🔷 CSAR Helo Saga

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Credit: Air Force

CSAR Helicopter Saga

For all the things the tech-centric US Air Force is good at—buying helicopters isn’t one of them. Here’s a short history of one such effort: the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopter. We’ll cover the other infamous helo program in the near future.


The US military has assigned the Air Force the mission of global personnel recovery, which includes CSAR.

Accordingly, the flying branch’s primary recovery vehicle is a helicopter—the HH-60G Pavehawk. It entered service in 1982 to replace the fleet of Vietnam-era HH-3E helos. A total of 112 HH-60Gs were built (which will be important later); 99 are still in service.


In 1999, the Air Force started to look at replacing the aging HH-60G. In 2004, this resulted in CSAR-X, a program to field a new, much more capable helicopter. The plan was to buy 131 helos and be operational by 2012.

Unfortunately, CSAR-X ran into a buzzsaw of legal disputes, shifting requirements, and political drama after Boeing’s HH-47 offering won. By 2009, the program was dead (but you can still see the HH-47 mockup—it lives in a museum near Philadelphia).


In 2012, this effort was reborn as a much less ambitious (and 50% cheaper) program called Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). The idea was to skip the headaches (and critical analysis) and simply replace the original 112-sized HH-60G fleet on a 1:1 basis (the 113 CRH number was likely driven by a desire for one extra test helo). To foot-stomp: the number of rescue helicopters required by the Air Force in the 2020s was determined by analysis conducted in the 1970s.

This shortcut didn’t have much support and almost died before it even began—the Air Force defunded the program in 2013, a year after it launched, due to sequestration. Congress (and lobbying) restored the program.

In 2014, Sikorsky won the contract to replace aging H-60-based helicopters with new H-60-based helicopters—the HH-60W Jolly Green II. The helo was declared operational in 2022, but months before, the Air Force dropped another bomb—it was curtailing the program.

The Air Force would buy 75 HH-60Ws, not 113, which triggered a cost overrun due to how program costs are divided amongst fleet sizes.

Even though the HH-60W has better sensors, better comms, more fuel, and more firepower, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall addresses the elephant in the room: “There are some places where you’re just not going to take a helicopter.”

The Air Force is rationalizing a changing threat environment, but the real reason is much simpler: CRH was a gap-filler program, not a next-gen CSAR platform program.

What Now

Sikorsky is lobbying to defend the HH-60W, and it’s working. Last year, Congress bought 10 more HH-60Ws than the Air Force requested, and it just did it again—Congress just appropriated $400m to buy 10 more HH-60Ws the Air Force said it didn’t want. The Air Force requested zero HH-60Ws in 2025, but time will tell what Congress does.

Will this restore the program to 113 helos? It’s too soon to tell, but the 113 number was arbitrary anyway.

What’s next? Keep an eye on High-Speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HSVTOL) as the next big thing in this mission area, whether it’s powered by props, ducted fans, or jet engines. Perhaps the future holds AI-piloted drone recovery vehicles. Assuming there’s any $$$ left to fund any of these.

That’s a big assumption. There are simply too many other big-ticket items on the horizon for the Air Force (new tanker, new airlift, next-gen fighters, more bombers, etc.). At the end of the day, the Air Force has already spent 25 years trying to replace the HH-60G…only to end up with another traditional helicopter.

Finally, we couldn’t discuss the H-60 and technology without mentioning the X-49 Speed Hawk and its novel vectored thrust ducted propeller (VTDP) design. One could imagine this already being in the fleet—if only the Air Force were good at helicopter programs.

In That Number


The Army Applications Lab has helped 158 companies since it opened in 2019 as the service’s tech incubator.


Closing out Women's History Month: On this day in 1941, 25 women began working on the production line at Vultee’s airplane factory in Downey, California. These were likely the very first of the millions of “Rosie the Riveters” who worked in the factories and shipyards during World War II. This date was deliberate—can you guess why?

On the Radar

South Korea F-15K Slam Eagles are getting a $2.9B nose job. The plan is to upgrade 59 jets with new radars, new glass cockpits, and electronic warfare systems from the US F-15EX program. Work is expected to run from 2024-2034.

  • The Merge’s Take: We called it a nose job because it is—they are literally replacing the entire front half of the F-15K because it’s easier than installing these systems into the existing jets. This is the same thing Saudi Arabia did with the F-15S when they upgraded them to F-15SA configurations (the modified variants are sometimes called F-15SR).


When will the F-22 retire? It’s unclear, but there is zero chance before 2030. The Air Force plans on spending another $7.8B through 2029 on upgrades and new tech.

  • The Merge’s Take: When factoring in Congress and politics, expect to see F-22s in the air (in some fashion) in 2040. They won’t even let the Air Force divest 32 older non-upgraded F-22s—nor will they fund the upgrades to match the rest of the Raptor fleet.


The Air Force refueling study, which will inform requirements for its Next Generation Air-refueling System (NGAS), will also determine what to do with the near-term problem: KC-135 tanker recapitalization.

  • The Merge’s Take: The artist formerly known as the Bridge Tanker program presently has just Boeing’s KC-46 as an option (Lockheed withdrew its Airbus-based pitch). That will be mired in politics, but don’t let it distract you from the blended wing body (BWB) aircraft JetZero and Northrop are on contract to build for the Air Force. The sub-scale BWB demonstrator should fly any day now—it just received FAA approval.


Pakistan announced it’s starting a new fighter jet program. Dubbed PFX (Pakistan Fighter Experimental), it's unclear if this is a clean-sheet design or an indigenous modernization of JF-17s the country already has (i.e., JF-17 PFX). The “J” is for joint—it was jointly developed with China.

  • The Merge’s Take: Cool, but for now, Pakistan says there are no plans to operationalize this—for now. That said, they are spending money on the tech for a reason, so time will tell where this leads.

They Said It
“I personally believe that we have witnessed the end of the effectiveness of towed artillery: The future is not bright for towed artillery,”

— Gen. James Rainey, head of US Army Futures Command, on a recently completed study showing that future artillery will require more range, mobility, and autonomy.

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The original start date was April 1st, 1941, but some astute factory managers thought the press release would come across as an April Fool’s joke, so they moved up their start by one day.