The US Is Crafting a Joint Air Force-Army Search and Rescue Super Team in Afghanistan

The last U.S. Air Force combat search and rescue unit in Afghanistan is about to undergo an interesting transformation. The new organization will retain its commend element and pararescuemen, but replace the service’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters with U.S. Army CH-47F Chinooks.

On Oct. 22, 2017, one of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron’s HH-60Gs flew with a pair of Army CH-47Fs on a mission from Bagram Airfield, the U.S. military’s main hub in Afghanistan, ahead of the transition. As part of the drawdown of American forces in the country ahead of the end of official coalition combat operations in 2014, the Air Force shut down the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in December 2013, leaving the 83rd as the only remaining Air Force rescue element.

This isn’t the first time Air Force and Army elements at Bagram have trained together for the search and rescue mission. In March 2017, the 83rd teamed up for a drill with a quick reaction force of Minnesota Army National Guardsmen attached to the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade’s Task Force Fight Eagles, a general purpose outfit that also conducts casualty evacuation missions, which are generally less complex than combat search and rescue operations.

“Its two like entities doing a similar job,” a member of the 83rd, which the service identified only as U.S. Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Dan, said. “Combine their strengths to make a superior force to get our guys home.”

An HH-60G Pave Hawk taxies with a pair of CH-47F Chinooks ahead of a joint mission from Bagram Airfield in October 2017., USAF

It appears that the U.S. military has heeded this advice with the decision to create a formal joint unit that blends together both combat search and rescue and casualty evacuation specialties. We don’t know why the Air Force and Army settled on the Chinook in this particular case as the main aircraft, but Ed Darack, an author and photographer, recently shared his own experiences with the helicopters while he was embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan with us at The War Zone, describing them as an unsung workhorse of the fighting in the country.

Specifically, he wrote:

“The Black Hawk’s passage above the airstrip highlighted, through contrast, the key distinguishing characteristic of the CH-47: its rotor configuration. The Black Hawk is a “tail rotor” helicopter, relying on a tail rotor to counteract the torque effect of the main rotor system –and through “anti-torque” foot pedal control inputs, yaw the aircraft clockwise and counterclockwise. By far the most common form of rotary-wing aircraft throughout the world, the tail-rotor helicopter suffers a fundamental disadvantage: that tail rotor draws upwards of 15 percent of available power that would otherwise be used for thrust simply to keep the helicopter from spinning wildly out of control.

“The Chinook, on the other hand, uses a torque-cancelling configuration of two counter-rotating rotor systems, one three-bladed assembly at the front of the helicopter’s fuselage, and one at the rear. With this design, virtually 100% of available horsepower its two turboshaft engines produce is applied to thrust – a small amount is lost due to internal friction of the gears in the combiner box and transmissions.

“All of this thrust allows the Chinook to carry upwards of 50 troops and their gear in its spacious fuselage. The helicopter can also haul tens of thousands of pounds of cargo, loaded internally or slung beneath it. The ability for CH-47s to externally sling heavy military implements like howitzers quickly became so renowned that it inspired an enduring nickname for those in the Chinook world: “Hookers,” for the hooks found on the underside of the aircraft’s fuselage to which the slings attach.

“The Chinook also ranks as the fastest helicopter in the Department of Defense, contrary to an unfortunate stereotype frequently repeated in media reports characterizing it as “huge and slow.” All three primary iterations of the U.S. Military’s largest helicopter, the CH-53D, E, and now K, dwarf the Chinook in size, but not speed.”

Speed is of particular importance during combat search and rescue and casualty evacuation operations, where every minute a helicopter crew spends getting to and from the scene adds to the total time before a possibly seriously wounded service member arrives at a field hospital. Medical professionals often talk about the “golden hour,” the first 60 minutes after a serious injury where they have the best chance of saving that person’s life or otherwise preventing serious permanent damage.

The added cargo capacity of the Chinook could also come in handy if friendly pilot came down in an insolate area that could be swarming with enemy fighters. A pair of CH-47s could more easily carry a more substantial reaction element to defend the recovery operation than the smaller HH-60Gs. Combat search and rescue missions in general require at least two helicopters, with one typically providing immediate protection as the other lands to pick up the friendly personnel, as well as offering a backup in case something happens to the lead aircraft. Additional fixed wing aircraft, such as the venerable A-10 Warthog, typically provide additional support.

