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New Heavy Lift Helicopter Starts Development

The Heavy Lift Replacement program will begin a $4.4 billion development
for a new heavy lift helicopter that will support the Marine Corps.

U.S. Marine Corps Press Release

NAVAIR PATUXENT RIVER, Md., Jan. 9, 2006  – A new heavy lift helicopter is now officially in the pipeline for the Marine Corps following a Dec. 22, 2005 decision by the Honorable. Kenneth R. Krieg, under secretary of defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to authorize the Heavy Lift Replacement program here to begin a $4.4 billion development program for the aircraft.

A "Cost Plus Award Fee" contract for the System Development and Demonstration phase, estimated to be approximately $2.9 billion, is expected to be signed with Sikorsky in March 2006.

An Initial System Development and Demonstration contract worth $8.8 million to Sikorsky was signed January 3. A follow-on ISDD contract is expected in several weeks. An exact figure for that contract is not yet known.

The ISDD contracts cover continuing risk reduction efforts and sub-system selection (including cockpit, engines, fuselage, etc), while the SDD contract covers most aspects of research, design, test and evaluation efforts performed by Sikorsky for the new helicopter.

Fleet Marines should start receiving the first of 156 new marinized heavy lifters, to be called the CH-53K, in 2015. Which is none too soon for the program manager, Col. Paul Croisetiere.

Or the Marine Corps, which has been relying heavily on the aging CH-53E Super Stallion in the increasingly relevant heavy lift mission.

“Since the first Gulf War, Marine Corps vertical heavy lift has been getting further and further away from the original requirement it was developed to meet, a behind the lines logistics support aircraft,” Croisetiere explained.

“From the Scott O’Grady rescue mission in the Balkans to delivering critically needed combat support in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, we’re wearing out the aircraft because it has been in incredibly high demand since the mid 90s. The CH-53E has proven to be extraordinarily relevant to the execution of our national security strategy, Navy and Marine Corps warfighting concepts and the associated need for capable heavy lift,” he said.

Because the current aircraft has performed such yeoman service outside of the spotlight, it hasn’t been given the attention “squeakier wheels” in the Defense Department arsenal have over the years.

“We currently have an under-resourced fleet,” Croisetiere said. “In the 25 years it has been in service we have not had the investment necessary to effectively address obsolescence, reliability and maintainability issues. We also have a significant fatigue life issue looming. A Service Life Assessment Program conducted on the CH-53E determined that the service life is 6,120 flight hours based on the aircraft’s transition bulkhead section (location of the tailboom’s fold point). Based on our current and predicted usage rates, we anticipate the current fleet will start reaching this fatigue life limit in FY11 at a rate of up to 15 aircraft per year. Not only is this an expensive fix but it will require significantly increased management attention to ensure we have sufficient numbers of aircraft available to meet our operational commitments."

“We have to start now if we’re going to have new CH-53Ks on the flight line ready for tasking when we start parking the Echoes,” Croisetiere stated.

“Marinized rotary wing heavy lift is a very necessary capability that demands a very capable platform to accomplish,” explained Lt.Col. Stewart Gold, the heavy lift program’s deputy for logistics support.

“The ability to deliver very heavy loads in extreme/austere conditions in support of Marine infantry, including combat, anywhere in the world comes at a price. On average, it costs approximately $15,000 and requires 44.1 maintenance man-hours for each flight hour,” Gold said.

Technologies under consideration in the CH-53K, which is being developed as a new-build derivative of the CH-53E, will include a Joint Interoperable “glass” cockpit; high-efficiency rotor blades with anhedral tips; low-maintenance elastomeric rotorhead; upgraded engine system; cargo rail locking system; external cargo improvements; and survivability enhancements.

Marine Corps acquisition officials also weighed the option of participating with the Army’s Joint Heavy Lift program.

“The Army’s proposed heavy lift requirement to transport the Future Combat System greatly exceeds our requirement,” Croisetiere said. “The actual aircraft hasn’t been designed yet, but initial analysis suggests the joint heavy lifter will be too large to operate from current and programmed amphibious shipping. We may have a use for it, but in more of a logistical role as a possible KC-130J replacement – we still need the CH-53K for tactical heavy lift.”

Joint Heavy Lifters may not be available any sooner than 2025, according to Croisetiere – more than 10 years after the Marine Corps will start parking its current fleet.

“We can’t wait for the Joint Heavy Lifter,” he added. “And even if we could, we still couldn’t use it because as currently envisioned, it’s too big to operate from our amphibious ships. It will be an incredible platform, but it won’t be a sea-based vertical lifter.”

“With more than twice the combat radius of the CH-53E, the CH-53K uses mature technology to deliver a fully shipboard compatible platform to meet current and future Marine Corps requirements,” he explains. “The CH-53E doesn’t even meet the heavy lift requirements that are considered necessary to meet the anticipated threats in 2015. The CH-53K is being designed to carry a cargo load of 27000 pounds out to a distance of 110 nautical miles, to an altitude of 3000 feet at an ambient temperature of 91.5 degrees F. One of the more appealing capabilities of the CH-53K will be its performance in mountainous areas in hot day conditions. If we had it today it would be the perfect aircraft for combat operations in Afghanistan and relief operations in Pakistan.”

Heavy lift program Marines expect to sign a “Cost Plus Award Fee” contract, worth an estimated $2.9 billion, with Sikorsky for the “System Development and Demonstration Phase” of the CH-53K’s development within the next few months, according to Croisetiere.

The first CH-53K, a flight test aircraft, is scheduled to make its first flight in FY11. Initial operating capability, or IOC, is scheduled in FY15 and is defined as a detachment of four aircraft, with combat ready crews, logistically prepared to deploy.

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