MV-22 Osprey Or CH-53K As Marine's Next "Heavy" Lifter?

By Craig Hooper Defense Tech Naval Warfare Analyst

In a little-noticed deployment shift, deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. General Trautman told Inside the Navy that the 40-year old CH-53D choppers are retiring before their previously reported FY18 and FY19 sundown dates. Fine. But then Trautman used his July 28 interview to quietly change policy, claiming that MV-22s--not Sikorsky's new heavy-lift CH-53Ks--were going to replace the CH-53D helos!

What's with that? What does it mean for the Post-Afghanistan Marine Corps?

Ospreys were originally slated to replace CH-53D "medium lift" helicopters, but at some point in 2007-8, the Marine Corps formally decided replace their aging CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks.

Look at the numbers--The FY 2010 Marine Corps Aviation plan (warning: big .pdf)-- suggested the three remaining 10-ship squadrons of CH-53Ds would meld into two "plus-uped" 16-ship CH-53D squadrons in FY11. Those two squadrons would then be among the first to upgrade to the CH-53K in FY18 and 19 (the third squadron, now stripped of aircraft, would go into cadre status and transfer to MV-22s in FY16). So while the Osprey got an extra squadron, the CH-53Ks replaced the Deltas on a one for one basis.

The shift has been pretty sudden. As late as April 13, 2010, Trautman was telling the Senate this:

“The new build CH-53K will replace the current legacy fleet of CH-53D and CH-53E helicopters with an aircraft that provides the performance necessary to support our future warfighting requirements. The CH-53D Sea Stallion and CH-53E Super Stallion provide unparalleled combat heavy lift to the MAGTF and...flying well above their programmed rates in austere, expeditionary conditions.”

But four months later, he's telling Inside the Navy (no link, sorry) this:

“The key will be, 'When can I get V-22s ready to replace them [the CH-53Ds]?'" he said. "And by replace them, I mean if Afghanistan continues, right now I have two medium-lift requirements in Afghanistan. What I want to be able to do is get enough V-22 squadrons on the West Coast so I can put a West Coast V-22 side-by-side with an East Coast V-22 in Afghanistan. That's going to be the pacing. When I can do that, that'll be the start of getting CH-53 Delta out of the way."

Well, the planned MV-22 squadrons at Miramar--are set to start coming online in FY 2011 with six coming online by FY 2012.

So what does this all mean for the Marine Corps?

First, if the CH-53Ds go away, won't that throw off the long-planned "balancing" of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in Hawaii (though the plan has just been "publicly" announced, this has been in the works for a while) Over the course of the next ten years the 24th MAG--a unit currently flying just CH-53Ds, would become a more balanced unit--getting an unmanned aircraft unit, VMU-3 in FY12, a light-attack helicopter unit HMLA-367 in FY12, and two new MV-22 units in FY15 and 16.

But by slashing the CH-53Ds early, the 24th MAG, in essence, loses two squadrons of "heavy/medium" lift helos. All their CH-53s go away.

If that is the case, so much for the "training based" expansion of the 24th MAG to help Hawaii-based Marines "train-as-they-fight".

Or is it? Might this deployment shift be something of a tip-of-the-hand--showing us where the Marine Corps wants to go post-Afghanistan?

Second, what will happen with the CH-53K? If the 30-odd CH-53Ds vanish, will the CH-53K program of record shrink along with 'em? You'd think that, after passing it's Critical Design Review in July, Lt. General Trautman would give the CH-53K program some love. But...that's not the case. Or, despite the good news, is the CH-53K program still having a tough time getting underway?

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