U.S. Marine Corps' CH-53K King Stallion Nears Production

 - April 3, 2017, 4:53 PM
Sikorsky is moving final assembly operations for the CH-53K from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Connecticut. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Updated with production approval announcement.

After more than a decade in development, the U.S. Marine Corps CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter is about to enter production, program executives said April 3. They expected imminent Pentagon approval to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the estimated $26 billion program.

[On April 4, the Department of Defense undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics approved a Navy request to begin production, the Naval Air Systems Command announced.]   

"The 53K is on track to transition into the fleet,” Col. Henry Vanderborght, the Marines H-53 program manager, told reporters at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “We are rapidly approaching the production phase of the program.

The CH-53K is similar in physical scale to its predecessor—the CH-53E Super Stallion—but with the ability to carry a 27,000-pound external load over a mission radius of 110 nm, it offers nearly triple the payload. “They’re not even in the same galaxy,” Vanderborght said. “The capability we’re going to field now is eye-watering.”

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky is currently assembling four system demonstration and test article (SDTA) CH-53Ks at its West Palm Beach, Florida facility that the Marines will use for an operational evaluation. Final assembly then moves to Stratford, Connecticut, where Sikorsky will build the fifth and sixth SDTA helicopters, and all six count toward the service’s program of record of 200 CH-53Ks.

Last April, the Naval Air Systems Command awarded Sikorsky a contract to order long-lead parts and materials for LRIP lot 1, consisting of two CH-53Ks. Following a recent Pentagon defense acquisition board review, the program was awaiting Milestone C approval to begin LRIP, Vanderborght said. It expects full-rate production to begin in 2020.

Sikorsky is renovating facilities and investing in capital improvements in Connecticut to start building the fifth SDTA helicopter, said Michael Torok, CH-53K program vice president. “We’re looking at the opportunity now to be prepared to go into production,” he added. “We had our production readiness review last year with the government. Really the focus is starting with aircraft 5, we’re in production and we’ll march out the next 196 aircraft from there.

Four engineering development model (EDM) helicopters have logged more than 400 flight-test hours since the first EDM prototype flew in October 2015. A ground-test vehicle will compete testing later this year, then will be sent to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California to serve as a live-fire test asset, Torok said.

The CH-53K program completed a Milestone B review to enter the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase in December 2005. Since then, its estimated research and development cost has risen from $4.7 billion to $6.8 billion, and its procurement cost from $13 billion to $19 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Vanderborght took issue with media reports that have described the CH-53K as costing more than the F-35 Lightning II fighter, saying the flyaway price of a King Stallion will be $87 million. But he acknowledged that a program acquisition unit cost (PAUC) figure—derived by dividing the program acquisition cost by the acquisition quantity—results in a unit cost of $131 million. The latter figure includes ancillary equipment, non-recurring engineering costs, tooling and spares, including one spare engine per three-engine helicopter. “The PAUC is not what the airplane costs,” Vanderborght argued.

Unit cost will be reduced if the CH-53K program succeeds in attracting foreign military sales, including to current CH-53 operator Germany, which has expressed a need for 41 new helicopters, as well as Israel, Torok said. The program also hopes to interest the U.S. Navy in replacing the MH-53E Sea Dragons it uses for mine-sweeping.