A congressional aide said members of Congress will look to add funding for the Combat Rescue Helicopter program if the Air Force chooses not to fund it. (Staff Sgt. Devin Doskey / Air Force)
WASHINGTON — There’s still two weeks to go before the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal becomes public, but Congress already may be gearing up for a fight over the future of the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program.
Members of Congress will “certainly” look to add funding for CRH back into the budget if the service chooses not to fund it, according to a Democratic aide on the Hill.
The staffer called Hill support for the program “pretty strong,” citing a letter sent by 74 members of Congress to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a significant push by a number of key senators.
“We’re still hopeful and believe they can award the contract,” the aide said. “We think with the funding they have, with the support that is clearly there in Congress, that they should be able to award the contract.“
The CRH program is the Defense Department’s second attempt in the past decade to replace its heavily used Sikorsky-built Pave Hawk helicopters, some of which have been performing military and civil rescue operations since 1982. The Air Force wants to buy 112 new helicopters for the combat search-and-rescue mission.
Members of Congress believe the CRH recapitalization is a long-overdue, life-saving asset. While Air Force officials have been clear they consider the search-and-rescue mission important, sources have told Defense News that the new platform is unlikely to be funded in the FY 2015 budget.
Despite the Air Force publicly calling for an open competition, the only bidder for the program was Sikorsky, teamed with Lockheed Martin. Three other competitors dropped out, citing restrictive cost requirements. In late November, the service said it would select Sikorsky if it can award a contract.
In the FY 2014 appropriations bill, signed into law by President Obama in early January, members of Congress added $333,558,000 for CRH funding, marking the program as a congressional special interest item.
“These helicopters need to be replaced,” appropriators wrote. “However, in a period of fiscal austerity, the program must be affordable to ensure that it is not canceled due to insufficient funding in future years.”
However, funding the program for FY 2014 is no guarantee of long-term success, given the financial instability expected in FY 2016 and beyond due to sequestration. If the Air Force thinks long-term funding will not be available for the program, it will hesitate to fund it, especially with higher recapitalization priorities such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46A tanker replacement program and new long-range strike bomber.