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Breaking Faith?

Dec 2, 2017
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In 1994 and 1997, there were a pair of somber ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. They commemorated the return of two helicopter crews, one Army and one Air Force, killed in the legendary rescue of Bat-21.

Thirty-seven years later, the story of Lt Col Iceal “Gene” Hambleton remains a stirring story of human courage, sacrifice–and survival. On Easter Sunday (April 2, 1972), Hambleton was flying as a navigator on an EB-66 electronic counter-measures (ECM) aircraft near South Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone. The aircraft’s mission was to provide jamming support for a B-52 strike, across the border in North Vietnam.

As Hambleton and his five fellow crew members soon discovered, they had flown into the teeth of a major North Vietnamese offensive. Elements of two enemy divisions were pouring south beneath their flight path. For protection from U.S. warplanes, the Vietnamese brought along SA-2 surface-to-air missiles and hundreds of anti-aircraft guns. Numerous SA-2s were fired at the B-52s, but none found their targets, thanks to the electronic warfare gear carried on the massive bombers, and ECM support from the EB-66.

As Hambleton’s aircraft turned south, it was struck by a missile and instantly disintegrated. Lt Col Hambleton was the only crew member who was able to eject. He landed in the middle of the enemy advance and began a remarkable, 12-day quest for freedom. Hambleton narrowly escaped capture or death on several occasions. The commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, ordered Hambleton’s rescue “at all costs,” due to his extensive knowledge of electronic warfare and ballistic missile programs.

For almost two weeks, Air Force, Army and special forces units spared no effort to recover the downed navigator. At one point, intelligence analysts and operations planners took advantage of Hambleton’s love of golf, dividing his escape route into “holes” from courses he often played. In the end, U.S. Navy and South Vietnamanes SEALs located Hambleton, and led him to safety.

But the daring rescue came at a high price. Three of the four men on the Army UH-1 (callsign Blue Ghost 39) were lost in the first attempt to retrieve Hambleton. Six crew members perished when an Air Force HH-3E (callsign Jolly Green 67) was downed by enemy fire four days later. All told, six aircraft were shot down–and at least 15 rescue personnel gave their lives–in the effort to save Lt Col Hambleton.

Yet, they persisted against long odds, because of a long-standing pledge to military aircrews. You won’t find it codified in any regulation, but it is an article of faith for all U.S. military aircrew members. If you are shot down, we will make every effort to bring you back safely, regardless of the risk or cost. That was the commitment made to Colonel Hambleton, and it remains true to this day.

Unfortunately, the future of that pledge seems to be in doubt. While rescue personnel remain as dedicated and courageous as ever, their political superiors apparently don’t share that resolve. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates scrapped plans for a new rescue helicopter, which would provide combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) capabilities for the next 20 years.

To be sure, Mr. Gates’ decision won’t mean an immediate end to the pick-up of downed aircrews, the infiltration of SOF crews, or the rescue of disaster victims. The Air Force’s current inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawks will soldier on, just as they have since the late 1980s. Crewed by skilled pilots, flight engineers, gunners and pararescue specialists, they remain the preeminent combat rescue force in the world.

But the Pave Hawks are getting long in the tooth. Without extensive maintenance and required upgrades, the HH-60s will eventually face the same fate of all aging military aircraft, and retire to the bone yard. As the existing rescue choppers are lost to age and attrition, our CSAR forces will be diminished, as will they contributions to critical missions.

Critics claim there is no longer a need for a dedicated combat rescue force. The proliferation of modern air defenses, including “double-digit” SAMs and advanced MANPADS, makes some missions too risky. At the other end of the spectrum, U.S. air dominance has resulted in the minimal losses of aircraft and crews during recent conflicts. One reason that CSAR units now fly special operations and disaster relief sorties (to mention a few) is because their baseline mission has been diminished.

But that doesn’t mitigate the need for a highly-trained combat rescue force. If you’re a downed aircrew member; a SOF operator evading in “bad guy” territory or a hurricane victim stranded on your rooftop, nothing is more comforting that the whup, whup, whup of those blades and the sight of a PJ coming down the hoist.

Without a new rescue chopper, Air Force rescue units–and the customers they support–will face a steady erosion of our CSAR capabilities, with no replacement in sight. Mr. Gates’ decision means (ultimately) that some missions simply won’t be attempted, thanks to an aging aircraft fleet and eventual personnel cuts in rescue units. As the HH-60 fleet lumbers toward retirement, someone will decide that the Air Force needs less personnel to man rescue units, resulting in a further degradation of key combat skills.

In a nutshell, that means that Secretary Gates and future military leaders are breaking faith with the men and women who fly into combat. By cancelling CSAR-X, Mr. Gates is sending a simple signal; in future conflicts, if you’re downed behind enemy lines, you may be on your own. The bonds of loyalty and commitment that sent brave men after Iceal Hambleton has been replaced by a new, risk-adverse calculus that will mean fewer rescue choppers in the air (and possibly) leave some aircrew members stranded in bad-guy land.

All in the name of saving a few bucks.

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ADDENDUM: If that doesn’t make your blood boil, may be this will. Some defense analysts have suggested that Gates’ decision was influenced less by changing CSAR requirements, and more by the politics of defense acquisition. As we’ve noted in previous posts, various defense contractors (and their political constituencies) have rallied around competing designs, refusing to budge in their bid for a $15 billion contract.

Facing long appeals from losing teams, Gates simply elected to scrap the program, ending debate over “which” team would land the deal. In that regard, Mr. Gates and his leadership team made a gutless choice, electing to kill the program instead of facing the political heat that would come with the next CSAR-X contract.

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