Low-Rate Initial Production Approval Marks ‘Huge Milestone’ for CH-53K Program
By WILLIAM MATTHEWS, Seapower Special Correspondent
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Marine Corps new heavy-lift helicopter finally got off the ground April 4 when the Defense Department approved moving the CH-53K into its production and development phase.
The decision, announced April 4 at the Sea Air & Space Exposition, marks “a huge milestone for the 53K program,” said Rear Adm. Dean Peters, the Navy’s program executive officer for Air Antisubmarine Warfare, Assault & Special Mission Programs.
Advancing the CH-53K to production and development means manufacturer Sikorsky will deliver two new helicopters to the Marine Corps this year and four more next year, Peters said. The Corps will use this low-rate production period to ensure that manufacturing proceeds smoothly, and continue testing and fine-tuning the CH-53K.
To the Corps and the Navy, the production and development decision marks “a commitment” that the Defense Department “is ready to start investing” in the CH-53K, Peters said. Ultimately, the Marine Corps hopes to buy 200 of the helicopters. The first of them are expected to be operational in 2020, he said.
The CH-53K — also known as the King Stallion — is the replacement for CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, which have been in service since 1986. The 53Es are truly “tired iron,” Peters said. They have been among the most heavily used aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory over the past 12 years, seeing saw extensive service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While similar in appearance to the Super Stallions, the 53Ks represent a substantial upgrade. The K-models can carry a 27,000-pound external load — three times the external lift capability of the CH-53E, Peters said. They can carry a 30,000-pound light armored vehicle internally or a 23,000-pound Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, he said.
In testing so far, the K model has demonstrated increased reliability and reduced maintenance requirements compared to the CH-53E, Peters said.
While waiting for CH-53Ks to arrive in significant numbers, the Marine Corps is “resetting” the E-model helicopters. Sixteen CH-53Es already have undergone thorough overhauls and emerged “almost like brand new aircraft,” Peters said. There are 131 still to go. The reset helicopters are expected to continue flying until about 2035.
Peters said the Navy continues work on developing a new presidential helicopter, with the first fully outfitted aircraft to fly in June and production scheduled to begin in 2019.
Plans are also under way to modernize the fleet of Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, he said. They are the U.S. military’s aircraft highest in demand, but with 70 different hardware and software configurations among 350 Ospreys flying, maintenance is difficult, Peters said. The goal is to greatly reduce the number of variants.