Not A Moment Too Soon For Many
A new heavy lift helicopter is now officially in the pipeline
for the Marine Corps following the decision last month to authorize
the Heavy Lift Replacement (HLR/CH-53K) program, and to begin a
$4.4 billion development program for the aircraft.
Technologies under consideration in the CH-53K -- which is being
developed as a new-build derivative of the venerable 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
Fleet Marines should start receiving the first of 156 CH-53K
marinized heavy lifters in 2015 -- which is none too soon for
program manager Col. Paul Croisetiere. The Marine Corps also
eagerly anticipates the replacement, as they have had to rely
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."
In fact, it's partly because the current aircraft has proved to
be so reliable -- and thus, has stayed outside the spotlight --
that the CH-53 hasn't been given the attention "squeakier wheels"
in the DoD 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. 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
"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,"
"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."
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
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
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, according to
Croisetiere, which will allow the CH-53K to operate in mountainous
areas in hot day conditions.
The first CH-53K, a flight test aircraft, is scheduled to make
its first flight in 2011, with initial operating capability, or
IOC, scheduled in 2015.