NAVAIR Patuxent River, MD The Navy today inked a contract worth approximately $3 billion with the Sikorsky Aircraft Company of Stratford, Conn., to develop the Marines' next-generation heavy lifter, the CH-53K.
The CH-53K System Development and Demonstration phase will be covered by a Cost Plus Award Fee Contract Modification that funds SDD efforts through FY2015 and provides for four test aircraft, 1 ground test vehicle; as well as aircraft development, systems integration, test article production, and test and evaluation activities.
Fleet Marines should start receiving the first of 156 CH-53Ks in 2015.
"An independent analysis of alternatives conducted in 2003 determined that a new-build aircraft sole-sourced to Sikorsky was the most cost effective approach when compared to either a service life extension program or remanufacture alternative," explained Marine Corps Col. Paul Croisetiere, the Navy's H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program manager. "Sikorsky is the only known qualified source capable of delivering an operational modernized CH-53 variant by 2015. Sikorsky has been building CH-53's for the Marine Corps since the CH-53A was introduced in 1964."
Because of this extensive history, the analysis concluded that Sikorsky possesses a singularly unique capability to study and define total CH-53 ownership cost reduction initiatives.
Today's contract award is part of an overall development program, estimated at $4.2 billion, that will provide the Marine Corps with a fully shipboard-compatible derivative design of the existing CH-53E using mature technology.
"Making maximum use of proven and mature technologies available today, the CH-53K will have five times the capability at half of the operational cost of the aircraft it's replacing," Croisetiere said. "It will be the most capable helicopter ever produced."
Although aging and lacking investment over its lifespan, the currently fielded CH-53E continues to prove the relevance and importance of the heavy lift mission in combat and humanitarian relief operations worldwide.
"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 ship-based CH-53E has proven to be extraordinarily relevant to the execution of our national security strategy, Navy and Marine Corps sea-basing concepts and the associated need for capable marinized heavy lift."
But marinized heavy lift currently comes at a very high price. On average, every hour a CH-53E flies costs the Marine Corps approximately $20,000 and requires 44.1 maintenance man-hours.
"We have an under-resourced fleet," Croisetiere said. "In the 25 years the CH-53E 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," he added. "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."
Proven technologies to be included in the CH-53K 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.
The CH-53K will maintain virtually the same footprint as the CH-53E, but will nearly double the payload to 27,000 pounds over 110 nautical miles under "high/hot" ambient conditions. The CH-53K's maximum gross weight will increase to 84,700 pounds versus 73,000 pounds for the CH-53E.
"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," Croisetiere said. "The CH-53E won't meet the heavy lift requirements anticipated in 2015. The CH-53K is being designed to deliver 27,000 pounds out to a distance of 110 nautical miles, to an altitude of 3,000 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," he added.
And while heavy lift pilots are sure to like the expanded performance of the new "Big Iron," they aren't who Croisetiere is building the aircraft for.
"Given the CH-53E's operational costs and maintenance demands, heavy lift has built its reputation for excellence on the backs of our maintainers," Croisetiere explained. "For me, the motivational aspect of this aircraft will be the technology we are incorporating into it, such as the latest generation elastomeric rotor head, integrated diagnostics, digital common avionics and new engines, that will dramatically reduce the required maintenance at the operator level.
"We are going to take our maintainers somewhere they've rarely been before," he added, "Home for dinner."
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.
Sikorsky is currently conducting competitions to select suppliers for the CH-53K major sub-systems, including the avionics management system and the engine. Sub-system supplier selection is scheduled to finish later in 2006.