In what could significantly bolster its combat capability and the Force Design 2030 strategy, the Marine Corps will now be able to double the purchase of the CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift helicopters annually over the next three years.
Last week, the US Navy announced that the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter was ready for full-scale manufacturing. This means that the rotorcraft manufacturer Sikorsky, which Lockheed Martin now owns, will ramp up production to manufacture as many as two dozen King Stallions in one year.
The Navy’s acting assistant secretary for research, development, and procurement, Jay Stefany, acknowledged in a memo dated December 21 that the decision was made based on the program’s cost and production line efficiency, as well as how the helicopter performed in testing.
The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion is a heavy-lift cargo helicopter with three 7,500 hp (5,590 kW) engines, new composite rotor blades, and a bigger cabin than the previous CH-53 variants. The USMC intends to purchase 200 helicopters, making it the biggest and heaviest one currently in use by the US military.
The new CH-53K has a maximum payload capacity of 35,000 lbs (15,900 kilograms). It employs three potent GE T408 engines and outperforms the CH-53E by transporting nearly twice as much external payload over a 110-mi radius (204 kilometers).
To meet the demand from the service for a CH-53E Super Stallion successor, Sikorsky claims it will produce up to two units per month at its peak, or 24 units annually. The now-Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky is acquiring long-lead products and essential supplies to enable full-rate production of its CH-53K helicopter at its Stratford, Connecticut, facility.
Director of the Sikorsky CH-53K program Bill Falk said, “Ramping up production of the most technologically advanced helicopter in the world allows the US Marine Corps to build out its CH-53K King Stallion fleet and support mission success. This production authorization stabilizes Sikorsky’s domestic supply chain and is a testament to our enduring partnership with the Marine Corps.”
The Navy has granted Sikorsky six low-rate initial production contracts for 42 aircraft. The first two lots under full-rate production, Lots 7 and 8, have already been given long-lead contracts by the military. According to budget records provided by the Navy, the Marine Corps plans to purchase ten aircraft in fiscal 2023, 15 in fiscal 2024, and 21 each year starting in fiscal 25.
The Marine Corps announced Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the aircraft when the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina became the first operational squadron to receive, maintain, and fly the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter in April.
According to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), the helicopter is on track to completely equip the first unit and announce full operational capability in fiscal 2029.
The announcement of doubling production heralds the beginning of the CH-53 K’s deployment phase following a positive evaluation of the program by Frederick Stefany, Acting Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition. However, this is even more significant due to the hiccups that plagued the program for years.
USMC’s CH-53K King Stallion Has Braved Rough Weather
The US Marine Corps took delivery of the first CH-53K King Stallion in 2018. However, the initial operational capability was not declared until April 2022. The program ran into several technical problems, contributing to the many delays.
For starters, the flight testing was halted after consistent technical troubles, including a flaw that caused exhaust gases to be drawn back into the engine, some issues with the main drive shaft and tail rotor components, and main rotor gearboxes that are failing far sooner than they should, as previously reported by Bloomberg.
In addition to the technical issues that led to delays, the US Navy also reported delays in receiving modified components for additional testing.
The rotorcraft then suffered problems with ingesting engine exhaust, which has since been resolved. The CH-53 K’s inability to fly in dusty situations like those frequently encountered during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was another obstacle.
The delay in declaring initial operational capability and ensuring deliveries of the aircraft to the service was especially daunting due to the urgency to replace the aging CH-53E Super Stallions. The aging helicopters have suffered crashes in recent years, and their maintenance has become more challenging and costlier.
The announcement about full-scale production preceded by successful testing is also a milestone for the US Marine Corps Design (FD) 2030 concept pioneered by its Commander David Berger.
The concept aims to create stand-in forces, which are intended to be relatively small, highly mobile, lethal units that operate within the enemy’s “weapons engagement zone,” primarily in the Western Pacific, to counter the Chinese threat. However, the Commander has flagged some logistical issues that could derail the plans.
As previously observed by the EurAsian Times, General Eric Smith, Assistant Commandant of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), said, “Logistics is the pacing challenge. We don’t have the logistics capability to work with what we have now. We cannot rely on big, heavy platforms to be loaded on a strategic lift on 30 days’ notice while we waddle our way into support. Force Design 2030 reduces the problem since it relies on lighter, mobile, smaller forces.”
He further noted that there was an urgent need for 31 traditional amphibious ships exclusively for the USMC (10 big decks and 21 Landing Platform Docks), an additional squadron of KC-130J planes, and an “appropriate” amount of CH-53 K’ Super Stallion helicopters and MV-22 ‘Osprey’ tilt rotorcraft.
The delivery and induction of more heavy-lift CH-53K King Stallions would likely fill some key loopholes and bridge the logistical gaps in the strategy that aims to counter China’s Anti Area/Access Denial (A2/AD) bubble.
Thus, the announcement is a significant milestone for Sikorsky and the USMC.
When it is put into operation, it would be capable of traveling 110 nautical miles with a 27,000 lb. external load on a day with a 90 °F temperature at the height of 3,000 feet. The CH-53E it will replace has an exterior load capacity of more than triple that.
The Marine Corps anticipates combat over massive distances in the Asia-Pacific region, where its personnel will be dispersed across vast territories aboard ships and small islands, making increased range and payload capacity of the utmost importance.
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