ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kirtland Air Force Base is first in line to get the next generation of combat rescue helicopters.

The new combat rescue helicopter was developed under a $1.28 billion contract. It will have expanded range and efficiency, a bigger cabin and improved performance at high altitudes, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said Tuesday at the base that the old fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters will be replaced by 2028.

"The 58th Special Operations Wing at KAFB is the premier training site for Air Force special operations and combat search-and-rescue aircrews, currently operating 14 HH-60G's and employing more than 2,570 airmen, civilians and contractors," Heinrich said. "Today's announcement is another example of why New Mexico is, and will continue to be, a leader in national security for years to come."

Senators including the New Mexico Democrat pushed against terminating the replacement program over two years ago.

"This rescue mission is about saving lives," Heinrich said. "Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Air Force search and rescue forces have saved over 5,000 U.S., allied and host nation lives in the U.S. Central Command theater (Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia) and saved over 3,300 American lives during rescue operations in the United States."

A training simulator will be installed at the base next year before new aircraft start arriving in 2020.

Heinrich said the change ensures the base stays viable and contributes to the Albuquerque economy with more than 2,500 employees.

Col. Dagvin Anderson is the special operations wing commander, and says the retiring aircraft have been used since Panama invasion in 1989.

"And they have been in the desert (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan) since then," Anderson said. "We have worked them hard."

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