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Posted: 9/8/2004 11:31:56 AM EDT
Issue Date: September 13, 2004

New rescue aircraft is a priority

By Bruce Rolfsen
Times staff writer

While training and organization are championed as the main ways to improve search and rescue, there is no shortage of gear on the drawing boards for rescue crews.

The largest effort is developing a replacement for the Air Force’s aging HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters.

In line with the Defense Department’s preference for the term “personnel recovery” over “search and rescue,” the new rescue aircraft officially has been dubbed the “Air Force Personnel Recovery Vehicle.”

The service has proposed to buy 132 aircraft to replace about 105 Pave Hawks.

According to Air Force Materiel Command, the project carries a projected budget of $1.5 billion to test and develop the aircraft and around $10 billion to buy it.

Materiel Command opened a systems program office to manage the effort, which is expected to move forward in 2005.

When the aircraft would join the operational force is a matter of debate. Initial operation could start as early as 2010, but combat-capable aircraft and crews may not be ready by then.

Leading contenders include medium-lift helicopters built by Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin in partnership with AgustaWestland, and Northrop Grumman in cooperation with the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.

Also, aiming for consideration is Boeing with its tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.

Some Air Force rescue officials attending the Department of Defense Personnel Recovery Conference in Arlington, Va., said privately they are concerned that the program could get sidelined by other aircraft projects such as Joint Strike Fighter or be delayed if the Air Force orders more studies.

They don’t want the aircraft effort to suffer the same delays as the Combat Survivor Evader Locator radio developed by Boeing.

The drive to create a next-generation secure radio and locator for downed aircrews started in the mid-1990s. Aircrews still are waiting for CSEL radios to be widely fielded.

To fill in, the Air Force has been buying from General Dynamics an upgraded version of the AN/PRC-112 radio dubbed the HOOK-112.

However, both radios are too expensive to be widely used by ground forces in the field.

A cheaper alternative could be the wider use of blue force tracking devices, which use satellite links to send their Global Positioning System coordinates back to unit commanders.

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