other than an H-60, the smallest aircraft of that bunch, would be a plausible candidate.
In response to the other bidders' general disgust, Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick offered the usual public affairs pabulum: "the Air Force is committed to a fair, open and transparent process to select a new combat search and rescue helicopter that meets the established warfighter requirements at an affordable price for the taxpayer." I would have preferred a statement more like: "the Air Force is committed to buying H-60s from Sikorsky, and wants to chase off the rest of the bidders before they can lodge a protest." For that is what sunk the USAF's intention to buy $15 billion worth of Boeing's H-47s as CSAR machines back in 2009: losing bidders whining to the GAO that the USAF hadn't graded the papers properly.
In 2011, though, the Air Force decided that if it couldn't keep its administrative processes of supplier selection straight in its next big deal, then the best RFP would be one that obviated the need for selection. In the KC-X competition, the department wrote the terms so narrowly that Boeing had an easy time beating Airbus on price, because a 767 is of course going to be cheaper to build and deliver than an A330. Prior to that decision, I had publicly expressed a mild preference for the larger Airbus, as I relatively appreciated its greater fuel and cargo capacity. Those would be useful in the future, I argued, for a future air force with lots of smallish drones, but for which budget constraints would permit fewer dedicated cargo aircraft. At the same time, I had to admit that price would matter: there was a total cost differential beyond which the added capability of the A330 (and its higher operating costs) would not be worth the money. And Boeing's final bid was very impressive: the company will probably make a nickel on those KC-46s, but not much more.
Apparently happy with those results, Air Force has invoked that formula here for buying CSAR aircraft. And frankly, if a given aircraft is what's really what's wanted, and development work should be modest, and the powerful government buyer can demand a known and fixed price, then this approach is reasonable. It economizes on time and money in the so-called bidding process. Sole-sourcing does sometimes make sense; commercial buyers know that as well, so this is not some indulgence by gnomish bureaucrats. In the case of this current CSAR program, however, it bears two fundamental problems.
The first lies with preemptively necking down the competition to an airplane as small as the H-60. It's a fine machine for lots of missions, but when actual CSAR is called for, the H-60 is not generally what gets the call. As I put it just over a year ago,
I have watched at least two NATO air wars now in which the US Marine Corps seems to have had the hammer for CSAR. It's important to note that the Marines don't actually have specialized CSAR units or aircraft. Heck, they don't always have real special operators available. What they do have is long-range rotorcraft and guys who train hard. So, they just grab what's available on the nearest carrier. In Bosnia in 1995, that was a CH-53 and some escorts from the Kearsarge, pulling out an USAF F-16 pilot. In Libya in 2011, it was an MV-22 from (coincidentally) the Kearsarge, pulling out an USAF F-15 crew.
To be fair, and for what it's worth, the USAF did use H-60s to rescue pilots shot down over Kosovo and Serbia in 1999, and its CSAR troops aren't actually with Air Force Special Operations Command. But if USMC long-range rotorcraft sometimes get the nod, it's unclear why they shouldn't always get the nod. The same could be said about Army or Navy or Air Force long-range rotorcraft too.
This gets to the second point: for just what does the USAF need a fleet of 112 CSAR aircraft? Just how many aircrew is the service figuring that it will need to rescue in the next big war? As Assistant Secretary of the Navy John Young commented back in 2011, this fleet has historically been used for "single-digit rescues". Without seeing the missions needs statement, it's hard to know what led to the number 112, but the quantity is easy to criticize, and on the numbers.
For sake of argument, assume that just half that CSAR fleet is available each day on campaign—a reasonable approximation, I think, for a big war that really matters, as in 1991. Send those aircraft in pairs for redundancy, whether that's doctrine or not. Assume that each aircraft could fly not more than once per day—again, hardly a taxing sortie rate in high-intensity combat. Finally, assume that all the downed aviators survive and evade capture and are in a recoverable position, meaning that there's someone actually out there requesting retrieval. This last condition is actually an unrealistically generous assumption for the economics of this project: it demands more CSAR aircraft than would really be demanded. Even so, we then have
112 aircraft x 50% available/day x (sortie/2 aircraft) x (1 lost aircrew/sortie) = 33 lost aircrews per day.
Just what does that figure imply? In line with the 50 percent assumption, figure on the US sending roughly half its total fighter-bomber fleet to a campaign—perhaps 1500 aircraft—and that's a daily loss rate of 2 percent. Without invoking Lanchester's equations, which might actually hold in aerial combat, but figuring instead on just flat constant losses per aircraft employed, a fifteen-day campaign destroys almost one-third of the American air armada. That feels like a modern-day Schweinfurt, but Boeing can't build F-15s as fast as it used to build B-17s, so the USAF would have an ugly loss rate on its hands, and thus bigger problems than rescuing its pilots. The point is that even under these unrealistically generous assumptions, the USAF would only want a fleet of 112 dedicated CSAR aircraft if it was figuring on losing lots of planes in a massive bloody war. The only plausible opponent that could give it that much trouble is China, and in that case, the H-60 hasn't anywhere close to the range needed to recover the aircrews.
So I cannot discern the point of this requirement. Frankly, no other air arm really can either. The next largest fleet of dedicated CSAR aircraft that I can find is the fourteen or so EC725s of the Armée de l'Air, but these have been used heavily in Afghanistan for much more than just CSAR. They're not really purely dedicated to that mission, and the American aircraft cannot reasonably be either. With all this hand-wringing about looming sequestration, and a big fleet of V-22s and H-47s available amongst the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army, the CSAR program looks like an obvious candidate for a vertical cut. And by throwing the competition preemptively to Sikorsky, the Air Force has made that case all the stronger.