Title: Running on Empty: The Development of Helicopter Aerial Refueling and Implications for Future USAF Combat Rescue Capabilities

Subject: U.S. Air Force combat rescue helicopter squadrons rely on aging HC-130N/P tankers for aerial refueling. Despite the budget crunch, sufficient resources must be allocated now to replace these tankers or USAF combat rescue capabilities will soon be severely degraded.

Author(s): Tracy W. Colburn; Jeffrey M. Reilly (Faculty Advisor)


Abstract: By 1999 the total active United States Air Force fighter wing equivalents will have shrunk from 24 to 13 in only ten years. The declining defense budget means painful force structure decisions lie ahead. Even as funds are drying up, the armed forces are being called upon to execute contingencies in places such as Haiti, Somalia, Liberia, and Bosnia. The future appears very busy for Air Force rescue units as well. According to "Strategic Assessment 1996--Instruments of U.S. Power" by the National Defense University and the Institute for National Strategic Studies, "...U.S. armed forces will most likely be called upon to engage in numerous evacuation and rescue missions for Westerners over the next quarter of a century." It goes on to predict, "The rescue of U.S. military personnel under combat conditions, particularly downed flight crews, will also continue to be carried out on a fairly frequent basis." Ultimately it concludes, "The practice by certain societies of abusing U.S. military prisoners to put psychological pressure on the U.S. government and public will only make such rescue operations more imperative."

To accomplish these long-range operations USAF rescue helicopters rely greatly on aerial refueling from HC-130 tanker aircraft. Unfortunately, the current fleet of HC-130s has many deficiencies that degrade mission performance. Worse yet, base upon current operations tempo these tankers will begin to lose airworthiness in 2005.

In spite of the budget crunch the time has come to modernize the HC-130 fleet. By tracing helicopter aerial refueling from its inception during the Vietnam War to the present, this paper will demonstrate the need to purchase new HC-130J aircraft. This should occur even if it means delaying other programs or further cutting active duty personnel. The alternative is to abandon the long-range combat rescue mission, leaving aviators shot down over hostile territory to fend for themselves.

Last updated 1998 Mar 04