Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the unit responsible for carrying out IOT&E for the HH-60W.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s new combat rescue helicopter, the HH-60W Jolly Green II, has moved into its operational test phase at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
In a Wednesday release, the Air Force said the last HH-60W left Eglin Air Force Base’s Duke Field in Florida on March 22, wrapping up its initial developmental test with the 413th Flight Test Squadron.
The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center’s Detachment 5 will carry out the helicopter’s initial operational test and evaluation phase. The 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis, which focuses on combat search and rescue capabilities, is developing tactics, techniques and procedures for the Jolly Green II.
The Sikorsky-built HH-60W, which is a derivative of the Army’s H-60M Black Hawk, is the successor to the Air Force’s aging HH-60G Pave Hawk.
The announcement of the Jolly Green II’s next testing phase came days after the Air Force revealed it wants to cut its total order of the helicopter by one-third, to 75.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a fiscal 2023 budget briefing that the service changed course as part of the shift in focus to a high-end fight against China or Russia, in which airspace would be highly contested. When the Air Force made its original plan to buy 113 Jolly Green IIs at a cost of almost $7.6 billion, the service was focused on counterinsurgency-style conflicts in which the U.S. enjoyed virtually uncontested airspace.
Darlene Costello, the Air Force’s principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters at a conference in Orlando on March 4 that the HH-60W was on track to start the operational testing phase this month.
Costello said at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that the helicopter had already finished more than 40% of its test and evaluation efforts, and that its weapons were certified. The last step before the initial operational test and evaluation phase could begin, she said, was a test of its radar warning receivers.
The test pilots in the 88th will start by taking the helicopter, also nicknamed the Whiskey, for proficiency-building flights to better understand what it can do. Once they’re more familiar with it, the squadron can start developing tactics that will take the most advantage of its capabilities.
The commander of 88th, Lt. Col. Keith Craine, said the squadron will focus most on developing tactics, techniques and procedures for the Jolly Green II’s digital integration capabilities, which he called one of helicopter’s most important new features. “It allows us to more effectively use the capabilities of other U.S. Air Force assets to collect information on isolated personnel and penetrate more heavily-defended areas,” Craine said in the release.
The HH-60W’s first operational test event will be the large-scale Black Flag exercise at Nellis, the Air Force said. At that event, the service will observe how well the Whiskey integrates with the combat aircraft it supports.
Lt. Col. Andy Burns, the 413th’s operations officer, said in the release that the helicopter’s departure from Duke Field “is a significant milestone for the [squadron] and the entire combat rescue helicopter program.”
“While it is bittersweet to see the helicopter depart, I am really excited to see the HH-60W program transition to the Combat Search and Rescue Combined Test Force for the next phase in its development,” Burns said.
The Air Force plans to buy its last 10 HH-60Ws in 2023 under the budget request released Monday. The first 17 of the helicopters have been delivered to the Air Force so far.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.