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December 6, 2005The Air Force is in the midst of replacing its fleet of 101 HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters with 141 new aircraft—currently dubbed CSAR-X. While buying more new aircraft to replace fewer old aircraft seems to flaunt the current trend, officials make the case that Air Force Special Operations Command must have more CSAR capability.

Lt. Col. Tim Healy, air staff special aircraft requirements deputy division chief, told reporters at the Pentagon that the CSAR helicopter force is a low-density, high-demand asset. That means there currently are not enough to do the job.

“We don’t have enough assets to meet our rotational requirements,” Healy asserted, noting that AFSOC has determined that 141 new airframes will cover the mission—with some risk. With only 141 aircraft, there is a potential to have to defer home station training to ensure the command can deploy the necessary numbers.

AFSOC’s HH-60s are the front line of combat search and rescue, and the high operational tempo has taken its toll on the airframes—with an average age of about 15 years. “It’s a very demanding mission,” Healy said.

The high ops tempo has been a critical factor in USAF’s decisions about CSAR-X fleet availability and desired cost per flying hour. The parameter that is most important to the operators is "availability,” said Healy.

Right now, with a 62 percent mission capability rate, the Pave Hawk fleet is facing a “severe problem,” he said. The aircraft require extensive replacement of parts and maintenance because of wear and tear, brought on in particular by the harsh operational environments of the past few years. Healy added that the HH-60s have seen a 16 percent increase in cost per flying hour over the last several years.

The trend line started up in 2002, when most of the Pave Hawk fleet exceeded the 7,000 flying hour service life estimate. Now, AFSOC limits the weight—about 21,000 pounds at takeoff—the HH-60s can carry, even on training missions, to help reduce the strain.