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 markets in Israel, Germany, France, Turkey, Singapore and Taiwan?
Hopefully Gen. George Trautman, the Marine's deputy commandant for aviation, will provide some answers…