Sikorsky's CH-53K King Stallion
As major program milestones loom, the Marine Corps is working in earnest to develop and test the CH-53K King Stallion.
The heavy lift helicopter, which is being built by Sikorsky, will replace the service’s fleet of aging CH-53E aircraft.
“Why is the Marine Corps buying the 53K? Very simple. Our gear has gotten a lot heavier,” said Marine Corps Col. Henry Vanderborght, program manager for H-53 at Naval Air Systems Command in Pax River, Maryland.
When he started flying CH-53s, the Marine Corps was lifting Humvees that weighed 5,500 pounds. However, to counter the improvised explosive device threat that emerged during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military uparmored vehicles, more than doubling their weight. When the Marine Corps acquires the joint light tactical vehicle, loads will only grow heavier, he said.
“The vehicle of the future is the JLTV. It’s even heavier. It’s in the 16,000-pound range, depending on what configuration it’s in, and that’s why the Marine Corps is buying 53K because we have to be able to move that equipment from ship to shore,” he said.
The program has been plagued with delays — mostly because of unrealistic requirements, one analyst said — but that is in the past and the government and Sikorsky are looking forward to reaching major milestones, said Mike Torok, the company’s vice president of the CH-53K program.
“We’re basically on track for a Milestone C decision on or about this time next year,” he told reporters during an industry conference in May. “Once we achieve that Milestone C, that will be the big thumbs up to go to production and after that it’s a footrace all the way to initial operating capability in 2019.”
After Milestone C is reached, the Marine Corps will begin low-rate initial production of 26 aircraft. IOC for the program is defined as having four CH-53Ks ready for deployment, Vanderborght said.
The King Stallion has single, dual and triple external cargo hook capability, allowing the aircraft to transfer three loads to separate landing zones during a single sortie.
The aircraft will offer a marked increase in capability over its predecessor, as it will more than triple the payload to 27,000 pounds while traveling at 110 nautical miles under “high hot” ambient conditions, Vanderborght said.
“It’s a significant … increase in capability for the Marine Corps,” he said.
The King Stallion also includes a modern glass cockpit, fourth-generation rotor blades and upgraded engines.
The Marine Corps intends to purchase 200 aircraft. The service will stand up eight active duty squadrons, one training squadron and one reserve squadron, Vanderborght said.
The King Stallion flew for the first time in October 2015. Since then, the program has reached a number of additional milestones, Torok said.
“We’ve really had a significant transition over the last 12 months on the program,” he said. “The program has really taken a pivot to a production environment in its status as well as how we’re structuring the program.”
The first four aircraft are on the final assembly line at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, factory, he said.
Naval Air Systems Command announced recently that the aircraft had completed its first external load flight test carrying 20,000 pounds. The test occurred May 26 at Sikorsky’s development flight center in West Palm Beach. The service will continue to test the 20,000-pound load at varying speeds and then move on to a 27,000-pound load test, NAVAIR said.
Recently, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, gave the Marine Corps the green light to purchase long-lead material for low-rate initial production, Vanderborght said.
“That was all based on progress that the program had made so far,” he said.
The CH-53K program has in the past been blighted by schedule slippages. The reason was because of “impossible goals,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense and aerospace market analysis firm.
Compared to the E-variant, the Marine Corps wanted “twice the performance at half the price and built and designed in no time basically. It was just completely unrealistic, and [because of] a combination of budget reasons and technical reasons it has taken a lot longer than expected,” he said. “Anyone could see that coming.”
The service is more clear-eyed now and its expectations are more reasonable, Aboulafia said.
IOC “can’t come soon enough” for the Marine Corps, said Jesse Sloman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“CH-53s are the only helicopter in the Corps’ inventory capable of carrying out the heavy-lift mission. And the K-model’s predecessor, the CH-53E, has the worst mission capable rate of any Marine aircraft,” he said.
“This is partly because the Marine Corps underfunded restorative maintenance for the CH-53E after the drawdown in Afghanistan, spending less than 10 percent per helicopter than the Army did for its transport aviation refurbishment,” he said.
An Israeli CH-53
Additionally, the service is only this year embarking on an extensive and overdue three-year maintenance program that will overhaul the CH-53E fleet, Sloman said.
