Most Powerful U.S. Helicopter Ever, Marine CH-53K King Stallion, Heads For Production
A CH-53K King Stallion lifts the Army/Marine Corps joint light tactical vehicle, a load no other U.S. helicopter can carry.
The U.S. Marine Corps wants something nobody else has: a helicopter that can lift 18 tons in a single flight. And it wants the helicopter to be capable of carrying most of that weight over a hundred miles between ship and shore, back and forth, day or night.
After years of waiting, it appears the Marines have what they want. It is called the CH-53K King Stallion, built by Sikorsky, and it is the most powerful cargo helicopter ever built in America. In fact, it can lift three times more personnel and supplies than the heavy cargo helicopter it will replace, even though it superficially resembles the legacy airframe.
Sikorsky is owned by Pentagon mega-contractor Lockheed Martin, which several years ago decided it would rather be in the rotorcraft business than in non-defense services—a bold move at a time when demand for new helicopters was soft.
CH-53K was a big part of the reason for buying Sikorsky when it did, and now that bet is paying off. The company is in final negotiations with the Navy Department for Lots 2 and 3 of “low-rate initial production,” signaling that development challenges have been overcome to a point where the government customer is confident it has the solution it has been seeking.
Lockheed Martin is a consulting client and contributor to my think tank, so occasionally I get some insight into a program that goes beyond what has already appeared in the media. This is one of those times. The picture that emerges is of a program that has retired risk to a point where it not only can meet all Marine operational requirements, but will likely develop a sizable overseas customer base in places like Germany, Israel and Japan.
King Stallion’s only U.S. rival for that market, the Boeing Chinook, ran into severe bureaucratic turbulence this year when the Army elected to forego upgrades that would have enabled it to lift the military’s next-generation jeep. The Secretary of the Army said just this week there were doubts about the need to lift that vehicle in future wars, and therefore a lower priority was being assigned to the requirement.
The Marine Corps has a different take on future lift requirements. As one senior Marine put it to me a while back, “You may be done with the Middle East, but the Middle East may not be done with you.” So the Marines want a helicopter that can lift pretty much anything, even in the “high-hot” conditions that have dogged other rotorcraft operations throughout the global war on terror.
The way the Marines figure it, if you posture yourself as the first responder for whatever military emergency arises, you must be able to operate under any circumstances. Just because national strategy has shifted from fighting Islamic terrorists to deterring Russia and China doesn’t mean the military won’t find itself fighting in hot, austere conditions in the future.
King Stallion was designed to meet the needs of a sea-based service ready for action on short notice anywhere, anytime. Not only will CH-53K be able to routinely lift the aforementioned “joint light tactical vehicle” in a sling, but it will be able to transport the existing Army/Marine Corps Humvee internally in its cabin. And the helicopter in turn can be transported around the world inside Air Force C-5 and C-17 airlifters.
After 1,400 hours of flight tests, it is clear King Stallion can do everything the Marine Corps needs, a point that was stated emphatically before Congress by the service’s aviation chief earlier this month. It is a game-changer that no adversary will be able to match in capability, reliability or survivability.
For an outsider like myself, the most striking feature of King Stallion is that Sikorsky could add so much performance to an airframe that doesn’t look much different from what it will replace. But looks are deceiving. CH-53K will have an all-digital cockpit, new engines (three of them), composite rotor blades, and all sorts of other enhancements.
In particular, it will have “full authority fly-by-wire” flight controls that greatly reduce pilot workload while increasing safety and situational awareness. Fly-by-wire technology is not new, although it is still a rarity in U.S. military rotorcraft, but “full authority” fly-by-wire is unique to King Stallion in the military fleet. In other words, CH-53K is the most modern, advanced military rotorcraft currently being built by any U.S. military service.
The way it is being built is different too. Years of investment by Lockheed Martin have transformed the engineering and production process to a point where paper instructions have disappeared. All of the engineering features are maintained in a digital system, production workers follow tasks on computer screens, and maintainers conduct sustainment using tablets for guidance.
What that means in process terms is that everything goes more smoothly. For instance, the helicopter cabin begins its life at GKN in St. Louis, then moves to Spirit in Wichita, and ultimately is integrated into the airframe at Sikorsky’s main plant in Stratford Connecticut, but at each point along its path all the pieces line up. Every single seam and fastener hole is in perfect alignment. That’s what digital technology will do for you, and the company has designed life-cycle sustainment the same way.
Its main focus this year is resolving remaining mechanical issues while reducing the cost of each helicopter. For instance, three-engine rotorcraft often have a problem with exhaust from one engine being drawn into the air intake of another engine. King Stallion is no exception, but using the same digital technology and instrumentation applied elsewhere in the program, Sikorsky has figured out how to minimize the problem and is now implementing modifications. Other risks arising in the development process have long since been retired, so that the program is currently ahead of schedule.
King Stallion has gone through the usual gauntlet of media criticism as it encountered development challenges. But senior government officials have said those challenges are now largely resolved, meaning the focus of outside coverage will shift to what each of the 200 helicopters will cost. Sikorsky knows it will have to meet the $87 million “recurring flyaway” goal the Marine Corps has set if it is to generate robust overseas demand for the helicopter, so that’s where much of the company’s efforts are now focused.
Judging from past programs following a similar profile, the Marine Corps is on track to get exactly the helicopter it wants, at the price it wants, in time for a planned operational deployment in 2023.
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