Air Force pararescuemen and Army National Guardsmen train together in Afghanistan in March 2017., USAF

Of course, the CH-47 is larger and could have trouble negotiating smaller landing zones – or even just a present a bigger target for the enemy to shoot at. We have seen some pretty impressive demonstrations of the Chinook’s ability to hold a hover on relatively small outcroppings to load and unload troops and cargo, though, a maneuver commonly known as a pinnacle landing. You can see an example of this in the video below.

Regardless, the HH-60Gs themselves, despite significant upgrades since they first entered service in 1982, are in desperate need of replacement. The Air Force, however, has struggled to acquire new search and rescue helicopters for more than a decade.

In November 2006, the Air Force had actually selected a variant of Boeing’s Chinook, the HH-47, as the winner of a program to replace the Pave Hawks. Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky both successfully protested that contract award and the service canceled the purchases. What followed was a series of other abortive attempts to find a suitable aircraft.

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s proposed HH-47 rescue helicopter., Boeing

In 2014, the Air Force finally chose Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, as the winner of the latest competition. Unfortunately, those new helicopters, known as the HH-60W, won’t start arriving until sometime in 2020.

So, beyond just the potential added benefits of the Chinook, the joint model might be a good option to best allocate resources. Those aircraft combined with Air Force pararescuemen, also known as PJs in reference to the old title of parajumper, might be the best of both worlds. It frees up the HH-60Gs for differently demanding combat search and rescue operations elsewhere, as well.

Official concept art of the forthcoming HH-60W., Lockheed Martin

PJs are “basically the subject matter experts for casualty extraction and treatment – this is their bread and butter – so they’ve been helping us with that,” U.S. Army First Lieutenant Brett Rankowitz, a member of the Minnesota Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry, said during the exercise in March 2017. “They are working to make sure that our medics are to the proficiency that they would like to see, working to develop our extraction techniques, and helping us with the air to ground integration as well.”

This concept might even be applicable in other areas where the U.S. military is deployed, including at bases

throughout the Middle East supporting the fight against ISIS and sites across Africa as part of various regional counter terrorism efforts. Still, as the War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway has pointed out before, the idea of traditional helicopters performing combat search and rescue missions in anything but low-risk environments is becoming increasingly untenable in the face of steadily improving, integrated air defenses, especially among possible near-peer opponents such as Russia

and China. Even countries, such as North Korea, that have aging, but dense air defense networks could pose a significant threat.

In August 2017, he wrote:

“The USAF is finally getting its CSAR community new Black Hawk derivatives—the HH-60W—to replace their worn-out HH-60G Pave Hawks. But how these aircraft can reliably infiltrate into areas where only high-end stealth aircraft can venture, and even they couldn’t survive, is unknown. For lower-end threat environments, the HH-60W’s capabilities, along with a traditional package of assets including A-10 Warthogs in the “Sandy” role, and other aircraft to provide suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic warfare support, command and control, and defensive counter-air capabilities will be applicable.

“Meanwhile the USMC has adapted their tactics to take full advantage of the MV-22 Osprey’s great qualities for what they call the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) mission. The Osprey has speed on its side, which is critical for the CSAR/TRAP mission set, but the same issues apply to the Osprey as the HH-60W and even the Air Force Special Operations Command’s CV-22s—even with low-level flying and external support from myriad of assets, can an Osprey survive in a higher-end contested environment where stealth aircraft pilots could inadvertently find themselves on the ground in the future?

“With these issues in mind, it would seem that in the most critical of situations, the best aircraft for recovering a stealth aircraft pilot is another stealth aircraft. As we all well know the Pentagon has the technology, and the high-end CSAR mission seems like a key niche that requires it, a solution I have laid out in detail before. As of now there are no known plans to provide the CSAR community with a low observable design for the toughest of CSAR missions. This means either the Air Force is willing to accept much higher risk for future CSAR missions or that they simply won’t be able to attempt to rescue pilots in certain contested environments at all.”

In Afghanistan, where enemy forces have extremely limited anti-aircraft capabilities, helicopters will continue to be an important part of the search and rescue and casualty evacuation equation, though. The need for this support will only likely increase as the United States looks to step up offensive operations against both the Taliban and its allies and an emergent ISIS-affiliated group, known as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K. By June 2017, six American troops had already died in the fight against ISIS-K.

And even if hostile forces can’t shoot down friendly aircraft, accidents do happen. In March 2016, an F-16CM fighter jet crashed shortly after taking off from Bagram due to a catastrophic engine failure. With a new influx of aircraft into Afghanistan, including additional F-16 multi-role fighter jets and KC-135R tankers, the potential for such an incident goes up, even if the overall chances remain small.

As the U.S. military gets its expanded mission underway, the Air Force-Army team at Bagram will be at the ready for both combat and non-combat emergencies.

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