Marine CH-53K Emerges As The Fastest, Cheapest Way To Find A Future Army Heavy Lifter
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The U.S. Marine Corps has an uncanny way of seeing the future of military aviation long before it arrives.
During the 1990s, when the Pentagon was canceling programs right and left due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Marines kept their MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor on track despite strident opposition from defense secretary Dick Cheney. Osprey later transformed the way Marines conducted operations, becoming one of the safest and most versatile aircraft in the joint fleet.
In the following decade, the Marines strongly backed a vertical-takeoff-and-landing version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, despite few other takers and political controversy surrounding the fighter program. That variant went on to become the most survivable close-air-support plane in Marine history, able to land virtually anywhere while collecting vast amounts of tactically useful intelligence.
Now comes the CH-53K King Stallion, a redesign of the venerable CH-53E that can lift more military cargo than any other rotorcraft in the world. King Stallion too had a challenging development phase, but that effort is now wrapping up with all performance requirements met.
The first King Stallion was delivered to the Marines two years ago, and it is a game changer. For starters, it is the only rotorcraft that can lift the 11-ton Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) replacing Army and Marine Humvees over militarily useful distances. Specifically, it can transport a JLTV plus two tons of other supplies 110 nautical miles (126 statute miles) over and over again, for example from an amphibious ship far offshore to wherever warfighters ashore need it.
The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle was designed to provide marines and soldiers with much greater protection than the Humvee, which is becoming critical to survival as the tactics of adversaries grow more lethal. The Army, which is buying most of the JLTV production run, does not currently have a helicopter that can carry the vehicle or field artillery over tactically useful distances (it elected not to upgrade its CH-47 Chinook heavy lifter).
This raises important questions for both services. The Army is leading a joint program called Future Vertical Lift that is supposed to eventually replace most of the helicopters in the joint force. It has already embarked on rapid development of armed reconnaissance and medium assault rotorcraft, but it has barely begun to address what a future heavy lifter will look like.
King Stallion could be the shortcut to a solution—a helicopter that can lift practically anything, and can be inexpensively adapted to the performance requirements of the Future Vertical Lift program. The cruise speed of the CH-53K is already similar to that of the Army’s next-generation scout, and its passenger, payload, range and deployment features are compatible with Army expectations for a future heavy lifter.
Sikorsky, the Lockheed Martin LMT unit that builds CH-53K, says it would be much cheaper to adapt the helicopter to FVL missions than to develop an all-new system, since the Marine Corps has already spent $7 billion getting it to a point where it meets the required performance objectives. (I should mention that Sikorsky and its key competitors in the military rotorcraft business all contribute to my think tank; parent company Lockheed Martin also is a consulting client.)
With funding for military modernization expected to plateau in the years ahead, King Stallion may be the only affordable option for fielding a new joint heavy lifter anytime soon. As in the case of MV-22 and F-35, bringing multiple services onboard to raise the production rate lowers the cost of each aircraft and accelerates the pace at which the learning curve advances.
More importantly, King Stallion already sports most of the technological advances that the Army would likely be looking for in a next-gen heavy lifter. For instance, it has triple-redundant fly-by-wire flight controls, a technology missing from every helicopter in the current Army fleet. It also has three brand-new 7,500 shaft horsepower engines and huge composite rotor blades that greatly increase lift. It has a glass cockpit, survivability enhancements, and a cabin wide enough that Humvees can be carried internally rather than having to be slung externally.
JLTV, the successor to Humvee, would have to be carried externally, but without it the survival of warfighters ashore would be doubtful. The Marine concept from Day One was to ferry JLTV from ship to shore using King Stallion. The Army has said it doesn’t need to “air assault” the JLTV—carry it forward by rotorcraft—but that’s one of those plans that might not survive contact with the enemy. If other paths to the front are blocked, air assault may be the only way to get soldiers the protection they need.
The Army probably would feel it doesn’t need the CH-53K features that protect the airframe from corrosion at sea, although that could extend its useful life when operating in harsh conditions on land. But Sikorsky has already anticipated that reaction, conceptualizing three variants of King Stallion that can meet Army heavy lift needs in the future with or without the weight and cost of Marine special features.
With regard to corrosion and other challenges to availability, Sikorsky is now shifting from the completion of its development tasks to defining a life-cycle sustainment plan that will maximize King Stallion’s readiness and reliability. The Marines have embraced a commercially modeled maintenance and support concept that predicts when spare parts and repairs will be needed before the availability of the helicopters is in question. Material costs for keeping the helicopter airworthy are projected to be 40% below those of the earlier version of CH-53 that King Stallion replaces.
The Marines seem happy with their new heavy lifter. The deputy commandant for aviation was quoted in media reports last year observing that “there’s no other helicopter in the world that…can take this 100-mile ship-to-shore [trip] with 27,000 pounds…and go back and forth all day long.” The helicopter has actually managed to lift 36,000 pounds in flight testing, which puts it in a class all its own as a heavy lifter.
So there’s no doubt the Marines will buy at least 200 King Stallions. The question now is whether the Army might elect to leverage the investment the Marine Corps has made to find a low-cost path to its own heavy-lift future.
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