Even with higher availability rates as a result of the overhaul, the service will be short 50 helicopters of the total 200 aircraft needed to meet its heavy-lift requirement, he said.
“It is imperative that the Corps stick to its timeline for transitioning to the K-model between fiscal year ‘19 and fiscal year ‘31 or the limited remaining CH-53Es will have to soldier on even longer, forcing the Marines to sink more money into a legacy platform and potentially grapple with increasingly challenging maintenance problems caused by the E-model’s age,” Sloman said.
There is broad awareness that aging CH-53Es must be replaced soon after more than a decade of intense wear and tear because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Aboulafia said.
“They are in terrible shape,” he noted. “Because of Iraq and Afghanistan they were worn out at a much faster rate than expected.”
The Stallion’s heavy lift capability is essential for the service. The Marine Corps has the UH-1Y Venom and V-22 Osprey for lift, but neither platform offers enough, he said.
“If you’re looking for something that actually lifts, especially external things, then they really need this machine,” Aboulafia said.
The Marine Corps has had to recall CH-53Es from storage, said Raymond Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based market consulting firm.
“The requirement to replace these helicopters is fairly dire at this point,” he said.
For the Marine Corps, there is no real alternative to the King Stallion, Jaworowski said.
The Army’s CH-47 heavy lift Chinook could be a possible replacement. “It would be something they would look at, yes, but I don’t see the Marine Corps going to Chinook for that,” he said.
The delays that the King Stallion program have faced in the past are to be expected, Jaworowski said. For example, there were issues with the aircraft’s gearbox that have now been resolved, he noted.
“Some delays, some minor technical issues are common to any new program,” he said. Jaworowski did not see any future challenges on the horizon.
Besides working with the Marine Corps, Sikorsky is eyeing international opportunities, Torok said.
“The Germans have started to communicate the need … [to] replace the 53Gs in their heavy lift program, so we are certainly engaged in discussions to facilitate how we can best meet the needs of the German government,” he said.
Additionally, the company has been in talks with countries such as Israel, which owns Stallions.
“We actually have gotten some requests from some … countries who are not traditionally 53 drivers,” he added.
Germany is Sikorsky’s best chance at a near-term sale, Jaworowski said.
The country is currently evaluating the King Stallion against the Boeing-made CH-47F Chinook, he noted. He estimated that a contract could be awarded in 2018 with deliveries starting in 2022.
Japan and Israel, as owners of older CH-53 platforms, could also be potential buyers, he said.
“There’s no firm requirement right now, but if you look at the age of the aircraft it’s something that you can certainly expect within the next few years for them to start getting serious about,” he said.
That could be a lucrative deal for Sikorsky, he noted.
“If you look at those three countries you could be looking at 90 to 100 helicopters if the K is chosen for all three of those options,” Jaworowski said. “If they are only chosen say for two — if Germany goes with Chinook but Israel and Japan stay with CH-53 — you could be talking about 30-35 helicopters maybe total.”
Countries that currently operate Chinooks but may want to explore other options could include South Korea, Spain, Egypt and Morocco, he said.
Neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia operates the Stallion or Chinook, but they are interested in a heavy lift helicopter, Jaworowski noted.
“Both [countries have] expressed some interest in the CH-47F, so Sikorsky could do well to jump in there and say, ‘Hey, we got the CH-53K,’” he said.
The CH-53K weighs nearly 40,000 pounds more than the Chinook. It can also lift a third more weight, he said.
However, the CH-53K is more costly than the Chinook. It also has three engines as opposed to two. “This is more of a factor on the civil side of the market, but to operate and service a three-engine helicopter is more costly than with a twin-engine helicopter,” he said.
Lockheed Martin’s recent acquisition of Sikorsky from United Technologies Corp. could bode well for Sikorsky’s international sales prospects, Jaworowski said.
“The acquisition by Lockheed Martin … does give Sikorsky access to Lockheed Martin’s sales infrastructure,” he said. “Lockheed Martin has had considerable international success and experience. That’s certainly a factor that Sikorsky can leverage.”
Photos: Sikorsky/Oren Rozen