The top officer of the Marine Corps said he's pleased with how development of the service's new CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter is progressing, but concerned about the aircraft's climbing price and looking for ways to mitigate the sticker shock.
One of those might be finding other nations interested in making their own purchase, he said.
"Obviously, we're concerned about the cost point," Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. "We're focused right now on the performance, and it's meeting all its dates, and it's flown more than 400 hours. But the price is an issue."
Earlier this month, Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, revealed during a congressional hearing that early unit costs for the Lockheed Martin-made CH-53K King Stallion were projected to rise some 22 percent above the baseline estimate, or up to $122 million per copy.
While the Corps' head of Programs and Resources, Lt. Gen. Gary Thomas, noted that the unit cost is set to drop below $89 million per chopper when they enter full-rate production sometime between 2019-2022, the early price point would put King Stallion costs on par with the fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
Even when the cost goes down, the CH-53K is likely to remain the most expensive helicopter in the world.
Neller said he hadn't been approached by any Pentagon personnel with concerns about a Nunn-McCurdy breach, an acquisition policy that requires defense programs to be terminated if they increase more than 25 percent above baseline objective unless the secretary of defense certifies that the program is essential to national security.
But he said he plans to continue working with Lockheed Martin to find ways to reduce costs.
"Obviously, we're early in the program, and we're hoping there will be other folks who will come forward, potentially foreign entities that will come forward and want to bring the cost down," he said. "It's a concern, and we're working it."
A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, Erin Cox, told Military.com that "several countries" have expressed interest in the King Stallion and its heavy-lift capabilities, but did not specify possible buyers.
"We are confident the CH-53K will meet the needs of future international customers seeking to replace and upgrade their current fleets," she said.
The King Stallion is set to complete its Milestone C review this month, a key step prior to beginning low-rate initial production. Cox told Military.com earlier this month that the program is on track to hit its developmental milestones.
Ultimately, the Marine Corps plans to purchase 200 King Stallions.