Warplanes: The War Against the HH-47


p> May 31, 2007: The HH-47, the Air Force's choice for a new CSAR helicopter to replace the aging HH-60, has hit an obstacle that could lead to its untimely demise - the fury of a politician. Specifically, the fury of Senator John McCain, whose crusade against the KC-767 has delayed the process of replacing the Air Force's aging KC-135E tankers for over six years. This is a controversy that will delay the entry of a badly needed combat search-and-rescue helicopter - unless McCain succeeds in killing it. Worse, McCain's crusade ignores the fact that the HH-47 not only outclasses the present system in use, but it also was better than the competitors.

The HH-47, based on the CH-47 and MH-47 in wide service with the Army and Special Operations Command, was selected as the winner of the CSAR-X competition, defeating the Sikorsky S-92 and the US10. The latter helicopter won the competition to be the new Marine One, and received the designation VH-71. Both Lockheed and Sikorsky protested the award to Boeing, pointing out that the CH-47 was a heavy-lift helicopter, while the specification called for a medium-lift helicopter. That brought both John McCain and the Government Accountability Office into the picture.

The semantic argument about the Air Force choosing a "heavy-lift" helicopter over the "medium-lift" US101 and S-92 ignores the fact that the HH-47 has a number of things going for it. The biggest was the track record that the CH-47 and MH-47 airframes have to date with the United States Army and Special Operations Command. Both platforms have performed well for four decades. A lengthy track record like that is very hard for newer competitors to overcome. A number of major U.S. allies, like the United Kingdom and Japan, also use the H-47, adding to its edge over the competition. American combat jets like the F-16, F-18, and F-15 have benefited from this dynamic in foreign competitions.

The HH-47 would have a number of other assets. It will use a number of the same systems that the MH-47G will be using. By ordering more of these systems, the unit price will go down somewhat, which will lower the price of both the Special Operations birds and the Air Force choppers. This will make both programs run a bit cheaper. The costs of setting up a new logistics and maintenance base for a new aircraft or helicopter are considerable. The Air Force is spending $42 million for just one set of maintenance facilities on Guam for the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle. For one example of this dynamic, look at Greece's decision to dump the Eurofighter in 2005 for more F-16Cs - Greece already had a large F-16 force (over 140 airframes), and the maintenance and support facilities that its current force required.

When it came to performance, HH-47 offered significant improvements in performance over the HH-60 - and beat the competitors by wide margins. The MH-47 has a range of over 2000 kilometers without aerial refueling, which is significantly higher than the S-92 (just under 1500 kilometers) and the US101 (about 1400 kilometers). The maximum unrefuelled range of an HH-60 is just under 820 kilometers. This means that the HH-47 would be able to search longer than both the present CSAR helicopter and its competitors for a downed pilot, or search further away than the other options without having to refuel. This means that there will be much less risk to the HC-130 tankers (which were first deployed in 1964). The HH-47 will also have a higher ceiling (18,500 feet) than the HH-60 (14,000 feet), or its competitors (the H-92's ceiling is 13,780 feet, while the US101's is 14,000 feet). This means that CSAR operations in places like Afghanistan (which has a lot of mountains) will be easier to perform with the HH-47 than with the other platforms.

The controversy over the award to the HH-47 is a very serious problem for the Air Force. The need for new CSAR assets is not going to go away, and will actually become more acute as time goes by. If the Air Force is forced to re-compete, as it had to when Senator McCain helped shoot down the KC-767, then it will force a lot of aircrews to soldier on with aging airframes. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)