NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND -- As the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion approaches early production, the manufacturer and the Marine Corps are eyeing prospects of increasing the planned number of choppers by 25 percent or more.
German officials are interested in buying about 40 of the ultra heavy-lift rotorcraft to replace their aging CH-53G/GA/GS aircraft, program officials said Monday at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference.
And that prospect could drive unit cost down and make the development of additional capabilities more efficient, both key selling points for the Corps, the King Stallion's primary buyer.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, made headlines in March when she said in a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing that lawmakers had been briefed on a program cost increase, which, she said, would increase King Stallion unit cost to $122 million.
Marine Col. Henry Vanderborght, program manager for Heavy Lift Helicopters for Naval Air Systems Command, pushed back emphatically on that figure, saying the total program unit cost -- now estimated to top $130 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last week -- should not be conflated with the unit recurring flyaway cost, which includes just the cost of aircraft production and not the sunk costs of development.
Regardless, the estimated unit recurring flyaway cost is now expected to be roughly $87 million per copy when the King Stallion hits full-rate production in the mid-2020s, making the chopper about $12 million more expensive than the next most pricey rotorcraft, the Marines' MV-22 tiltrotor Osprey.
At a March event in Washington, D.C., Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said he was concerned about the cost of the King Stallion and looking for ways to bring the price down.
Orders from Germany and other buyers could change the prognosis.
"You add another 25 percent to your production run and production unit cost goes down, so it's a good thing," Vanderborght said. "These are incredible opportunities, and production is just a small piece of it. Because what happens after the production is the sustainment piece. You'll widen your sustainment base, share those costs with potential allies. Now when you upgrade the aircraft, that's also an area where the potential ally could pay for development of a certain capability, and you get the capability, and you share in those costs."
Other potential purchasers may include Israel, which also has a legacy CH-53 Sea Stallion program, said Dr. Michael Torok, vice president of CH-53K programs for Lockheed Martin.
"We're certainly open to having those conversations with them down the road," Torok said.
While the King Stallion doesn't currently meet all the necessary requirements, Torok said the CH-53K may also be submitted as a future solution for the ultra heavy-lift element for Future Vertical Lift, a joint rotorcraft development program that will include a family of next-generation helicopters to replace legacy platforms.
Officials are now planning a move of CH-53K production from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Stratford, Connecticut, headquarters of Sikorsky aircraft, which was purchased by Lockheed in 2015. Full-rate production of the King Stallion will hover around 24 aircraft a year, for a total of 200 choppers, but Torok said the facility will be able to handle more.
"We're looking at how to form our business model, say, 'Can we get 300 aircraft,' " he said. "So this would be the first step of trying to fill that. It's a lot of synergy, and it brings stability to the entire supply base."
As the aircraft nears early production in 2019, officials enthused about the capacity of the aircraft, which is built to handle three times the external lift of its predecessor, the CH-53E Super Stallion. Its slightly wider cabin can also hold a Humvee or a standard Air Force master pallet, which the Super Stallion could not.
Vanderborght said with internal systems that notify maintainers of maintenance needs and sophisticated fly-by-wire controls, the King Stallion is also "the smartest helicopter we've ever built."
"They're not even in the same galaxy," Vanderborght said of the Super Stallion and the King Stallion. "The capability we're going to field here is eye-watering compared to what we have now."