On Wednesday, the Marine Corps took delivery of their first CH-53K King Stallion, the long awaited replacement for the branch’s troubled fleet of CH-53E Super Stallions. The new helicopter has the same basic footprint as its predecessor, but boasts the largest lift capacity of any helicopter ever to serve in the American armed forces — and comes at a unit price comparable to that of another Lockheed project, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Development began on the Super Stallion back in 2006, with plans in place to see the first King Stallions reach initial operational capability (IOC) by 2015. Setbacks and delays saw that deadline pushed back repeatedly, with one report earlier this year suggesting that nearly 1,000 deficiencies remained unaddressed in the platform.
A separate report with similar findings from the Government Accountability Office read,
Persistent problems with the [CH-53K’s] main gearbox have required the program to delay the planned completion of system-level demonstration tests by four months – now scheduled to be completed in May 2019. Program officials reported that since the latest redesign, the program has successfully tested the main gearbox.”
However, the Marine Corps called those reports outdated in April of this year following a flight demonstration of the King Stallion.
“You saw the CH-53K fly [during the ILA Airshow in late April]. Did it look like a helicopter that has a thousand problems with it?” the USMC’s program manager for the CH-53-series, Colonel Hank Vanderborght, responded to reporters.
What may be more bad news for the King Stallion, which is being produced by Sikorski (a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin), are plans to postpone operational testing of the platform until after it reaches that IOC date — a strategy that has resulted in expensive issues with the F-35 program. In effect, Sikorski will continue to produce King Stallions before any of the helicopters undergo testing and evaluation, which means any issues identified throughout the testing process will need to be addressed in however many King Stallions are already built by the time an issue is identified and a solution has been determined.
This strategy, while theoretically could result in getting more aircraft into the fight sooner, has played a significant role in nearly half of all delivered F-35s being deemed unworthy of operational status, pending extensive (and expensive) repairs and refits. If the King Stallion proves as troubled, it could spell disaster for the Marine Corps’ plans to replace their aging, and often failing, CH-53E Super Stallions.
And at a current unit price of about $122 million per helicopter, the King Stallion even rings up at the same price of Lockheed’s high profile 5th generation fighter. Once the Marine Corps moves forward with plans to order 200 King Stallions, however, the per unit price is expected to drop to somewhere around $80 million a piece — ironically, comparable to what F-35 prices are expected to drop to in later installments.
The biggest difference in cost between the F-35 and the King Stallion really just boils down to order size: the Marine Corps needs 200 heavy lift choppers to maintain operations, whereas the United States intends to field more than 2,400 F-35s in all before the aircraft ends production. It’s the order quantity, not the unit price, that has bloated the F-35 program’s budget beyond the anticipated trillion dollar mark — but both aircraft are undeniably pricey.
However, if the King Stallion proves less troubled than the F-35 throughout testing, it will likely prove invaluable to the Corps, who currently has only 143 of the 200 heavy lift helicopter they need, in the form of the Super Stallion. In recent months, a number of high profile incidents involving the aged Super Stallion platform have demonstrated the branch’s dire need for a replacement aircraft. Just last month, four Marines were killed in a Super Stallion crash at Naval Air Facility El Centro in California.
Once fully tested, the King Stallion will offer nearly triple the carry capacity offered by its predecessor, at a whopping 27,000 pounds. Sikorski claims the aircraft can carry four Humvees more than a hundred miles before needing to refuel, and will boast a top speed of around 230 miles per hour.
“I am very proud of the work accomplished to deliver the most powerful helicopter ever designed into the hands of our Marines,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder.
Current timetables place the King Stallion as ready for deployment by the end of 2019, but until the helicopter undergoes testing, it can be difficult to say when Marines will first see it enter the fray.
Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin