What’s Strangling the CH-53K?

By Craig Hooper
Defense Tech Naval Weapons and Warfare Analyst

The heavy-lift CH-53K helicopter was, until earlier this month, an outstanding example of procurement done right. But now—with little concrete justification beyond an “overly aggressive initial program schedule”—the Marine Corps has pushed the first flight back two years to FY 2013 and slid the initial operating capability (IOC) back by three years to FY 2018. While stressing the program has not run into technical problems, the rationale for slowing the CH-53K program has, at best, been poorly articulated.

Why slow the program? When delivered, the new fly-by-wire CH-53K will, in theory, transport 27,000 pounds of external cargo out to a range of 110 nautical miles, nearly tripling the thirty-year old CH-53E’s lift capability under similar environmental conditions–all while fitting under the same shipboard footprint.

The CH-53K will also provide unparalleled lift under high and hot conditions while maintainability and reliability enhancements to the CH-53K will decrease recurring operating costs over the current CH-53E (the CH-53K aims at a more reasonable $10,000 dollars per flight hour while the CH-53E costs twice that). Survivability and force protection enhancements will also increase protection dramatically, for both aircrew and passengers. What’s not to like?

The CH-53K was an unsung showpiece for those preaching the virtues of incremental development, and, as a result, appetite for the platform has grown by about 30 percent, with the program of record expected to increase from156 aircraft to 200.

But, in the process, the CH-53K has become something of a MV-22-killer. Is this the problem?

The CH-53K is steadily eating away at the V-22 Osprey market. In late 2009, the Marine Corps decided to go with the CH-53Ks to replace their 40-year old CH-53D fleet (MV-22 Ospreys were originally slated to replace the CH-53D). At about the same time, Israel decided to forego the Osprey for the CH-53K, killing the Osprey’s best hope of snaring an international buyer. And with the Osprey 65% availability and the MV-22s high operating costs of about $11,000 dollars an hour, the CH-53K posed a serious threat to the MV-22 program.

Even worse, studies from the Pentagon demonstrated that a CH-53K-equipped big-deck amphib provided a lot more logistical support for embarked Marines than the MV-22, suggesting the mix of embarked MV-22s and CH-53Ks needed tweaking (and possibly fewer MV-22s).

Slowing CH-53K development will keep the new helicopter out of the air (and prevent real-data comparisons between platforms) until after a second multi-year MV-22 contract gets signed in FY 2013. Even worse, slowing the CH-53K schedule raised the program price by at least $1.1 billion dollars, raising the per-unit price. The delay may also may dampen the enthusiasm of potential international buyers and give competing firms an opening to exploit this as yet unexplained delay in what was, once, a procurement showpiece. Why slow a program that stands to be a high-demand showpiece with potential markets in Israel, Germany, France, Turkey, Singapore and Taiwan?

Hopefully Gen. George Trautman, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, USMC, will provide Defense Tech with some answers…

Check here for more CH-53K coverage.

  • The_Hand

    Wait, so the 53K is shooting for a $10k/hour operating cost, but the Osprey’s $11k/hour cost is “high”? Is there a typo in there somewhere?

    Also, I note the Osprey is twice as fast with triple the combat radius, though half the payload. What was the unit cost of the 53K before the delay?

  • jsallison

    Who wants Ospreys, and who wants -53K’s, figger that out and you’ll have your answer.

  • Brian Mulholland

    If it is true that there are 10-12 V-22s operating in Afghanistan, none deployed on shipboard, and the rest of the 150ish airframe inventory in the US, then what we have is still not an operational aircraft, but a 35+ year development project. The cost per hour could drop by half, and still not make flight decks any more resistant to smelting by turbine exhausts ……. I don’t doubt there are things that only the V-22 can do, but that seems a grotesque reason to slow down the 53K – in order to save the V-22 program from embarrassment?

    • Tim

      Don’t forget the USAF has four CV-22s in Afghanistan, although one is smashed up on its back in the bush.

  • Sikorsky could be running into technical or production issues.

    They are busy lately, resources stretched too thin? Was there a conscious choice to put production of black hawks first? (I don’t know the numbers, just know they are in demand + Taiwan). You can scale up production but hiring people / getting equipment takes time.

    They also could be having issues keeping the weight down, that is going to be tough.

  • Guest

    It’d be nice to have more concrete information from the manufacturer and/or the program people. We don’t have enough to go on–and that’s bad. We taxpayers deserve credible, detailed information–information that we are not getting.

    I challenge the CH-53K program managers and operators to strip out all the powerpoint-enhanced bureaucrat-speak and tell defensetech just what is going on here. WE DESERVE TO KNOW MORE.

  • Guest

    CH-53E costs 20K an hour to run, so the CH-53K cuts the operational expenses in half.

    The Osprey sure don’t cost less than the phrog to operate.

    And the reliability (mission availability) of the 30 year old CH-53E is…what, exactly? Hmm? The Osprey’s speed/range don’t do much good for me if the craft can’t get from the maintainers to the flight line.

    • Arie Stein

      And there is no comparizon to the lifting capability. The V-22 only offers speed and not a lot at that.

  • Vstress

    Why is everyone so critical?

    Isn’t it obvious that the very opposite of what is said is probably true.

    The V-22 is actually performing it’s role well enough that there is no urgent requirement for the V-22. Therefore it’s not very cost-efficient to try to rush that program into service?

    There has been a lot of bad press for the V-22 and little of it is really justified. I’m not surprised that now that operational data is available, the USMC has realised that it’s actually performing adequately.

  • Jawaralal Dukas III

    vstress–well the ole osprey, on its own, has killed 33 US Marines, and counting. Careers have been busted and big whoppers told to cover up its many faults. And it is delicate, and jeez, cant go shipboard. It needs to be stopped, now. Note also that the Corps and Nato are afraid to put it in heavy combat environment. Perhaps beause it was designed unarmed and has a pea shooter now in the nose. Scrap it.

  • Karl Hungus

    Nothing would help system procurement better than someone else occupying the White House…

    • SpeechDims

      As if the administration’s ever made a difference. I’d think more along the lines of making it a condition of employment in procurement at the Pentagon to contractually bind oneself to enter no employment or contracting relationships with companies or competitors of companies whose products they evaluate for 10 years following their departure.

  • Rocksteady

    All of you are wrong. The problem is that while it is a nice 3d model, it has bad/barely any textures and horrible lighting.

  • rotorhead

    You know why we rarely fly V-22s in dirt LZs?. The side-by-side rotors throw dust and dirt at each other, so after EACH mission there is a two-hour standdown to power wash the aircraft, including inside the engine areas. This wasn’t a problem on ship, but we could only keep to in the air at a time. They are just too big to move around and repair.

  • ac434

    The MH-53E Sea Dragon is the Navy’s helicopter most prone to accidents, with 27 deaths from 1984 to 2008. Its rate of “Class A” mishaps ($1 million damage or loss of life) is 5.96 per 100,000 flight hours, more than twice the Navy helicopter average of 2.26.[16]

    In 1996, a CH-53E crashed at Sikorsky’s Stratford plant, killing four employees on board. That led to the Navy grounding all CH-53Es and MH-53Es.[17]
    On 10 August 2000, a Sea Dragon crashed in the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi and resulting in the deaths of its crew of four. The helicopters were later returned to service with improved swash plate duplex bearings and new warning systems for the bearings.[18]

  • ac434

    On 2 April 2002, a U.S. Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon of HM-14 BuNo 163051 crashed on the runway at Bahrain International Airport. All 18 people on board survived with only a few cases of minor injuries.[19] __A 2005 lawsuit alleges that since 1993 there were at least 16 in-flight fires or thermal incidents involving the No. 2 engine on Super Stallion helicopters. The suit claims the proper changes were not made, nor were crews instructed on emergency techniques.[17][20] __In the early morning hours of 26 January 2005 a CH-53E carrying 30 Marines and one Navy Corpsman crashed in Rutbah, Iraq, killing all 31 on board.[21][22] A sandstorm was determined as the cause of the accident. This crash was the main fatal event in the single bloodiest day in the Iraq war (for US personnel).[23] __On 16 January 2008 a Navy MH-53E on a routine training mission crashed approximately four miles south of Corpus Christi, Texas. Three crew members died in the crash and one crew member was taken to local hospital for treatment.[24] ____Logic is flawed – more deaths have been recorded by the Ch53 than the Osprey. Military Flight is dangerous, Military aviation development is dangerous. Your logic is to step back instead of moving forward.

  • Harold

    The 53 series has several hundred times more flight hours than the V-22. However, this doesn’t deter Bell-Boeing spinmasters from trying to fool the public.

    There is an article athttp://www.G2mil.com that explains why the V-22 is unsafe. Most of it is a Marine Corps funded study in which the Pentagon’s top rotorcraft expert spent a year to study the V-22 and was outraged. He testified the same to Congress last year, but no one cares, they’ just jarheads.

  • Harold

    Yes, that’s the spin from Bell-Boeing. The V-22 is a heavyweight class rotorcraft with poor medium-lift performance, about the same as the H-60. The V-22 takes up the same deck space as a 53, it has more downwash, and is six fieet wider when rotors are spinning. As many have commented, the V-22 can’t perform many of the medium lift missions, it is too big, twice the size of the H-46, albeit with a cabin that is 25% smaller.

  • gerard mairena

    v-22 is a piece of crap,and nobody seems to care,put in jail those responsible for the program and terminate it.

  • DickSpivey

    The tiltrotor has been in development since the 1950s. The V-22 first flew in 1989, it is not “new”. New helos have problems with parts, but the V-22s basic design is flawed and unsafe, so say America’s top experts. See g2mil for details.

    • Vstress

      So is the helicopter. I assume you have never studied rotorcraft… usually helicopters are referred to something along the lines of a “vibration machine” or “will vibrate to death” etc.

      Why not argue the same about the F-35 then? Let’s base the issue on the number of Harrier crashes to say we shouldn’t take the F-35 into service?

  • James

    It not just the safety issue, performance sucks. It carries only half as much as a similar airplane one-third as far, and only only one-quarter as much as a similar helo the same distance. It costs twice as much to buy and maintain, and is broke down twice as much since it has twice the number or parts.

  • 27,000 lbs is not three times the CH-53E capability, I have personally picked up a 25,000 lbs LAV and flew at 150 knots without any problem. I know they are getting old but they were capable of picking up 32,000 lbs.

  • Bob

    Production of ch-53k starts 02/11 in West Palm Beach with 5 aircraft being built the facility is being built for their arrival.

  • VAMarineDad

    This is the first I’ve seen that the MV-22 was supposed to replace the CH-53D. I’ve always read that it was supposed to be replacing the CH-46, which is what is happening in the fleet now. The Ospreys seem to be going to VMM squadrons, not VMH. Have I missed something? Would like to round out my knowledge base.

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  • Thomas L

    The MV-22 was intended to and is replacing the USMC CH-46E for troop carriage. The Navy VREP CH-46’s are being replaced by the Sikorsky MH-60S. The USMC has retired all of its CH-53D’s and they were replaced by CH-53E’s, and they will be replaced presumably by CH-53K’s. The USAF is replacing its MH-53J helicopters with CV-22’s. So there is a market for both aircraft. They have different characteristics and fulfill different missions.
    Note that the Army continues to use and update the CH-47 Chinook.