The US Air Force is halting its procurement of HH-60Ws as they continue to review their operations this year.

As the Senate released its new budget proposal for 2023, the USAF announced they would cut their HH-60W Jolly Green II purchases to 75 units instead of the originally planned 113. USAF leaders said this is their response to the changing threat environment in search and rescue operations. Just this March, the USAF proudly showcased the HH-60W and announced that the aircraft is on its final operational test phase at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The successor to the Air Force’s HH-60G Pave Hawk has made considerable advancements, including its capability to support a full range of combat rescue missions. Designed by Lockheed Martin, the rescue helicopter can meet the long-range and high-threat requirements of the USAF. It has double the legendary Black Hawk’s versatility and fuel capacity, with a robust weapons suite.

The HH-60W “Whiskey” also has integrated defense and sensor systems that will supposedly provide a wide range of options for the USAF, especially during critical survival missions.

“Additionally, by retaining 100% commonality with all UH-60M engine and dynamic systems, the aircraft provides the most sophisticated rotorcraft in the world at an extremely affordable price and total ownership cost over the entire life cycle,” Lockheed Martin notes.

HH-60w Jolly Green II
Crews off-load from two HH-60W “Jolly Green II” combat rescue helicopters at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Feb. 17. (Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/getarchive)

During the test flights in March, the commander of 88th, Lt. Col. Keith Craine, said they focused on incorporating the HH-60W in their tactics and rescue techniques. During the testing, Lt. Col. Craine said they are optimistic about the helicopter’s capabilities to help the Air Force.

“It allows us to more effectively use the capabilities of other US Air Force assets to collect information on isolated personnel and penetrate more heavily-defended areas,” Craine said in the release.

However, in a matter of months, the USAF is pulling back on its commitment to further incorporate the HH-60Ws into its operations. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said this is simply a quick response to what they’re seeing with Russian and Chinese forces.

“The scenarios that we’re most worried about are not the same as they once were,” Kendall told reporters in a briefing Friday ahead of the budget. “When we were doing counterinsurgencies, and we were losing pilots in those kinds of situations, the needs were different. The acts of aggression like we’re seeing in Europe, or we might see the Pacific … put us in a very different scenario.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a briefing on “plans to satisfy the combat rescue requirement with United States assets should the Air Force’s program of record be truncated short of the inventory objective.”

USAF Ground Crew
A US Air Force (USAF) ground crew with the 28th Expeditionary Refueling Squadron (ERS) inventory tools during minor maintenance to KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft, in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (Source: The U.S. National Archives/getarchive)

Many are questioning the abrupt changes in USAF’s decision to curtail HH-60Ws since they didn’t disclose their plans if these helicopters are taking a back seat. Is there a newer version they’re looking to purchase? On what operations will the old HH-60Ws be assigned to? What’s the purpose of the new 75 units purchased this year?

These are the things that will be included in the briefing from the USAF as requested by the House of Armed Services Committee.

Deputy Program Executive Officer for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Special Operations Forces Edward Stanhouse, said the Air Force is considering the future of combat search and rescue.

“The team is looking at a variety of technologies, in that exploration mode right now, from … [amphibious to] potential applications of some of those unmanned applications. A lot of work, a lot of conceptual work, I think has to be done in that area to do the proof of concepts,” Stanhouse said. “But primarily more kind of quick-moving aspects, potentially dual-use.”

“You may have seen the Air Force’s look at high speed vertical takeoff and landing aircraft … but also can something like that fill the need for something that can keep up with a fighter aircraft escort? Helicopters don’t do that very well. We tend to drag them down. So we’re kind of looking at that range of possibilities. ACC is looking at the requirement set right now. Air Combat Command has combat rescue in its portfolio, so they are looking at the range of concepts, and then they’re talking to AFRL and industry.”

The HH-60W flew its first flight in 2019. Will its history be short-lived?