Air Force pushes back on new combat rescue helicopter

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh pushed back against congressional demands for a new combat search and rescue helicopter, saying the critical program is simply unaffordable, given the fiscal crunch facing the services and Pentagon. 

"It is a program that we must have at some point," Welsh told reporters at the Pentagon. 

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That said, "there are a lot of things we must have" but cannot afford under the current fiscal environment, the four-star general added. 

His comments come a day after a group of 74 lawmakers demanded the Pentagon follow through its plans to buy 100 helicopters, which are now in question due to looming budget cuts. 

The planned aircraft purchase is designed to revamp the Air Force's current fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawks, which make up the service's combat rescue fleet.

“We believe this mission is too important to allow arbitrary budget pressures to thwart providing these lifesaving aircraft, and the Air Force should move forward with its acquisition strategy to recapitalize the CRH fleet in an expeditious manner,” the lawmakers wrote in the bipartisan letter headed by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.).

The combat rescue mission is "part of the fabric of the Air Force" and the Pave Hawk fleet is considered the main lifeline for front line combat troops injured or killed on the battlefield, Welsh said Friday. 

After over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force's combat rescue mission part of "a sacred trust" with ground forces "that we will come and get you" if the unthinkable happens, the four-star general said. 

But service leaders, including Welsh, opted to nix the helicopter buy in the service's draft blueprint of its fiscal year 2015 spending plan. 

The FY15 spending plan is the first budget being drafted by the Defense Department that takes the massive, across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration into account. 

While the recent bipartisan budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will give the department some relief on sequestration, it is still not enough to rescue the Air Force helicopter program.

The new rescue helicopter fleet "is something we want, [but] we will see how the budget plays out," Welsh said. 

"It is a critical platform [and] ... a critical mission" to the Air Force, acting service secretary Eric Fanning said at the same Pentagon briefing on Friday. 

But Welsh and Fanning made clear even if the combat rescue helicopter falls victim to the budget axe, the mission itself will not be sacrificed. 

Air Force-led combat rescue operations "are not going anywhere," Welsh said.